Expats Relocate And Start A Home-Based Business In Panama
This is the story of a couple that weathered moving abroad, changing jobs and careers, having a baby, and starting a home-based business all within the last nine years. Talk about rolling with the punches and coming up fighting!
The cost of living in the U.K. was the catalyst for Barry and Mari Nicholson to move to Panama. Barry is British. His wife Mari is Colombian but has dual nationality with a British passport.
They met in Panama when Barry came through on a job in 2000. They got married in the U.K. in 2003 and lived there for five years.
“I had a well-paying job, but all of our income was going to pay rent and bills. We were stuck in a cycle whereby we couldn’t save enough money to put together a deposit for a mortgage.
“At that point, with the cost of living, and when my company at the time said they didn’t care where I lived as long as it was close to an international airport, we got up and moved,” said Barry.
They chose to relocate to Panama where “our lifestyle has hugely improved,” he said.
“We have friends in Panama, and one of them is a real estate agent,” said Barry. “We visited Panama on holiday in May 2007, and drove around with our friend who was out house hunting for one of her buyers.
“When I first saw the house where we now live in Villa Zaíta. I wanted to go take a closer look,” Barry said. “And when I heard the asking price was US$120,000, I think it took all of about five seconds to decide I wanted the house.”
Barry was encouraged to find he could afford to live in a house. “I’ve always lived in houses; I don’t like the idea of living in an apartment. I like a big garden,” he said.
“When we lived in the U.K., we were renting a property outside of Glasgow,” said Barry. “It was a nice house and in a nice neighborhood but it was an old house and needed modernization. It was a small two-bedroom house, and the bedrooms were very small.
“When we made an approach to buy the Glasgow house in 2005, we were given an asking price of 340,000 pounds. That was when the dollar was close to 1.8 dollars to the pound (approximately US$612,000),” Barry said.
He described the house they bought in Panama as “a big house with 1,200 meters of garden, so it really didn’t take long at all for me to make up my mind to buy this house.”
Remodeling Not A Problem In Panama
The Nicholson’s home is a 34-year-old, mainly brick and cement construction, which is typical in Panama. “Since we moved in, we’ve torn out the interior and completely remodeled,” Barry said.
Often finding good home repair and remodel resources in a new country is problematic. “I had an expat friend who said he could do the remodeling, but unfortunately he was playing games with the prices and dragging the work out on a daily rate, so we ended up hiring a local Panamanian company to complete the work,” said Barry, “and the local company did a beautiful job.”
Integrating Into A Panamanian Neighborhood
“We’re only about eight miles north of Panama City,” said Barry, “It’s an area where there are very green, quiet, and nice little neighborhoods. The houses typically have good-sized gardens, but it’s not a gated community and your neighbors are primarily Panamanian.
“It’s very easy to live in a predominately Spanish-speaking Panamanian neighborhood,” he added, “as long as you make an effort to integrate, it’s not any problem at all. I didn’t speak Spanish when I moved here, but my wife does. It was a good incentive to learn quickly.”
Rolling With The Punches In A Changing World
Barry worked as an international mariner company man for 12 years. His job duties took him around the world, but home base was Panama.
Since 2010, Barry has been working freelance as an offshore navigation specialist on cable trips. “I’ve been working offshore for 18 years,” he said. “I’m a hydrographic surveyor. I work as a navigation specialist on cable trips.”
When I spoke with him, he had just returned from Wilhelmshaven, on the north German coast.
“My work routine used to be a very regular rotation, which was six weeks on the ship and six weeks home. What with the downturn in the oil industry affecting the offshore industry, I’ve been very quiet this year,” he explained.
From Company Man To Freelance Entrepreneur
When asked how he developed his contacts for working freelance, Barry said, “A lot of it was through LinkedIn. Because the offshore industry is very small, a lot of it is word of mouth, as well. You find a lot of people know each other.”
Working freelance was a career lifestyle change, Barry and Mari’s “Plan A” as they reinvented themselves in Panama.
Stumbling Blocks For Mari Working In Panama
“My wife studied psychology in Panama from 2008 until 2013 and, only upon completion of her degree, did she discover she couldn’t work as a psychologist because it’s a reserved occupation,” said Barry.
Certain professions in Panama, such as an attorney, architect, engineer, and medical or veterinary doctor, are reserved only for Panama nationals. It’s a fact worth remembering.
“Unfortunately, no one at the college during her four years of study told her she wouldn’t be able to use her degree to work in Panama,” said Barry. “What with my going freelance and her not being able to use her degree, 2012 was an interesting year,” he added.
Two years later in 2014, Barry and Mari had their first child, Elizabeth, now two years old.
Starting A Home-Based Business In Panama
Next in the saga of relocation and lifestyle choices was the Nicholson’s segue into being home-based business owners of London Taxi in Panama, Inc.
The idea of a special events business based on the import of London taxis evolved from Barry’s quest to find adequate transportation for their family. His story is typical of how finding a solution to a personal challenge can reveal an opportunity for starting a business in a foreign country.
“I’ve had several cars here in Panama,” said Barry, “and the problems I’ve had with every one of them was electrical issues. Once you start having problems with electrical-related issues, it’s very difficult to get them repaired properly.
“The first car I bought from a private party here in Panama was misrepresented,” he said, “It was a Nissan Titan and the gentleman who sold it to us neglected to tell us it been a total write-off in the United States. It was a flood vehicle.
“In the space of a year, we spent more than US$10,000 on electronic components, and it got to the point where the vehicle was totally unreliable,” Barry said.
Barry wanted to buy something mechanically robust, very simple, and with minimal electronics. “To that end, I had arranged to buy an ex-British Army Land Rover. They are very simple,” said Barry, “but they are noisy and slow and not particularly comfortable.
“However, when Mari told me that she was pregnant, a Land Rover seemed like not the best choice.”
An acquaintance suggested Barry import a standard London taxi, especially the later Fairways which use Nissan diesel engines. “All of the mechanical components for Nissan diesel engines are available here in Panama,” said Barry, “transmissions, running gear, and Nissan engines.
“The nice thing is, the taxis weigh two tons, they’ve got a 25-foot turning circle, and they are designed to take abuse,” Barry explained.
“You get a huge passenger compartment in the back, so to get our baby in and out is simple. There is nothing that can be damaged because they are working vehicles. They are built to be easily cleaned and maintained,” said Barry.
They now own three taxis. “When we imported our first taxi we had no idea of setting up a business at the time,” said Barry. “What happened is that everywhere we went in the car, people were photographing it; people wanted to see inside it; there was a lot of interest.”
Barry and Mari took a cue from companies setting up businesses in the U.K. using retired classic taxis as wedding vehicles to develop their wedding and special events transportation business here in Panama City.
“There’re only three of these taxis in Latin America, and we own all three,” said Barry. “It’s quite a selling point in our wedding-related transportation.”
The selling point that identified the niche market for the business is the look of the taxi but also the roominess that allows for unique photography.
“Of course, we have red carpet and trimmed seats and flower arrangements, but a major selling point is that you stand up before you exit the taxi, so getting in and out is more dignified and makes for great pictures,” he said.
Challenges Starting A Home-Based Business
“It was very easy for us to start a business in Panama,” said Barry. “I was surprised how easy it was. We had a very good lawyer who got the legalities done very quickly for us.”
He told a different story about some bureaucratic delays associated with importing the first taxi. “It took four months to clear customs,” said Barry. “After that first go-round with customs, the process got more streamlined.”
As a result of his own experiences importing taxis, Barry said he is happy to offer his assistance to other individuals interested in doing the same.
“We’ve had the first taxi on the road now for two years,” said Barry, “and since that time, business has been slowly gaining traction. It’s picking up.”
Barry is glad he made the move to Panama. “I honestly can’t see me returning to the U.K.”