When we left Ann and Mike last, they’d bought in Belize…built in Belize…sold in Belize…and were preparing to indulge their entrepreneurial inclinations on this country’s Temptation Island…
“I’d been in my new VP position for only two years,” Ann explains. “I was doing well and enjoying it. Not yet 50, my transition timeline was seven years out. But Mike had grown to like Belize, and he was itching for the next, grander challenge.
“We had fun kicking around ideas for businesses we might both enjoy. The better we got to know the island, the more niches we saw that needed filling. Here are a few of the options that we and friends considered:
- Restaurant. Mike and I are both creative cooks. But the long hours put us off…
- Resort/hotel. Again, the idea of a 24-hour-a-day business didn’t appeal. Our goal was to transition to an interesting but less stressful lifestyle…
- Wine Specialty Store. This idea got our attention. At the time, only one wine store existed in San Pedro. After meeting, though, with wine merchants in the San Francisco Bay area, where I was still living, we learned that the better wineries require a guarantee that you can control the temperature of their wines before they’ll sell to you. In those days, the power on this island went out regularly. Fortunately, today, reliable power isn’t nearly as much of a concern…
- Eco-tours. This idea really appealed to me long-term. It is still on my ‘maybe one day’ wish list…
- Gym/Country Club. This was perhaps my favorite idea. I’m a bit of a health nut. When Mike and I were first considering our entrepreneurial options, there weren’t any health clubs on the island. Well, OK, there was Oscar’s gym, for body-builders. It looked like it had been underwater a few times. Not what I had in mind…
- Development. This was Mike’s favorite. He’d been to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and raved about the hip boutique developments he’d seen there. His head was swimming with the possibilities…
“So Mike began looking around for a piece of property. One day he called to tell me about a 6-acre piece of land a half-mile from downtown San Pedro. There are few large tracts of land available within walking distance to town. Mike was sure this piece would be a great location for some type of business. Site unseen, I gave him my blessing. He negotiated for and purchased the land.
“I have to admit, I was nervous. We didn’t have hands-on development experience, and Mike would be using our savings for the project. But we both felt this was our time to go for it. We were both around 50, healthy, and energetic. It might be our last chance to take on this kind of challenge.
“And so the concept of a fitness country club became our reality. Rather than dive right in to a development, we decided to focus on the club’s amenities. As there wasn’t yet a classy country club fitness facility in San Pedro, the timing seemed right.
“It was 2002 when Mike designed and built the San Pedro Family Fitness Club. The club has tennis courts, a 250,000+-gallon, three-tiered pool, and a complete work-out facility. Visitors regularly compliment Mike’s pool and club design, as well as the overall environment.
“That’s today. Thinking back, the design phase of the project was an exciting but demanding period in our lives.
“Our opening was spring 2003. It took more than a month to fill the pool. Mike ordered and imported gym equipment from the States and installed it. He hired local staff. And we opened a small restaurant on-site.
“We didn’t expect to be profitable the first year or so. Rather, the intention was to develop the club as the amenities for the soon-to-be development. Meantime, we hoped to attract expats, locals, and tourists as members.
“Mike proceeded to design the master plan for a development of duplexes. His contractor convinced Mike to give him a major role in the building process. Trouble was, I didn’t really trust the guy. But we needed someone on the ground when Mike was in the States, so I reluctantly agreed.
“I should have paid attention to my instincts. This relationship with our contractor marked the beginning of a very challenging period.
“We built the first duplex with our best friends. It was to be the only duplex developed on this property. To this day, we all still live here. We are surrounded by 4 acres of lush vegetation. Each morning I wake to singing birds and green all around. And, by building a few blocks from the beach, we significantly cut our overall costs.
“However, once the duplex was under construction, the business relationship with our contractor deteriorated. The best piece of advice I can offer if you’re thinking of starting a business anywhere in the world is to avoid a relationship or partnership with someone you don’t know well. Trust your gut and do your homework. And listen to what others tell you about local business people. We were so excited about the project that we sometimes forgot our own good judgment.
“Finally, in early 2004, we parted ways with our contractor and began the process of negotiating with other groups interested in representing our development. Again and again, though, we didn’t feel we could trust the other parties.
“Meantime, we were burning through our personal savings. The club was popular, but memberships were seasonal. And the cost of pool maintenance was excessive.
“We learned the hard way how different it is to do business in a tourist town. Our income was solid in high season but meager during the rainy months.
“What else have we learned?
“Do your homework. Expect business conditions to be very different from in your home country. Speak with existing business owners in the place where you’re planning to do business yourself. Ask as many questions as you can to try to understand what to expect.
“You can’t imagine the crazy challenges that will come up. In our case, we had ongoing problems with local members swimming in the pool while wearing their street clothes or cut-off jeans. This was a cultural issue we never anticipated. The result? A dirty pool and a massive chlorine bill.
“Eventually, one of our savvy Belizean employees made a trip to the ‘dollar-per-pound’ store in Belize City. She bought a variety of bathing suits at little cost. Now, when someone visits without a bathing suit, we let him (or her) select one of ours, at no cost. Problem solved.
“Probably the most important piece of advice I can give you is this: Have a back-up plan.
“By 2006, I was tired of working in the States while Mike was in Belize, tied down by the businesses we’d launched. But we were dependent on my salary to keep things floating. We didn’t want to sell the property or the club, but, finally, we realized we just were not in a position to complete the development on our own. We began looking for a local joint-venture partner.
“We met with both of the nearby beachfront resorts. Both were interested. In the end, we decided to hitch our wagon to Exotic Caye Beach Resort and their parent company, ECI. Probably the most important determining factor was that, finally, we’d found a group we believed we could trust.
“We had known the owners of the Exotic Caye Beach Resort for 10 years. By joining forces with them, we’ve created a formidable Master Mind Team well-equipped to solve whatever problems come up.
“We signed the joint-venture contract in January 2008. It took a year to work out the details, because this time we brought in our lawyer to assist. We were determined to get it right.
“As our negotiations wound down, I began to extricate myself from corporate life. I was still nervous about leaving the security of a weekly paycheck, but it was time to move on…”
P.S. “If you are resisting moving overseas because you need an income,” continues Ann, “start planning a new career now.
“These days, you’ve many options for making money from anywhere in the world. I have been studying copywriting and travel writing online. The result? I’m now the Belize Correspondent for this newsletter! You’d be surprised the doors that open once you commit to a new path and do your homework.
“I’m also the Director for the San Pedro Fitness Club, which I love. I spend part of each day there, meeting the interesting people who pass through. I work out most days, which allows me to stay in shape. That was one of my personal goals when we started this process.
“Every day I walk out the door of my house and over to the Club. No more commuting for me.
“I hold business meetings by the pool, at the outdoor café. Some days I take the water aerobics class. Other days it’s Tai Chi or salsa aerobics. I love the flexibility.
“Have we gone through our fair share of difficulties? You bet.
“Do I think it was a mistake? No way! It was all part of the adventure and the experience.”