Mr. Juan’s Retirement Plan
We were standing on the street corner waiting for a taxi, running late for the first parent-teacher meeting of the year at Jack’s new school. Tough to hail a taxi these days in Panama City. There’s so much competition for them that the drivers pick and choose who they want to stop for and where they want to travel…
Lief’s cell phone rang. “Hey, Robert…how’s it going out there?”
Robert, Lief’s partner-friend, was calling from Santiago, the town at the head of the Azuero Peninsula, along the western Pacific coast of which sits Lief and Robert’s current development project, Los Islotes.
Lief would have been out in Santiago with Robert if I hadn’t shamed him into staying behind for the parents’ meeting at Jack’s school.
“Oh, the children are there?” Lief shouted into his cell phone, trying to make himself heard above all the street noise. “All of them? And their spouses? Jeez, Robert, I’m sorry…”
Lief, Robert, and David, their third partner-friend, have been trying for months to buy an additional piece of land in the region of the country where the trio decided two years ago to focus their investment attention. Since then, they’ve been scouting and shopping, negotiating and, yes, buying. They’ve gotten to know this part of the country pretty well.
But their accumulated experience doesn’t seem to have prepared them for Mr. Juan’s children.
Mr. Juan is the owner of the piece of land that’s currently got Lief, Robert, and David’s attention. It’d be, probably, their final acquisition in the region.
Mr. Juan lives on the land in a small wooden house he built himself. When Jack and I visited the property with Lief and Robert last month, Jack and I sat quietly in the corner of the room on homemade wooden benches, while Lief, Robert, and Mr. Juan sat around Mr. Juan’s homemade wooden table, on homemade wooden stools, and hammered out the final terms (we thought) of the trade.
Mr. Juan has no electricity and no indoor plumbing. Depending on the yardstick by which you measure, he doesn’t have much. But he stands tall and, for the meeting with Lief and Robert that day, he wore a clean, pressed white shirt.
What Mr. Juan does have is a beautiful piece of land smack-dab in the middle of a market that is heating up quick all around him…and a bunch of children. We haven’t been able to determine how many, exactly. Some of them also live in small wooden houses on the piece of land Lief, Robert, and David are interested in buying. They live on the land, but Mr. Juan owns it. He’s run cattle on it his whole life, just as his father did.
Now Mr. Juan is ready to retire. He hasn’t told us his age, but, certainly, he’s earned the right to slow down. He’s had better than 70 years in the saddle, at least.
Mr. Juan has a retirement plan. He wants to sell his land, give a piece of the proceeds to each of his children, then keep the rest for himself and his wife to live on for however much time they’ve got left on this earth. He’d like to buy a small farm, he’s explained, nearer to town, where he and his wife could live and the grandkids could visit.
Lief, Robert, and David have offered Mr. Juan a generous price for his land. In truth, it has more value for them than for any other buyer who might happen along, for it’s contiguous to other land they already own.
Mr. Juan likes Lief, Robert, and David, and the good feelings are reciprocated. The four men came easily to an understanding.
The trouble started when Mr. Juan shared the details of his plan with his multitude of children. They think the sales price should be more. They think the payment terms should be accelerated. They think all the seller’s (that is, their father’s) expenses should be borne by the buyers…
Their father and his lawyer were managing the children’s wants, and Lief, Robert, and David were doing their best to accommodate and to compromise.
This meeting in Santiago last night, we thought, was more social than business. And none of us, least of all poor, solitary Robert, expected Mr. Juan to show up accompanied by all his children and children-in-law.
“How many kids does he have?” Lief shouted into the phone. “Uh, a lot,” he grinned, as he repeated Robert’s response for my benefit.
“Remind them all, Robert, as I’m sure you’re doing, that we’ve already increased the purchase price…we’ve already brought the payment schedule forward…and we’ve already agreed to cover all Mr. Juan’s expenses and closing costs,” Lief continued.
“OK, good luck. Call me again after the meeting.”
An hour-and-a-half later, just as the parents’ meeting had finished and we were walking out of Jack’s school to try to hail another taxi, Lief’s phone rang again.
“Uh, well, no, Robert, we really can’t do that. We can’t bring the payment schedule any further forward. Well, I guess we could. Tell them we just won’t make the final payment. That’ll mean they’ll be getting all their money six months sooner.”
“OK, OK, I know you don’t like to negotiate like that, Robert. But, really, we can’t do any better than we’re doing. We’ve made them our best offer. If they think they can sell for more to someone else, tell them they should do that. In truth, I’d be happy for Mr. Juan’s retirement fund to be bigger if someone else can afford to make it bigger.”
Finally, a taxi pulled up. And, to our relief, the driver agreed to take us home to Paitilla.
“Robert says Mr. Juan’s kids are arguing they could sell for much more elsewhere,” Lief explained as we pulled out into traffic. “But when one of them makes the claim, Mr. Juan tries to speak up to make the point that, in fact, no other buyer has presented himself. But the kids won’t let him speak. They tap him on the shoulder and shake their heads at him to try to keep him quiet.”
“Well, maybe they could find another buyer and maybe someone else would pay more, but that doesn’t seem likely, does it?” I replied. “You guys are offering him above market value already. And you’ve agreed to pay all out-of-pocket expenses for him at closing.
“Where is Mrs. Juan in all this?” I wondered aloud. “Can’t she talk some sense into her clan?”
The negotiations continue. Lief and David flew out to meet Robert and Mr. Juan in Santiago this morning. Fingers crossed…
P.S. “You are Jackson’s parents? No, that can’t be,” remarked the director of the Paul Gauguin French school when we met him at the parents’ meeting last night.
“But you are not French.”
“But Jackson, he is French, is he not? His accent is true.”
“No, Jack is Irish, in fact.”
“Oh, so you are Irish?”
“No, we’re American.”
“And you’re living now in Panama?”
“Ah, but of course,” replied the Frenchman…