Building Paradise – An Interview with Renée and Jim Kimball, Founders of Tranquilo Bay

Tranquilo Bay
Tranquilo Bay

Tranquilo Bay is a little piece of paradise, nestled on Bastimentos Island in the Bocos del Toro archipelago of Panama. Bordering a National Marine Park, this eco-adventure lodge offers its guests a rainforest retreat amongst its reefs and lagoons, and with facilities spread over its 110 acres and 3 ecosystems, there is no shortage of opportunity for visitors to experience the biodiversity of the island.

Any entrepreneur can attest to the dedication required to launch and grow their business. Consider, however, beginning your business in a country other than your own. Local residents speak a foreign language and have a different relationship with concepts of time and labour. Logistical obstacles that would be a molehill at home prove to be mountains in this new environment. Your new neighbours – the alligators, boa constrictors and spiders – have no qualms infringing on your space. Finally, imagine that you are separated from your business partner and spouse for four years while you build your business. This was the reality for Renée and Jim Kimball, co-owners and operators of Tranquilo Bay.  While Jim set about building Tranquilo Bay from the ground up with partner, Jay Viola, Renée remained in Texas working to fund the project. She joined them in 2004, the year the resort opened its doors to its first customers. For the Kimballs and their children, Tranquilo Bay has become more than a business: it is their home and way of life. They took some time to reflect and share their story with us.

Loaded Bow: From 2000 to 2004 you were separated while Renée was working in Texas and Jim was preparing and building Tranquilo Bay. What was the decision making process like in determining that you would make this sacrifice?

Renée Kimball: We met in college. Jim sold me early on in our relationship that doing something “different” was the way to go with our lives together. We formulated a plan early about the kind of business we would like to have someday. We met Jay and all three of us began working toward that business. However, honestly we thought we would be separated one and a half maybe two years – it turned out to be almost four. I don’t think we would have signed on for being separated for that long, but once we were committed to the project we couldn’t stop.

Jim Kimball: We had years to make that decision and we were committed from the early start, it was a way of life for us. Everything was a sacrifice, it was a 10 year plan and we stuck to it religiously. So 8 years later, when the time finally came to jump, I wasn’t looking back. We had so much heart and soul invested I think I would have taken on just about anything. However, four years was REALLY HARSH! (lacks emphasis) Not in our wildest dreams had we imagined that it would take that long. Had we known, I might have said yes, but she would have definitely said, “are you crazy”. Anyhow, now that’s over and it has made us stronger.

Aerial View

Aerial View

LB:  Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like working apart from each other? Logistically, what were the challenges?

RK:  When we were separated my primary responsibility was to work my day job and send money. I had the regular challenges of day to day life with the added complexity of my husband living in another country building a new business with our business partner. Communications out at the property were limited at best in the beginning so our inability to communicate was probably one of the greatest challenges.

JK:  When Jay and I moved from Isla Colon in April of 2000, we left behind all forms of communication. No telephone or internet, and Bocas del Toro had no cellular service yet. Not only were we living apart for the first time, but we could only write or talk once a week when we went to town for supplies. Back then phone service in Panama was a monopoly, so a call to the U.S. was about $1.00 a minute. I miss you, I love you, talk to you next week, bye. We were writing some pretty long emails in the early days. It was also expensive to fly home for visits: 2 flights, hotels, drivers, meals, and down time. Our trips drifted further and further apart. Once Bocas had cellular service, things got a little better. Renee found a phone card deal for about $.30 cents a minute, and she could call several times a week.

LB:  In addition to working with each other, you also work with Jay and Stephanie Viola. What are the great benefits and challenges of being in a partnership?

RK:  Having other people to count on is one of the greatest benefits of being in a partnership. We can divide the work up according to who has the skill set to handle an area of responsibility so that the best person for the job works on the issue at hand. The greatest challenge of being in a partnership is that you must always reach agreement. This can be difficult at times. When you have a situation where one party owns more than the other then the party with the incremental ownership can pull rank if necessary. In an equal partnership that isn’t an option. You must always work out your issues.

JK: Our partnership works because we make it work. A partnership is just like any relationship, it requires a lot of hard work from everyone involved. It is classic give and take. You sometimes have to make compromises, but on the other hand, there should always be someone there to hold you up when it is needed. I think the thing that makes our partnership the most successful is our persistent focus on long-term goals. We have always had a rolling 10-year plan. When you are focused on something 10-years out, logic seems to take the path of least resistance. This eliminates a lot of the small stuff. It is just a different way of looking at everything, and we find ourselves working together because of it.

The Neighbours: Sloths

LB:  Tranquilo Bay is not only your business, but your home. What is it like being so immersed in your company? What has it been like raising your children in this environment?

RK:Tranquilo Bay has been a part of our life for so long now that I can’t imagine what life would be like without it. In many ways it is our first and most difficult child. I wouldn’t trade life as we have set it up for anything. Living here and being a part of this business has enriched my life, Jim’s life and our children’s lives immensely. We get to spend more time as a family than we would if we lived back in the states. Our children are bilingual. They have the opportunity to interact with a variety of people on a daily basis. Their capacity to learn expands constantly.

JK:I wouldn’t trade our experience for the world. When we first started building this idea with Jay, it was never about the money, it was about changing our lives. If you can do something you love everyday, in a place that you love, its not really like work. It is kind of like mixing your hobbies with your life. There seems to be a lot less of a chance for imbalance. Mixing it all together was by design, but we never thought we would be living under our business. (our living quarters are temporarily in the main building) I don’t mind that so much, I’m just happy to be here. I think Renee could use a little more space though, Mama’s and their nests. Raising the kids here has been and amazing experience, what a ride. We just get to spend so much more time with them, and it is quality family time. There is so much less pulling at you and fractionating your time. No traffic, no soccer practice, no Chucky Cheese pizza parties, just the family and what ever it is we do. We swim, hike, build things, play on the beach, and explore where our kids get to let their imaginations run wild in an unspoiled natural environment without distraction or outside pressures. Also, they don’t have MTV or the Cartoon Network to tell them what is cool, they get to figure it out all by themselves. How priceless is that?

LB:  A question that is unrelated to partnerships, but that my interest in intercultural issues calls for! What have been the greatest cultural challenges of working in Panama?

RK:  Mañana – in Panama and for that matter most of Latin America and the Caribbean no one is in a hurry and there is no problem until there is a problem. Coming from a fast paced corporate world this is something one must adjust to over time. It is honestly one of the reasons people want to come down here on vacation and one of the benefits for us in living here, but it makes for a challenge when running a business.

JK: When you really need something to come together, and you need it done right, there is only one person that can get it done, you. You kind of get over it and “just doing it” becomes habit. Something that still surprises me is the differences at a community level. We have worked on several projects with several different communities, (all the same culture) and had an erratic level of success. Regardless of culture, we have found that if the community is not trying to lead itself, you will not be successful leading them. They truly have to want to make positive changes. Leadership at the community level is crucial to improvement.

LB:  The story of Tranquilo Bay is so inspiring. What advice would you pass on to other entrepreneurs who are beginning their journey in a partnership?

RK:  Plan for the worst and hope for the best. We try to live by this but it is not always easy to do. Ask the difficult questions, plan for the worst things you can imagine so that you have an idea as to how you might handle the situation. Because while the worst thing might not happen – something unplanned is going to happen and if you haven’t considered anything then you are going to have a hard time to respond appropriately.

JK:  I agree with Renee, you should always ask what if. Even if it never comes to pass, it was a good exercise and helps the group to keep thinking together. Have a long-term goal, nothing worth-while is made in one day, it takes 10-15 years. Most success stories are years in the making if you read the fine print. It is also very liberating to know that you don’t have to have it all done tomorrow, which can often be overwhelming. If you can see where you want to be in 10-years, then you can decide what it is that needs to be done to get you there. As you start to follow that plan you naturally know where to go. Just ask yourself, how is that going to help me get where I want to be? Remember, it is a way of thinking, all of a sudden your decision process becomes a whole lot easier.

On their site, Jim jokes that his back up plan is to write a book entitled, How to move to the Caribbean and get your wife to pay for it. While this potential bestseller must be tempting, there is no need for Plan B in sight. Congratulations on your success… we can’t wait to visit!

For an in depth look at Tranquilo Bay’s evolution, check out Leigh Buchanan’s Inc. article, Paradise the Hard Way.



One Response to “Building Paradise – An Interview with Renée and Jim Kimball, Founders of Tranquilo Bay”

  1. […] Partnerships are difficult and demand sacrifice (see Tranquillo Bay post).  They seem to be the most rewarding businesses in many aspects since there is always someone […]

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