Published in San Diego Union-Tribune on July 20, 2015
10 o’clock, 30 feet, moving left.
That is what the guide tells you when you are standing in the bow of a small flat bottom boat in the Bahamas trying to catch the elusive bonefish, known as “the ghost” — one of the fastest fishes in the world.
A couple of years ago, I wrote about fly-fishing for steelhead. This time the fish is different, and the entrepreneurial story lessons come from Liz Bain, manager of the Mangrove Cay Club on Andros Island.
Bain is the 62-year-old manager/owner of the lodge. Her story is one of relentless pursuit and entrepreneurial courage. She grew up in Toronto and studied to become an accountant. Bain started as a bookkeeper working in several large corporations and she experienced all the glass ceiling, sexist resentments and hurdles of that time, but she had one older male mentor who gave her some protection and guidance. (Mentors are critical when you are starting out.)
When Bain couldn’t advance past controller, she switched to software sales. It was the time when UNIX machines ruled and she learned how to not only sell software, but also to install it. She started to sell IBM products and took several accounts away from Oracle.
Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, thought that if he couldn’t beat her, he would hire her, and he offered her a job, but Bain says, “there was no way I was going to work for Larry.”
Now comes the pivot, the entrepreneurial urge to own your own history. When Bain was in her late 40s, she left software, married a Bahamian man and took a job at a bonefish lodge. “I was good at managing things. I like details, structure and customer service. And I am good at dealing with Type A people.” She also could see ways to improve the lodge. The entrepreneurial game often starts with a job at one place, and the growing awareness that you can improve the product. And of course, true to form, when Bain suggested improvements, her ideas were rejected.
Next up — the black swan arrives — the owner of the lodge “disappears at sea,” and there is a power struggle for leadership at the lodge and Bain gets tossed — fired.
Next step, she decides she is going to have her own lodge. With one hand she battles the investors with the green eyeshades, and with the other, she hires the crew and designs and builds a lodge and eight suites for up to 16 clients. Then she hires the staff and the fishing guides and trains the entire organization.
The tale of the dough is convoluted, but let it suffice that certain types of rich people fancy themselves owning a fishing lodge, the way other folks buy basketball teams. There were three different investment groups involved before the deal got done — all in play during construction. The final check arrived the day before the lodge opened.
Bain is a tough competitor who runs the joint with an iron fist. (I came in late one day and got a “talking to.”) She commented to me that “I am not sure the younger generation of women fully understands who knocked the walls down for them today.”
And now Bain faces the final entrepreneurial question — how does she exit, monetize her equity and retire? It is the “who buys a fishing lodge” question.
I had to fly home through Nassau and that led me to another entrepreneurial story. I met Simon Smith, 50-year-old native Bahamian, who runs The Bahamas Rum Cake Factory — the largest supplier of rum cakes in the islands. He makes and sells 1,000 per day. He sells out every day and has orders for more than he can make. His issue is how to expand, enter worldwide markets, including an order he now has for 100,000 cakes per week from China. He says to me, “let me tell you, the paperwork to export will kill you, selling to China is not a piece of cake.” (I don’t think he fully appreciated his own humor).
I love the entrepreneurial story — in all the places of the world. It is truly “the stuff that dreams are made of.”
Rule No. 423
Entrepreneurs are made, not born.