Wednesday, December 16, 2009

So, you want to be a millionaire? Start with $2 million!

My “Escape from Corporate America” stories are about my experiences in the Fiji Islands but they could have happened in ANY “emerging nation”.

Since you’re setting up a business that’s going to cost a lot to build, the locals think you have LOTS of money. Therefore, it’s perfectly okay – expected, in fact -- to cheat you! You won’t notice, right? And, you DON’T notice until you figure things out…. My lawyer here had recommended that we wait for a bit before starting the resort, until we knew the lay of the land. Good advice, which we (sadly) ignored. Why? Because we wanted to start! Typical Yank “let’s do it NOW” mentality!

Lesson #1 (again, this can happen ANYWHERE)….you think you have all the government approvals that you need but, lo and behold, the multiple government ministries that had to initially approve everything for your project act like they’ve never heard of you! Sooo you can find yourself literally starting over with some of the approvals, which can take MONTHS.

Fiji’s bureaucracy was structured by the Brits when Fiji was a colony and we KNOW how efficient THEY are. A huge percentage of working adults here are government employees, a situation that is changing NOW but back in 1997 it was truly unbelievable. When you needed X approved, the ONE person who handled X was on leave or out ill so, while they were gone, it sat on their desk. When they finally returned and passed X on to the NEXT bureaucrat, then THAT guy would go on leave or lose the paperwork. And on and on and ON. You need to have somebody near the center of government who can physically go and PRY the paperwork out of the hands of the bureaucrats!

One of the REAL shockers was having to pay duty on a lot of what we brought from the states in our FIVE containers. The government brochure for investors said that everything we brought for the project would be “duty free”. The Customs and Revenue people didn’t “agree” and guess what? The government agency that distributed the brochure finally admitted it was “wrong”! I fought with Inland Revenue for more than two years and got stuck with over $50K in completely unplanned for duty expense.

You can’t bring left-hand vehicles into right-hand drive countries which meant selling our pickup truck, the big 4-door Chrysler AND my “baby car” – a 280ZX 2+2. One of the first purchases here was a heavy duty 4x4 pick-up truck which the seller SWORE hadn’t been in any accidents (and which we later determined HAD). While “car shopping” on the main island, I spotted a TR7 – I just HAD to have a sports car again, and the roads ministry had told us that the 28km of road from here to the airport was going to be paved “soon”. Ha!! 7km of it STILL isn’t paved! So, I brought back the sports car which went into town exactly THREE times in the one year I had it. It was too low to the ground to even clear a coconut! It sure got a lot of attention those three times I took it into town ~ no one had ever SEEN a sports car in Savusavu back then!

Before we arrived permanently in March 1997, we had made arrangements with the chief of our village for his people to clear the 25 acres. I didn’t find out until after he died that he kept ALL the money we paid for the clearing ~ no one else saw a dime. Sadly, people do whatever their chief tells them and if the chief isn’t a fair one, they get nothing for their work. The position is hereditary (there are women chiefs too) and the person in that position has an immense amount of power. That’s one of the reasons “democracy” doesn’t fit very well here. The chiefs tell their people who to vote for and that’s exactly what happens.

In the next “chapter”, I’ll tell you about some of the “wonderful” experiences we had during construction, like the contractor using MY building materials to build (and get paid for) a house he built for someone else!