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Panama 2015 | REAL ESTATE & CONSTRUCTION | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Jose Ramón Icaza, General Manager for Mar Azul Project Management, on trends in the construction sector, the impediments to developing beach-front real estate projects, and consolidation and expansion.

Jose Ramón Icaza
BIOGRAPHY
José Ramón Icaza has lead Mar Azul, S.A. since 2009. He holds a Master’s in Business Administration from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University and a degree in Civil Engineering. He also has more than 16 years of experience in project administration and construction in the residential, commercial and hotel sectors.

What is the state of real estate and construction in Panama today?

Real estate and construction in Panama is still doing well in general, especially regarding residential projects in Panama City and the suburbs, from low income housing to high-end residential apartments and houses. Right now we are managing a few residential projects in Santa Maria, with sale prices between $500,000 to $1.5 million and these are selling well. We are also managing residential and commercial projects to the west of the capital in Costa Verde, Chorrera, and they are also doing well. Beach resort developments have slowed down a little after a period of high demand on lots, houses/villas and apartments over the last three years. This is probably because of a slowdown in the economy (from 10% to 6% GDP growth) and the change of government last year. There is high demand on beach resort developments the supply of residential units has increased. When I started working with Buenaventura in 2001, there were only a few beach resort projects. The last time I counted the beach developments and standalone projects, there were more than 40, so I believe the developments that are above and beyond the competition in terms of amenities and services will do better than basic projects.

How did Mar Azul start its operations in the market?

When we were finishing the Bristol Buenaventura (now a JW Marriott Hotel) back in 2009, I suggested to the owner that I wanted to open a Project Management firm to manage some of the projects for their group (Grupo Verde Azul “GVA") and he encouraged me to do so. At the end of 2009 we started managing the projects of GVA in Buenaventura (Paseo de las Casas, Club Estate and Puntarena) and the construction of the expansion of Bristol Hotel Panama. After a few years of managing projects exclusively of GVA, we began managing projects from other developers. Today we manage over 10 large projects (hotel, commercial and residential) for nine real estate developers.

Is the government implementing policies to control the development of beach resorts?

In order to keep development on course, the government must invest a lot in infrastructure and education. Right now, there are areas with no water infrastructure, so the development depends on water wells and the area with water infrastructure. There is not enough water to supply the demand needed during peak season, so the development has to rely on large water tanks or water wells during peak hours of consumption. Additionally the government has to invest in education in order to increase the number and quality of skilled labor for the construction and hospitality industries. A good portion of the jobs are filled with workers from Panama City or major towns nearby instead of small towns close to the development. We have talked with the government about these issues, but they have not done much about it, as they are long-term investments. At the same time, they are not doing anything to regulate growth or improve current infrastructure. We need the government to help us with basic infrastructure in order to keep developing at the beaches.

Can you talk about your consolidation and expansion strategy?

Right now, we are only focusing on Panama. Expanding the firm to Colombia and Costa Rica is something I know that we need to do. Diversifying in terms of the services we offer is another priority, as currently we are more focused on residential, commercial, and hospitality, and I would like to expand into major infrastructure or energy projects. I would also like to take on some projects with the ports at the Canal and in public sector. I cannot rely solely on residential projects, especially as I'm more exposed to the high-end residential sector.