SERVICE FIRST

Panama 2017 | CONSTRUCTION & REAL ESTATE | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to José Ramón Icaza, General Manager of MAR AZUL, on his perspectives of the real estate market, staying ahead of the competition, and areas of opportunity.

José Ramón Icaza
BIOGRAPHY
José Ramón Icaza has led MAR AZUL since 2009. He holds a master’s in business administration from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University in addition to a degree in civil engineering. He has more than 16 years of experience in project administration and construction in the residential, commercial, and hotel sectors.

How is your sector evolving? What are the main trends you are trying to capitalize on?

Since 2014, things have definitely slowed down. 2016 was a hinge year where the changes that we began seeing in 2014 and 2015 materialized. In 2016, we saw the lowest growth in construction in every statistical category but growth will increase in 2017 and 2018 and things will pick up again, albeit at a much slower pace than in the last 10 years. It is currently a great moment to buy beach properties from certain developers; there is an oversupply near the beach. More established developers are more organized, can maintain their inventory, and offer properties that are better integrated with other amenities and they will do fine for 2017. We are involved in a few iconic projects. The business we do here is mostly high-end residential and hotels. In high-end residential projects, the demand for 2015 and 2016 was steady, especially in Santa Maria, where we are doing most of our business. In spite of the slowdown, Panama is growing steadily at around 5-6%, especially in comparison to the region. In 2017, people will be more positive and less cautious. They will start investing a little more than in 2016.

Are infrastructure projects an appealing segment for your business?

Infrastructure is an interesting market; however, it is largely a government investment and before 2014 bidding for these projects was not completely transparent in Panama. In addition, the payment process tends to be long term and inefficient. We have the knowledge and capacity to do large infrastructure projects; however, we are conservative with the projects we choose to participate in to protect our liquidity. Right now, the liquidity of MAR AZUL is strong given the opportunity we have to weigh in all these factors of working in a public-sector project vis-à-vis the private sector with predictable processes and steady cash flows.

How do you differentiate your company in a relatively small market?

We are a service company and not a construction company, which marks the difference for clients because we are 100% focused on the management of projects, technical inspection, and tailored solutions. Panama has always been an attractive market and clients have the opportunity to choose amongst local and international competitors. Offering quality and personalized service is critical to serving this market, which is why we invest in our processes and management system. We have been ISO 9001 certified since 2012 and have invested heavily in IT tools such as our construction management software and the continuous training of our associates. We have to protect our position in Panama, though we also want to expand into other countries. Colombia represents an appealing market: We have just opened an office there for project management, a service that is not well established yet in Colombia. We want to introduce project management, especially in areas like Cartagena, Barranquilla, and Santa Marta, where investment in tourism infrastructure is starting to pick up. Costa Rica is also on our radar for future growth. It is a market we are very much in touch with, and I have an excellent connection with key local architecture firms.

What are the most important targets set for 2017?

My main target is still Panama, which is where all my business is. We are planning to diversify our sources of income in Panama. We have been concentrated in hospitality and residential and some commercial real estate. In the residential sector, we have focused on the high end and are now in conversation with a few developers that do middle-income housing, which we will probably pursue. We also want to diversify our income by pursuing other, more specialized areas in the construction sector. We are also working on entering the Colombian market, where we still need to build relationships and gain the trust of potential partners, which we managed to achieve in Panama.