60% OF PANAMA REAL ESTATE SALES BELOW USD120,000

Panama 2019 | ECONOMY | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Diego Vallarino Lewis, Executive President/CEO of Grupo VerdeAzul, on investment in Panama, the Buenaventura marina project, and the company's diversification strategy.

What have been some of the company's achievements?

Grupo VerdeAzul was founded in 2006 as an investment corporation with a mandate to invest and create world-class projects that have a high socioeconomic impact in Panama. Our portfolio of investments focuses predominantly on the real estate and tourism sectors, and just recently we started investing in logistics and agriculture. We take great pride in the projects we invest in, especially Buenaventura, which has evolved into Panama's premier beach community. The majority of real estate sales for the high-end market in the beach areas are at Buenaventura. It has become an integrated weekend getaway community, with hotels, golf courses, beach clubs, and restaurants. Our next step is to evolve it into a permanent community incentivizing people to live year round, by adding more amenities such as a k-12 school. We started investing in hotels long before Grupo VerdeAzul was founded and have continue to do so as we invest in more real estate projects; capitalizing the synergies between the two sectors. We have had a successful run and the group's name has become associated with quality and high standards. Given the high visibility of the brand we have been able to grow our portfolio of investments and are currently involved in approximately 40 projects. Today, our core business has evolved and we focus our efforts on creating communities anchored around amenities. These are long-term, large-scale projects of 20-30 years, with communities in the thousands of units.

How is your marina project at Buenaventura progressing?

When we launched our marina project, it immediately had huge acceptance from the local community and generated sales rapidly. Thus far, the project has advanced without delays. We are about to finish the excavation of the marina and will connect the marina to the river shortly. We have already started building the residential units and expect the marina to be operational by YE2018. We will start delivering the units for people to live in by 2019. The marina project has been the tipping point both for creating a community that caters to permanent residents and to focus on the international clientele as it complements the rest of the world-class amenities already in place.

What is Grupo VerdeAzul's diversification strategy for the next five to 10 years?

We want to diversify our real estate offer in terms of price point while maintaining focus on our core strategy of building communities anchored with world-class amenities. In April 2018, we will launch a project in Santa Mónica, a new city targeting middle to lower to middle-income house buyers, which is the majority of the real estate market in Panama. More than 60% of real estate sales in Panama are below USD120,000. We are excited about this city project because we will change the paradigm and mindset of how to build a community for this market segment. We have discarded diversifying to other market segments as the real estate market vacancies have increased over the last years for commercial, retail, industrial and high-end residential. As an example, the vacancies have gone up five-fold for office properties to 27% vacancy rate. Vacancies have gone up due to the rapid expansion that happened between 2011-2016. During those years, the supply of commercial, industrial and retail more than doubled the market size. For example, industrial went from 350,000sqm to 1 million sqm. There is still room for growth in the residential market, though one has to pick and choose their investments, which is what Grupo VerdeAzul is doing. We are focusing on what we have done well in the past and streamlining processes to be more efficient and preempt the market changing dynamics.

Can you tell us more about the VerdeAzul Foundation and its main initiatives over these years?

The foundation focuses its efforts on education programs around the communities we serve. We had an impact on 50,000 children in 2017 under our different programs. We also focus on technical education for adults. For example, we sponsor a program for indigenous people to continue their traditional Mola sewing craft, but using contemporary designs. We sell this artwork at our hotels and through auctions with all the profits going to the community. We also sponsor programs for children to support not just their academic development, but also social development to stimulate their interests and morale, and allow them to integrate well into society. That initiative has had great results and has just been nominated for an award in Spain. The foundation mainly helps communities through the learning scope, though also with the aim of teaching them to fend for themselves. For example, we donate the materials to build schools, but it is the communities that build and run the initiatives. We do not get involved in a sponsorship if the community is not involved and vested as well.

What are the main goals and priorities for Grupo VerdeAzul in 2018?

Aside from implementing our diversification strategy, our main goal is to expand our market and reach out to international clientele to attract them into one of our communities. We are creating tailor-made programs and departments within the company to cater to international clientele and facilitate their stay while in Panama. As a company we are embracing the multinationals who have moved to Panama and we look forward to doing more business with them. Our overarching theme will be to reach out to new markets and expand our demand base, while being selective in our investments. This is not a small thing; we are talking about several millions in investment and development going toward this goal of making sure not only Panamanians, but the international market, know about the quality of Grupo VerdeAzul's work.