By Alan Markoff
Most people know the Dart family made its money, at least originally, as the company that first manufactured the foam cup. However, many people don’t know how the Darts ended up with so much investment in the Cayman Islands.
In the early 1990s, Kenneth Dart, along with his brother and parents, visited Grand Cayman and, impressed with what they found, returned regularly.
Seeing the advantages of operating his corporate and investment offices in Cayman, Dart established companies here.
Then in 1995, he purchased the former West Indian Club Hotel, acquiring with it 238 acres of land stretching from Seven Mile Beach to the North Sound.
He eventually got the idea that the land could be used to build a mixed-used New Urbanism development, which would eventually become Camana Bay.
Over the years, Dart has employed some key personnel to oversee the operations of the Dart Group’s various companies – and more than 500 employees – on Grand Cayman.
Three of those senior managers – Dart Realty (Cayman) Ltd. Managing Director Jim Lammers, Chief Executive Officer Mark VanDevelde and Chief Operating Officer Jackie Doak – discussed Camana Bay, Ken Dart and the ongoing public relations battle the company must fight in Cayman.
A Stanford University graduate who later got a law degree from University of Michigan, Lammers started with Dart Container in 1986.
“In the summer of ’86, Ken Dart became the president of Dart Container Corporation. I was 27 so Ken would have been, say 30, and he was looking for an assistant. I think the job title was assistant to the president.”
Over time, Lammers was promoted through the company, becoming vice president of administration and general counsel in 1992. After Ken Dart bought the West Indian Club property in 1995, he spoke to Lammers about coming to Cayman to put together a team to develop a master plan for the site.
“Ken had already, based on his travels and interests and reading, viewed the site as one that would lend itself to a New Urbanism community,” Lammers said.
“So beginning in ’96 through to date, I’ve been involved in the Camana Bay project.
VanDevelde came on board in 1993, just after graduating from Michigan State University. He was looking for a job when he saw a notice saying Dart Container was looking for staff.
“I just applied for it,” he said, noting that he not only didn’t know the Darts beforehand, he didn’t even know about their company.
Having a background in finance, VanDevelde worked in Dart Container’s treasury department. In November 1993, about eight months after he started, he was asked if he wanted to move to the Cayman Islands and work for the Dart Group there. He jumped at the opportunity.
Unlike Lammers and VanDevelde, who were recruited in Michigan, Doak started with the Dart Group in Cayman in 2003. Born in Jamaica, Doak was nine when she moved to Cayman and stayed here before heading off to school in Florida. After getting a law degree and practicing for a couple of years in Florida, she came back to Cayman in 1993.
After working for several companies – including Hampstead’s, her father’s office supply store – and then taking some time off after having her first child, Doak started looking for a new opportunity.
“I saw an article about… the West Indian Club getting approval to proceed, so wrote a letter to Jim Lammers said I would love to work with the company.
I had an interview with Mark and Jim… in the Mirco Centre. It resulted in being hired on as the VP of sales – primarily for the beach houses. That quickly turned into VP sales and leasing because we soon acquired the [Regatta Office Park].”
It took 10 years for the Dart Realty to get everything in order to be in a position to break ground in May 2005 on Camana Bay.
Along the way, the project grew in scope as Dart Realty acquired land adjoining Camana Bay, including 226 acres belonging to Helen Harquail to the south and 42 acres immediately to the north, bringing the development’s total area to more than 500 acres.
After the West Indian Club property purchase, VanDevelde said Ken Dart forged a concept for a New Urbanism development.
“He had travelled, had seen a lot of different kinds of development around the world. His mind was kind of doing this puzzle of creating, from a green field site, something that could be unique and special, workable and sustainable, but would also take advantage of all the positive aspects of Cayman living.”
New Urbanism was a relatively new approach to developing back in the mid-90s.
“It’s a new concept and it’s an old concept,” said Lammers. “Ken grew up in Mason, Michigan, which is a classic, Midwestern, mixed use, county seat – you have the courthouse right there; within a couple of blocks in each direction you have retail, restaurants, a drugstore, a hair cutting place… and as you march outwards, you have residential.
Rather than selling residential offerings from the beginning, Dart Realty started with what it thought would be the draw for potential residents – a commercial ‘Town Centre’. Although there are a limited number of rental apartments there, the Town Centre is mainly various retail and commercial office spaces.
Building the Town Centre has been very capital intensive and contrary to the belief of some, the Dart Group isn’t making much money on what has been built so far, and is in fact losing money on some of its ventures like the bookstore and the restaurants.
However, VanDevelde said those businesses, along with the cinema, play a key role in bringing people to Camana Bay and have been strategically situated in the development.
“We’ve positioned the book store and cinema on the west and restaurants on the east, so they serve as book-end traffic drivers,” he said, adding that people will go to eat at one end, buy a book or go to a movie at the other end, walking all the way across the Paseo as they do.
“The other thing about the bookstore and the cinema is the newness,” VanDevelde said.
“There are always new titles coming out; always new movies coming out. You get high traffic generation in both cases.”
The cinema has already attracted more than 250,000 people since opening and in the summer of 2011 hit 30,000 tickets sold for a month for the first time.
“It continues to grow – double digit growth – since opening, which is fantastic,” VanDevelde said. “Cash flow is great, but profitability isn’t great because of the capital cost. But how else are you going to get 250,000 to 300,000 people through into your Town Centre and regularly come back?”
VanDevelde says the Dart Group has internal difficulties reconciling its Camana Bay business “with pretty much everything else we do because the short-term financial return is not there. It’s going to be a challenge, probably for ever more. The way [Ken Dart would] like to see it happen in the front end – to make this unique, fantastic place – costs a lot of money.”
Making the Town Centre sustainable is key, says VanDevelde. “It’s not going to generate a big profit, but it will help maintain the project and the property in a great state. We spend more in landscaping and security and architecture, but if we can generate the cash flow to sustain that, that’s a success for us.”
Although Dart wants Camana Bay to become sustainable in long run, VanDevelde says it means much more to him than just an investment.
“There’s definitely a long-term vision of profitability, and certainly economic sustainability, but beyond the financial aspect of it, there’s [a sense] that it’s a unique and special place,” he said, noting that Dart often walks around Camana Bay with an eye for small details.
Once, for instance, he attended the Ortanique pig roast on the little island in the harbour and noticed that a light bulb was blown out.
“He noticed because he said it would have looked so much better had it been on,” VanDevelde said.
Over the years, Dart Realty has talked about the desire for Camana Bay to be ‘organic’, taking on a life of its own and evolving based on community that lives, works and plays there.
“It may be things that evolve, like landscaping evolves over time, or just interesting architecture, or design or art features that you layer in, that just add to the uniqueness and vibrancy of the place,” VanDevelde said.
“I think that if [Ken Dart] were looking back 20 years from now, that’s going to be one of his markers for success… that people will really continue to see [Camana Bay] in terms of a fresh, unique and vibrant place. This is not about a developer building something to sell to somebody, but it really becomes a place onto itself and it’s the people who make up that place. And it kind of evolves over time because of the community… that it’s made of.”
Many Cayman Islands residents would not even know Ken Dart if they were standing next to him. He keeps out of the limelight, avoiding highly public appearances. He goes out to eat at restaurants and shops, just like everyone else, but he remains low key.
Lammers, who has personally known Ken, his brother Bob and their parents for 25 years, has spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours with all of them. He describes Ken Dart as a “very down to earth” kind of guy who is casual in both dress and demeanour and very committed to his wife, children and extended family.
“To me, he’s sort of the antithesis of a country club glad-hander kind of guy.”
VanDevelde says Dart is very sincere. “I think that’s the biggest thing that comes across when you meet with Ken – his sincerity and how grateful he is for the contribution of his employees. And there’s absolutely no ego.”
Lammers also says Dart is one of the “hardest workers I’ve ever known” and that one of the things he’s been most impressed with over the years is the way Ken – as well as his brother and father – have treated everyone employed with the Dart Group of companies with respect, from the people on plant floors right on up to the executive offices.
“He doesn’t pigeonhole people. He doesn’t think if someone does or doesn’t have a particular degree or background that they’re not capable of doing other things. One of our core values is meritocracy, which I think speaks to that very strongly.”
Doak said that loyalty is an important part of the Dart culture and that the company has a family-like atmosphere.
VanDevelde said that in some ways, the Darts view Cayman similarly to the way they view Mason, Michigan, which continues to be Dart Container’s headquarters even thought there is no strategic value to them being there. But the Darts have roots there and they remain loyal to their roots, just as they remain loyal to their employees.
“Cayman’s no different in many ways. Here… it’s very personal. There are very strong and continually developing roots to the island, to [Ken Dart] personally and by extension, the people that he has here.”
Dart is a good listener and a quick study, who is very knowledgeable about a lot of things, Lammers said.
“He assimilates information and has incredibly strong analytical skills. He has very strong long-term strategic vision and is willing to make decisions in the short term that really are really long term in nature.”
But Lammers says Dart understands the human side of the equation.
“I think he’s driven by data, reason, logic, but also is cognisant that there are a lot of other factors at play that are of a different nature in terms of how people feel about things… in terms of people’s perceptions of what’s good for themselves, or their family, or for their community or the country.”
In addition to investments relating to expanding Dart Container, Ken Dart and the family have made a lot of other worldwide investments, VanDevelde said.
“Our passive investment portfolio over the years… has been pretty wide reaching, both geographically but also in the types of instruments. High risk tolerance brings you into various and sometimes exotic structures, and we’re not afraid necessarily to be on a leading edge of opportunities.“
One example of this was Dart’s investments in Russia.
“We were one of the first major private investors in Russia in the late 1990s when they were going through their privatisation auctions,” VanDevelde said, explaining that when post-communist Russia was divesting itself of state-owned companies, it issued privatisation shares to the public that were ultimately purchased by various other companies and entities and consolidated.
This was an example of a very high-risk, very infant… private market that was fraught with risk and issues, but great opportunities as well,” he said.
Not everyone approved of the Russian investments and it caused the Darts some image problems, but nothing like their investments into the so-called vulture funds, when they bought sovereign debt from banks at a highly discounted rate.
When the countries like Argentina wouldn’t pay the debt, the Darts took them to court and promptly got lambasted by the media and the countries that owed the debt.
VanDevelde said it’s difficult to fight the perception of the vulture funds because for one thing, it’s difficult to “explain pretty complex financial macro-economic issues to people who don’t necessarily have an aptitude or interest in learning about them”.
He said the world economy, post-financial crisis more than ever, needs high-risk investors to make the markets work.
“If there’s no one standing out to be a lender, there are no borrowers, there’s no money in circulation. Some… countries, just like companies or individuals, try to walk away from their obligations and disregard the law,” he said.
“In Argentina in particular, we bought debt. They defaulted on debt. We have judgments in multiple jurisdictions saying ‘you’re wrong, you need to pay them’ and they’re…. laundering money through other means so they can avoid payment.”
Argentina is a wealthy country rich in natural resources and their economy “is going gangbusters”, VanDevelde said.
“So we say they have the ability to pay, they have the legal obligation, the courts say they owe the money, here’s a lender who got… shafted on this, and… [Dart] is the bad guy because Argentina doesn’t want to pay its debt?”
VanDevelde noted that Cayman legislator Ezzard Miller has often criticised the Dart Group because of its involvement in buying sovereign debt.
“Here’s a local politician who’s going to go out there and say that he supports… what?… that governments don’t have to pay their debt? And that laundering money to avoid paying creditors is OK? And even if the courts say, and government documents say, they owe the money, they can disregard that? That’s a pretty dangerous thing for a politician to say.”
When it comes to buying land and businesses, the Dart Group tends to be less risky, except when it comes to Camana Bay, which VanDevelde classifies as a high-risk development because of the up-front build-out of the Town Centre.
“It is 100 per cent based on future absorption. If future absorption is sidetracked because of economic climate, because of the whims of how we market ourselves as an island… demand impacts the pace of construction. You have this built infrastructure, and it costs a lot of money to maintain. If you can’t sell property around it because the market’s not there, it significantly elevates the risk of these large-scale developments in an island setting.”
Although the Dart Group had made some land investments in other Caribbean countries, VanDevelde said there is nothing similar to Camana Bay.
“Camana Bay is unique to Ken. We’re not pursuing this kind of stuff elsewhere. Other properties – we just bought some in the Bahamas and Chicago – those are financial investments… It’s all about what’s the return; that’s not the case with Camana Bay. And it is the case with some of our other Cayman-based real estate.”
VanDevelde said that Dart’s approach highlights the legacy-building nature of Camana Bay. “He’s willing to invest up front. It may not make financial sense up front, but he wants this message heard years down the road and he wants this special place created… and that’s going to come with up-front thought and cost and attention to detail.”
VanDevelde said there is a legacy element to Camana Bay, but in the context of long-term financial sustainability.
“There are elements of [Ken Dart’s] DNA throughout Camana Bay. There are things that don’t necessarily pencil short term or even long term that he still wants to do because he thinks it’s the right thing and it’s something he wants to see happen.”
Camana Bay is being built with a multi-generational viewpoint, VanDevelde said.
“We’re building something here that is expected to last in perpetuity for all intents and purposes, so there’s an idea of having to do it, wanting to do it, right today, so that legacy you’re developing is obvious decades to come,” he said, adding that Camana Bay needs to be financially sustainable so that it can hold up to the test of time.
But, just as Ken Dart is low-key in his life, the legacy aspect will come more from within. ‘It’s certainly not about this being a Ken Dart legacy, because he would want his name far removed from it if possible,” VanDevelde said.
Lammers said Camana Bay was something he’d look proudly on for being involved with as a lifetime achievement. He said many of the employees also feel the same way. “I think that if you ask people on our staff, they have a lot of pride walking around Camana Bay.”
Doak is one of those employees.
“When Jim and Mark first hired me on we went out to California and they showed me the model of Camana Bay,” she said, noting that she gets a sense of pride to see the Town Centre now and to see how people – particularly children – interact with the space.
Eighteen years after arriving, VanDevelde heads up Dart’s operations in Cayman. “I’m a living example of meritocracy in the company. The whole company is littered with people who could say the same.”
VanDevelde knows that there are those in Cayman who think the worst about Ken Dart and Camana Bay. He says Ken Dart has consistently told the executive management to take the high road with criticism, especially with personal attacks not based on any fact.
“You’re not going to win those battles. In some cases we’ve seen, people don’t care about the facts, don’t want to learn the facts, they want to take a personal approach to it, and his position is just take the high road.”
As with politics and other businesses, Lammers said a small percentage of people will be with you no matter what and a small percentage will be against you no matter what.
“It’s that huge middle ground of people that I think that are really at play in terms of how they feel about you as a politician, a company, an actor… whatever. I think that if you just stick to your guns…. in terms of trying to be respectful, reasonable, logical, trying to think things through and generally try to do good things, you will hit the mark more often than not.
We’re not perfect; no one’s perfect, but I think we’re trying to hit the target more often than not and I personally believe we are.”
Over time, both VanDevelde and Lammers think Camana Bay – and the rest of the Darts holdings here – will speak for themselves, but that the company’s many employees will also have personal stories to tell that will reflect well on Dart Enterprises.
Doak already has her own story to tell.
“I think I have the benefit, as many as our executive team of managers do, of understanding the values of the company; understanding the motivations of Camana Bay and other acquisitions. I get the understanding of why we do what we do as well as how we execute it, that’s how I know we are genuine in our intentions.”
Doak said some of the prevailing myths – like that Ken Dart desires to gain economic control of the Cayman Islands – “turns something that is a very positive opportunity for the island into a very negative, something you always feel you have to be defensive about. Maybe you never change their views, but it’s going to be only through time, that we can validate what our intentions are.”
Lammers said Dart takes the criticism in stride.
“I think Ken’s got pretty broad shoulders. I personally believe that he is aware of comments – positive and negative – in broad strokes that the people on the island have about what we’ve done and what we’re proposing to do. I think he takes those on board and that they matter to him.
I don’t they think they personally trouble him; I think they matter to him in terms of the extent to which they inform whether we want to do things differently or not. But I don’t think he takes things personally.”
To a lesser extent, Lammers said Dart Employees also have to have broad shoulders when it comes to criticism.
“I have a lot of respect for our employees because I’m sure they have situations where they are asked by family, friends and others about their experiences at Dart, and some of those questions might be coming from a direction that isn’t positive. But…we are who we are.
We’re not perfect, but I hope the people who have had experiences with us or have seen the fruits of thinking put on the ground begin to form their own personal opinions.”
Lammers said he’s taken his share of criticisms over the years and he knows that the Dart Group takes hits every day from detractors.
“But there’s so much positive here. I really believe the Camana Bay train has left the station. We’ve got a lot of great stuff on the ground and it’s going to get richer, better…over time.”