I founded Gateway International to embark on the transpacific brokering of both private island real-estate and high end land development.
During the 4 years that Gateway existed, we were approached by HGTV to do an episode showcasing one of our islands, we incurred celebrity interests such as singer Noel Gallagher of Oasis, and we even had offers as high as $4 million dollars, before the music ended and the parade stopped.
The adventure I had once hoped could pay for my college education, was not successful, and in many ways, illegal. This is the story of my time as an international realty entrepreneur.
MEETING A NATIVE PRINCESS
The founding of Gateway International came from a chance encounter I had in 2013, when I pulled over to offer a woman a ride who was walking up the very unforgiving hill I live on. This is when I first met Adi Vusanimasei.
She was born a princess in Fiji, her family had land and lots of it, but very little money. While her earliest memories are of being carried around her village on a pillow, she now spent 17 hour days tending to an elderly stroke victim and her frail husband.
When she got in the car she exclaimed "thank you my dear!" and gave me a beautiful, excited grin. She wanted to know everything about me, where was I going to school, what did I study, (business at the time) was I religious, how old was I, did I know where Fiji was? We reached her house and already were discussing what it would take for people in the US to connect with locals from her country, and maybe find a place of their own. She was looking for anybody willing to help, so my being twenty at the time, without genuine experience, was not disqualifying.
In the following years, we would list some of the most desirable land in the country. Yawini Island, (pictured at the top of this page and in the video below) is 93 acres of jungle and sunset beaches; it was truly the crown of the Yasawa region sitting at the very top of the island chain. Another gorgeous property, Davuilau, (pictured above), is a 54 acre island in the same region, situated right across from Turtle Island, of the famed movie, Blue Lagoon. Our largest property was a 10,000 acre mountainous portion of Vanua Levu. As connections in Fiji grew, we tried finding more and more properties. We tried listing a small island rich in bauxite, a special interest to foreign investors like China, but the land proved less resourceful than hoped and an agreement was never reached. I had no idea what bauxite was before that.
Sitting at my dinner table next to Adi one day, was a woman by the name of Tiokapeci, or just Peci, pronounced (peh-thee). Peci had the island of Davuilau, an inheritance after her husband passed away from Diabetes. She would later recall to me, that on his death bed, he asked for a sandwich from the hospital cafeteria, and when she returned he told her that she had an island waiting for her.
Now, Adi told me she wanted the island sold, on account of it reminding her too much of her lost husband. Peci was an interesting character who almost never said a word. Not a single word, no matter what Adi or I would say. When Adi told Peci to tell me what her property was worth she replied by staring off into the distance. I suggested she write it down. She did this in memorably clean handwriting that read, $32,000,000 FJD (approx. $16,000,000 USD). Something about the $16,000,000 may have also contributed to the clarity of this memory.
Peci spent most of her days as a caretaker like Adi, a little younger however, and not fully Fijian. She referred to Adi as "Mom" although the two were only related by marriage and Mom was only a term of endearment for someone she really trusted and loved. Today when I think of Peci, I think of three things specifically. First of which, is that she is unimaginably soft spoken, second, she has an amazing laugh that sounds of a young horse whinnying as it learns to run, and third, she is the most stubborn person I have ever encountered.
When it came to signing contracts, who could blame her? Fiji was an English colony; land grabbing and corruption were not only a British thing, but went on among Fijian's to that day. I began to understand that she saw my eagerness for business as not very Christian, less than trustworthy, and perhaps I bore too much resemblance to history.
But it wasn't her own opinions that made working together so difficult. Her current husband, whom she married to stay in the country, was a recovering drug addict who did not believe what I had to offer was enough. When I told him she stood to make 4 million dollars on this property he told me "that isn't anything, I've gone through at least 4, maybe 5 million dollars in my life, easy." He did not seem to acknowledge what $4 million would do to their single bedroom apartment lifestyle in a poor neighborhood of Santa Rosa CA. Way ahead of the pack in so far as troublesome things that would prevent burgeoning trust between myself and Peci, was her attorney in Fiji. A corrupt, soon to be politician, (perfect), and member of Fiji's Parliament, who would lead her down a windy road of misinformation that left my ears burning, starting with a miss-evaluation, and an erroneous title claim.
The issue was that while contrary to her attorney's explanation, the property was not only not a free-hold, but it wasn't worth anything close to the $32,000,000 she was lead to believe. It was my father, who looking over my shoulder one day, was the first to realize this, stating that, "no, in fact, that is not a free-hold, but a State-Freehold Crown Lease." Wondering what the difference is? About $30,000,000.
After my scrutiny, and producing a trustworthy appraisal of my own, along with a list of comparable properties, he produced a new appraisal at $8 million. An outrageous amount for a leasehold. The appraisal I had received was $1.4 million max. How could he have stood by his figure? The answer, was that her property was set to return to the state soon if she did not show development on it. She was unaware of this. His recent ascent into Parliament at this time, made his actions all the more suspicious. While his appraisal was simply wrong at the leasehold level, I would soon try to have the property converted into a new title agreement that would be worth far closer to what he was claiming it should.
AGREEMENTS & THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
Despite my terminal relationship with one attorney, the highest legal office in the country became my fallback. After the title discovery being what it was, I soon came to meet a developer who felt this was not too dire a situation, I merely had to speak with the Attorney General. The company was Avoser, an Indian firm that had done a number of stylistic modern architectural projects in Fiji and who were working to seriously expand its project base. Davuilau island, for its prime location and deep water port, was exactly what they were looking for. After weeks of negotiations, a price was finally settled on, at $4 million US, contingent on the property's conversion to a freehold title. Nobody at the firm wanted to do it themselves but they were very confident that I would have success. Not being in Fiji at the time I had little to fear, but getting such a prominent figure on the phone was another matter, and worrisome if it meant everything was riding on it.
Every phone call I made began with "Hi this is Kyle Kelly, I'm looking to speak with the Attorney General." This was promptly followed with, "May I ask what this is regarding." Then I would give a talkative response loosely thought out beforehand (I didn't want to overthink things and dissuade my courage), about a land title tied up and costing the State $400k in tax revenue if it couldn't be realized as a sale. The first few times I thought I was very close. I would get transferred gladly to another office who would also oblige cordially. Then came the redirect, or my favorite, disconnect. I refined my pitch and after two weeks, a hesitant voice transferred me to an outside number with a different sounding ring. I thought I could hear the wind in the background when he answered, and to my bewilderment, it was him. I introduced myself, Gateway International, and Avoser. I explained what was at stake, and was forthright in explaining his important role in this issue. From there he asked a few questions, before saying he understood. He seemed to think about things for a moment or two before he suggested another time to talk. Knowing this likely would never happen I pressed the matter, and as he thought a moment more I wish I had said something else but failed to, and his closing words to me were swift but clear, "It is an election year, you know...? Not a good time. But talk to me after the election." In the time it would have taken to get another conversation, Gateway would already be treading water.
TROUBLE WITH TLTB
Having Fijian's themselves as representatives in Gateway International, was not only imperative for our negotiations, it became our saving grace when we fell under investigation by the TLTB, iTaukei Land Trust Board. Yawini Island was not owned by any one person, as we were lead to believe, but rather an entire tribe of more than 20 people, none of whom had been informed of its listing. The friction between rival families regarding property ownership was a major challenge, and one that sunk any hope of closing a deal on our most prized island. Soon we were alerted that the State Police in Fiji had begun to investigate us along with the Board, and local media. Had I stepped foot in Fiji at this time, I would have needed more than a boat or an airplane to leave, especially considering some of language I used when speaking with Peci's attorney and Parliamentary member. Fortunately, we had a connection in Fiji, a woman who worked for the state, who got wind of a story that was about to be published in the Fiji Sun, naming Gateway International and myself, as capital offenders of Fijian law protecting Native Land rights,. While this was the opposite of our objective, it was unknown, so with help of our friend, both my name and the company name were omitted from the final publishing, only referencing us citing our properties and extracting a few of my descriptions off of our site.
HGTV - ISLAND HUNTERS & THE END OF GATEWAY INTERNATIONAL
Non native inhabitants offered a unique view of the islands we held as well. One of these came from Chris Krolow, CEO of Private Islands Online, who provided me with Davuilau's appraisal. He spent time in Fiji and was kind enough to hop on the phone with me to discuss its value. Four years after I first spoke with Christopher Krolow, while walking to class at UC Davis I received a phone call from HGTV. Soon I had a scheduled call with Chris again. A day later I was listening to him tell me all about the next episode he wanted to produce, which involved the island of Davuilau. He wanted to know if it was my property. I said, "No, it's my clients." He asked if I thought she would like to be on TV. I said "of course." He wanted to know if she lived on the island. I said" she lives in Santa Rosa, California." So, he offered to fly her to Fiji to make the show. "You couldn't ask for better marketing..." said Chris. I agreed, a listing on his site was one thing, but a publication on TV was the most exciting news I'd received from Fiji since signing my first listing agreements. When I called Tiokapeci for the first time in about a year, she was ready to talk. Her voice skipped and danced merrily over the phone when she answered, after a long laugh of course. She was always very sweet, and while stubborn, polite about it.
The last time I had talked with Peci, was shortly before she turned down an offer from a San Francisco development company for $1.4 million to lease her property. Fool me once... Well, after initial elation at Chris's offer, she told me she would have to consult her brother. He was living on the island at this time under a tin shelter, and cultivating vegetables. I worried about his answer. I called her a few days later, upon which she gave me the news, that her brother said it wasn't a good idea to promote the island, the government wouldn't like that and might take it away from her. Simply put, "no," was her answer, and there wasn't anything to talk about after that. I explained things to Chris as best I could, but it was truly the end of Gateway International. The last ember of hope I had of paying for my college education with the lease of an island had finally died, and I joined the ranks of the masses of college students destined to an early period of debt.
From Adi, came all of the introductions I believed necessary to start a successful company. I created a Delaware C Corp and bypassed the need for a Fijian realty license by running the enterprise as a finders fee based organization with realty size commissions.
Fiji is filled with ancient cultural practices many of which I had to learn almost over night. One of the more interesting local customs was one involving the presentation of a whales tooth to prospective clients before any talks could be made.