August 2015 – Ken Wall

2015-05-06 19.06.55This month our VIP is Ken Wall, owner of Mexican American Home Services.   

 

 

 Tell us about your early years.

I was born in Denton, Texas – that’s now a suburb of Dallas, and basically grew up in Dallas.

My father was a refrigeration guy working in supermarkets like Safeway, and industrial buildings around Dallas, like Frito-Lay, etc. In my last 2 years of high school I was in a work program, so I went to school in the mornings and in the afternoons worked for a refrigeration contractor where my Dad was the service manager. I just cleaned up the shop, separated copper fittings, that kind of stuff. Back then, before regulations, they bought freon in these huge containers and we had smaller refillable ones. We had a machine there, made by my father and a few other guys, so I could do the transfer and then the service guys could take the smaller containers out on their calls. Then I was in a 9 month course at night: 3 months each of classroom, half class room half shop, and then all shop – in AC and Refrigeration. That didn’t stick well. After high school, I went to community college and Texas State Technical Institute for a few years.

For the first half of my career, I worked for A/C and refrigeration contractors around Dallas and Fort Worth, working in supermarkets or supermarkets under construction. I worked for Hussmann for a few years, the largest refrigeration equipment manufacturer in the world. For the second half, I worked for Food Lion, the 6th largest supermarket company well known in eleven states on the East Coast, from 1993 to 2005. Part of their promotion system entailed studying and taking tests, they had a comprehensive technical and management/self-help library and I became very well read. I worked for them in Texas for 2 years, and then in 1995 they transferred me to Richmond, Virginia.

What did you do with them?

I was in the engineering department and for the first 6 years, I did special assignments. For 3 years of that time I was a refrigeration installation supervisor – that’s a bit of a mouthful! I spent a lot of time on committees to alter the drawings or write new specifications when changing construction methods or floor layouts for the contractors to follow.

Then in the last 7 years I was a construction supervisor. I lived in Richmond but I had a geographical area of Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania and I had to travel to any new store or renovation that was in my area. The real estate department would give me an empty lot and I had to open a store there in 6 months to a year later.

There were 10 other construction supervisors, and our supervisor was originally a store manager who had worked his way up. None of us had any construction degrees as such, it was all on the job training and we were self-taught. Food Lion would put all of us on a corporate jet and fly us to Pennsylvania for example to learn about concrete, the correct water content, the correct aggregate content, effects of the climate, and so on so that when the floor tile was installed, it looked good.

Did all the stores have emergency power generators in case the power went down?

Only a very few of them did, that was because they were in remote areas – the power company gave us major credit for running the generator at peak times of the day – and also used that to service the grid. No, it is too expensive. The refrigeration equipment in our local Mega would cost in the range of one million dollars.

Building a new store would be straight forward, but how complicated was it to renovate a store?

A couple of million dollars renovation might expand the store by 60 feet and everything in the store changed, the center point and front doors, the aisles, as well as the refrigeration equipment – there’d be different systems for the meat and milk areas to a system on the roof to a system in non-public areas, and sometimes temporary to accommodate a change. The challenge was that the store would stay open every day and so work could only happen when it was closed at night, all night, and during that time outside personnel were refilling shelves and setting up displays. There would be teams of contractors – dry wall, concrete, tiles, electrical, it was really busy!  In the morning 3 people had to confirm if all the different refrigeration systems were working.

The very final thing to do when I finished a project was to submit a report complete with external photo of the store, with its address – I still have about 70 copies of those photos and without the details on them I wouldn’t be able to tell which was which because they all look alike!

I became tired of travelling with Food Line, though I hadn’t appreciated that until I had a leave of absence to help my daughter who had crushed her ankle, she had a young baby, and couldn’t stand. I already had the general contractors lined up for my projects in Baltimore, with all the specifications written, and we were just waiting for the permits which can take 6 months in Maryland. So I had four weeks off, it was the longest time I had been at home in close to 20 years. I had a house in Richmond and an apartment in Baltimore, and hotels in all the different towns I had to go to, all the packing and unpacking, checking perishables in the refrigerators…it had all been so normal, I would have said it would have taken wild horses to pull me away from that job, but now here I was – hating it !

I talked with the powers that be and they wanted to keep me and suggested moving me to Salisbury, North Carolina where I could work out of the corporate office. An office job is not for me, so I left. For six months I didn’t do anything, trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Then I worked for a contractor for the city of Richmond until I learned all about the politics involved! Then I worked for a property management company – 28 apartment communities in three states. They wanted to get into a centralized buying method for all their appliances and parts for equipment – washers, driers, A/C, etc., so they didn’t have to carry so many different brand parts and better control spending. Well I had the knowledge of that system from Food Lion – bulk buying got a better price – a manager couldn’t even buy his own trashcan! So once that was up and running my challenges were over.

How did you end up in Bucerias?

I met and married a Mexican, Raquel, in Virginia and to do the immigration process correctly she had to be out of the country. She came to Mexico for 10 months and I visited her three times – that was not here. Once we got her green card so she could travel freely we came down here on vacation in May 2010.

We came for 11 nights; the first 5 we stayed in Conchas Chinas and we explored PV and South. Then we stayed in San Pancho and explored South from there to Nuevo. We got hooked on Bucerias. I was originally thinking about looking for a place to buy, a piece of land to retire to eventually, maybe visit and work on it in the meantime.

While I was here on vacation I called every AC guy that was in the phone book – nobody could speak English – even though some of them advertised that. A couple of times they said somebody would call me back, but nobody did. Then my wife called to find out their prices for jobs. At this point, the big question in my mind was – why wait until I retire before coming here?! I could come and work. That was in May 2010 and we moved down in October.

You drove down – any problems?

Not really.  We were a convoy: I drove a moving truck that pulled Raquel’s car on a car dolly and she drove my pickup towing a boat on a trailer. We had 2 walkie-talkies to keep in contact on the road. It took three days to get all that stuff across the border, and we had 3 cats. On that final day we also had our border agent with us. I hadn’t been over the border 5 minutes when I got pulled over for speeding! He pointed out I was looking at the American miles and I needed to be looking at the little numbers, the kilometers.

Were you speeding?

I don’t think so – heavy traffic and pulling a heavy load in town? It was “ka-ching!’ I think I paid him 200 pesos to let us go. When we got here the only place to safely park our convoy was in the Decameron car park, so we checked in there. We’d brought 15 pages of rental properties with different agents to look at and that first night one of them showed us around – except it got dark and the two properties didn’t have any power on so we couldn’t see anything! That was my first experience of “This is Mexico”! We had a certain price range but mostly the agents showed us places that were more expensive. Finally Velia Herrera showed us places in our price range and we rented in Los Amores 2 on a 12 months lease, but stayed for a couple of months more, by which time we’d decided to buy this house.

What did you do with all your stuff?

We rented space at El Faro – furniture, boat, moving truck. Three months after being here I drove the moving truck up to San Antonio and sold it.   I put the dolly up for sale.

How difficult or easy was it to set up in business here?

I have all the credentials to do this in Texas or Virginia where it is governed by the Environmental Protection Agency, but it is different here! However it was easy enough, we did it all in my wife’s name. But we separated in 2014, so I have put everything into my name now.

When I started here it was like regular work. All the basics like getting the phone on, the legal stuff, banks account, and getting our marriage recognized here in Mexico – all the trips to Tepic! Then when all that was done I got up and went to work every day passing out fliers, walking all over Bucerias, La Cruz, Nuevo, and PV, just trying to meet and talk to folks.

What is your working area now?

From Sayulita down as far as Conchas Chinas – I have quite a number there. I would say about 75% of my company gross is from the commercial property management or realtors side, with 25% from private owners. Word of mouth is invaluable; all new customers have been referred. We still have clients that we had five years ago, and they still refer us for new clients.

You must have met a lot of people!

Yes, it’s amazing. Everyone has A/C in the bedrooms. I like to joke that I’ve been in more bedrooms than any other guy here! The entire bay area is a small town. So many people know or are connected to so many other people. Most of our clients are like my friends.

How many employees do you have?

I have two full time, one has been with me for 4 years, the other for 2 years.

And you contribute to the Social Security system?

No I don’t as they are contract laborers. However my accountant says that Mexico has a new program where a business that has been operating with employees as contractors or paying them under the table can now register and make contributions over a period of 10 years starting at 10% each year on a rising scale, so you can budget it into your system.   As an employer there’s more than just social security and the Infonavit housing, there are the 11 paid holidays, the Christmas bonus, severance pay, and the profit sharing bonus due at the end of April – that can be pretty hefty. I know a couple of different guys – they’ve bought a car or a truck, with that money! So I want to and intend to get my guys to the point they can arrange financing for a house, car, etc.

I will feel successful when people see my guys as successful.

You have now branched out into photovoltaic solar systems?

Yes, it made sense. Many established A/C companies in the USA have added solar to their repertoire since the prices have dropped. More middle class families can afford the initial cost. We already have trainable technicians, trucks, ladders, hand tools, etc., and solar is not very complicated. eSun is the biggest solar company around Bucerias, so I am in competition with them, but I have known them for years and I consider Cody and Jsun to be my friends, even though we are very competitive.

You are very generous in giving back to the community: you have put your men to work repairing or working at the library, Manos de Amor, and the Tercera Edad seniors facility on the canal road. Thank you!

Most of the time once their day is paid for in my company work, if there are a few hours left then I can divert them to one of these places. It’s not really costing me anything; I am just directing their energy. I could let them go home or go fishing, but …! I need to do much more.

How good is your Spanish?

It’s difficult to quantify – I’d say sufficient. In addition to the 2 full time guys, there’s probably about 4 – 5 guys on a regular basis – concrete, dry wall, tile, paint, welder, etc., that I work with on a specialized basis – they don’t speak English, nor do most of the employees at the various stores I deal with. Your typical language classes don’t get into teaching the technical stuff!

What did everyone say about your move here?

My parents thought I was crazy. Everyone thought I was crazy. I knew everybody would think that so I didn’t tell them until two weeks before we left! I’d been selling off stuff – car, horse trailer, all that I had, and then when I bought the moving truck they put two and two together!

Have any of your family visited you?

No. My Mother died one year after we moved, she wouldn’t fly and the road trip was too long, and then my Father 1 year later. My sister is 9 years older than me and won’t fly and won’t come down; my brother is 8 years older than me and won’t come down. I have three children from my first marriage: my oldest daughter is in Los Angeles, my son is in Dallas, and my youngest daughter is in Richmond, she’s a housewife with 2 children. They’ve not got any interest in coming down, sometimes they might say something like “that sounds like a lot of fun”, but that’s it.

Your house is on the border of two colonias, Buenos Aires and La Unidad. You brought down 3 cats – do you have any other pets?

I just lost the last of the 3 American cats I brought. Now, I have my 3 year old rescue dog Kenda, and 2 rescue cats, they all have Indian names. On my Father’s side I am 6 generations Texan and I’ve always had an amount of guilt regarding the Europeans coming in and taking over the American Indian’s land and lives. I have been to a lot of Indian festivals. They are educational so people can learn about this or that tribe, how they dress, their food, their music, etc., it’s always been very special to me. I have a poster like Mt Rushmore, but instead of the American founding fathers, 4 Indian chiefs like Sitting Bull are depicted. At the bottom, it states, “the original founding fathers.”   It expresses exactly how I feel. It’s like Indians are in my blood.

When you have time – what are your hobbies or personal interests? Have you used your boat much?

I never put it in the water! It’s too difficult to use a boat on a trailer and to find a good convenient place to put it in the water – and I couldn’t afford to have it in a marina. So after two years of sitting on the trailer I sold it. Every Sunday I walk the beach with my dog, he loves to swim and fetch. I love the silence of no phone. Other free time I spend in my yard. I used to hunt but had to get rid of my guns before coming here.   I’d like to golf but it’s too expensive – I still have my clubs, but they’re a little dusty! I have a keyboard – there’s always been a piano in the house since I was a kid – and now I’m teaching myself how to play.

And I really enjoy the softball on Saturdays in season, it is fun, funny, and it’s exercise. We had about 20 to 30 players every week for the 14 weeks that we played. I played hard ball as a kid but I couldn’t commit to anything like organized softball before due to all my travelling for work.

And you’ve been sky diving! Did you like it?

I loved it! I’ve done it twice! My eldest daughter was a branch manager for Citi Bank Financial but has been working in the sky diving business for the past 7 years or so – first at Skydive Chicago, and now in Los Angeles.  They have these simulators in shopping malls and lots of times she has to get in with first timers until they get the hang of staying straight!

I’d be worried about if my chute had been packed correctly…

After I’d jumped at Skydive Chicago, I wandered around and went in a hanger and discovered that the people packing the chutes were kids aged about 12 – 16 working fast because they were getting paid per chute! But they were children of jumpers or instructors so I trusted they knew what they were doing.

Would you go bungee jumping?

No, I trust a chute more than an elastic band – especially down here!

Do you have any regrets about coming here?

None, although there are a couple of business things I would’ve done differently. I love everyone here and truly feel at home. All of us living here have three major things in common:

We live here because this is where we want to be – not because of living with your parents or where your company transfers you, etc. We’ve all got more patience than most – you just have to have it here. And we’ve all got a great sense of humor – that’s another essential requirement.

What else would you like to share with us?

I am amazed at the amount of trust people have. People accept my professional and business knowledge, and then I can prove everything I say that I do. They trust me with money in my bank and give me their house keys. I treat it with humility and dignity, and would never take advantage of that situation. I couldn’t make it here if people weren’t like that. I have a tremendous amount of gratitude and I give God all the glory for everything.

And God is a big part of my life. Folks don’t realize because I drink beer and smoke and cuss like a sailor, but I pray every morning. I am not a member of a church. If I was involved in a church then all of my efforts would be going into that church in my spare time, so I think God is better served by me helping people in the way I do. I was involved with a church for many years and taught teenage boys Sunday school, but haven’t felt called to a church here. For me personally in my relationship with God, I’m good. I’m ready to go. If He pulls the plug tomorrow I’ll die a happy man.

Well we certainly hope you will be with us longer than that! Thank you for being part of our community!