The trail that leads from the Ivy League through law school to white-shoe firm Sullivan & Cromwell rarely ends at a remote Brazilian beach. Yet it did for Hans Keeling after just three years of working on mergers and acquisitions for the New York City law firm. A 2004 trip to Brazil convinced Keeling he would rather advise clients on their vacations than on their capital markets transactions.
Weeks after the trip, Keeling, now 34, moved to Brazil. "He came back having had an epiphany that this wasn't what he wanted to do with his life," says Chris Kerezsi, a former Sullivan & Cromwell colleague who worked on a deal with Keeling until midnight right before he left for Rio. "People were shocked."
Keeling hoped to enjoy a laid-back Brazilian lifestyle and still work as a lawyer. So he joined the Rio law office of Pinheiro Neto Advogados. "Brazil didn't have the high-powered careers," he says. "Everyone was living in the moment." When Keeling's parents visited, though, work left him little time to be with them. Weighing his options, Keeling remembered a trip he'd taken to the Brazilian island of Florianopolis, with its 42 pristine beaches, Europhile culture, and vibrant nightlife. The relatively remote location struck him as an excellent destination to open a business. That fall he relocated there and launched a travel and adventure company, Nexus Surf.
The business plan called for arranging trips, including lodging, nightlife guides, and sports instruction such as surfing lessons. Running a small business was a struggle at first. "Being at a huge law firm is like steering the Titanic," he says. "You don't want to sink it. When you're an entrepreneur, it's like driving a motorboat; you have to be more agile and dynamic."
While Keeling lost money on his first clients, he soon partnered with sports outfitters and began to turn a profit. In 2006 his company began investing in vacation home rentals. He is currently planning an oceanfront hotel on a 65-acre plot that he owns. "The scariest part was leaving the track," he says, "and thinking that doors close when the corporate ladder goes away." Instead, former colleagues are visiting—and, Keeling says, finding it painful to leave.
From Endless Meetings to the Endless Summer
Hours per week at Sullivan & Cromwell: 80
Hours per week at Nexus Surf: 40
Startup costs: $50,000
Months it took to launch Nexus Surf: 4
Average number of clients per year: 300
Number of world-class surf breaks in Florianopolis: 12
Favorite local surf spot: Praia Mole Beach
Average cost for a weeklong stay in Florianopolis: $3,000
Average price for a 4-bedroom beach house on the island: $750,000
Number of tourists who visit each year: 1 million-plus
Cost of building a 75-suite oceanfront boutique hotel in Florianopolis: Approximately $20 million
Data: Nexus Surf