At the Bitter End, Sweet Growth


By Stacy Perman English explorer Sir Francis Drake discovered the North Sound of Virgin Gorda in the 1590s and declared it was the most flawless natural harbor in the British Virgin Islands. Some 375 years later, in 1964, Chicago businessman and amateur yachtsman Myron Hokin decided that same remote stretch of white-sand beaches, fragrant hibiscus blooms, and coral reefs that locals call the Bitter End, was an ideal spot to build a retreat.

Still a family-run resort today, the Bitter End Yacht Club has become one of the world's top sailing and water-sports destinations. Lured by its secluded, rustic setting and abundance of water activities, vacationers, as well as professional sailors, and yachtsman have felt the lure of the Bitter End for the past 30 years.

"WAY OF LIFE." Over time, the number of guests during the December-to-April season has swelled to 2,000 -- many of them repeat visitors. Another 40,000 cruising yachtsman and sailors dock or drop anchor to replenish provisions or visit the club's shops, bars, or restaurants.

While the Bitter End has developed into a modern resort, the Hokins take pride in the fact that they have grown it as a business without sacrificing its original charm -- a factor they consider to be an integral part of their success.

"We grew organically," says Dana Hokin, Myron's granddaughter, who now runs the resort. "When my grandfather started this, it was a passion, and he tinkered with it. He never expected it to turn into a well-established resort business. Nobody sat in a board room and said, 'Find a Caribbean location.'" She adds, "It doesn't feel like a concept. It's a way of life."

A PIRATE HAUNT. What started, essentially, as a family hobby -- the Hokin clan's main asset remains Intermountain Industries, a Boise, Idaho, natural gas company -- is now a full-fledged business. The surge in interest from visitors to the area built up demand, and the Hokins responded by developing facilities and infrastructure that just happened to mirror their own interests.

"When we decided to turn the family vacation place into a business," says Dana Hokin, "my grandfather said, 'How much trouble can a little business be? How many people are going to come?'" However, the Hokins have had to abandon some of their carefree attitude and institute a professional management structure.

Accessible only by boat, the secluded waterfront was little more than a shorefront pub and a cluster of ramshackle cottages built by storied Caribbean yachtsman Basil Symonette when Myron Hokin first sailed into the sound. Once a pirate haunt, it's 12 miles from the island of Tortola and 75 miles from Puerto Rico.

WHAT'S FOR DINNER? Hokin purchased the Bitter End from Symonette in 1973 and maintained its rough-around-the-edges appeal. Rainwater was collected on rooftops and stored in cisterns. An old diesel generator powered the lights. Getting there required a flight into St. Thomas and then finding a sea plane. After Hokin bought the site, it remained a refuge for weary seafarers.

By the 1980s, when bareboat-charter vacations (chartering boats without an accompanying crew) gained in popularity, some 20 to 25 vessels would come ashore a week. Sometimes their engines had given out, or sailors wanted a shower, or they would buy fresh water from the Hokins.

Often the family invited the visitors to join them for dinner. "That's kind of how the place evolved," Dana Hokin says. "We literally helped out hundreds of people. That's what drove the infrastructure."

EYE FOR EXPANSION. The Bitter End evolved naturally in tune with increased demand and the Hokins' own interests. Through word of mouth, more visitors came to the area. Commercial airlines responded, offering direct flights to neighboring Tortola. Then in 1985, the family started the North Sound Express, ferrying passengers between the airport at Beef Island, the Bitter End, and Tortola. They also built a quarterdeck marina, with slips and moorings, and added restaurants and shops. "This is really like a nautical village," Hokin says.

In 1988, the Bitter End merged with a nearby property, the Tradewinds. With a resort suddenly double the size and triple the number of employees, Dana Hokin took steps to professionalize the company -- implementing its first profit-and-loss statement and establishing a traditional organizational staff chart.

In 1997, after Myron died, Dana assumed the role of managing partner. Her father, Richard, and uncle, William Hokin, serve on the resort's board. Today, the property that Myron purchased for $150,000 is worth some $30 million to $40 million, by his granddaughter's estimate.

CLEAR VISION. Dana Hokin, the principal force behind the expansion, says she has "maximized our efforts and assets without changing the original footprint." What accounts for the Bitter End's continued success, she says, is what's most important to all small businesses -- understanding who your customer is. "We've not fallen victim to trends. We do things a certain way, the only way we know how. It's easy to go after other markets. But we kept the Bitter End growing with a clarity of vision."

Up next, the Bitter End is developing the Lookout, a 68-acre residential property of villas and single-family homes. "I'm a third-generation Hokin," she says, "and we're starting to get third-generation visitors." Even Sir Francis Drake would approve. Perman is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York


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