Attorney Joel Nagel is the managing partner and founder of Nagel & Associates, LLC, as well as the chairman of Caye International Bank, LTD., and the co-founder of ECI Development, LTD., in addition to a number of other enterprises.
Nagel & Associates is a law firm specializing in international corporate strategy and legal structures for high-profile clients with a niche in asset protection and overseas commercial transactions. Caye International Bank, LTD., located in Belize, offers a full range of traditional and non-traditional banking services and accounts in multiple currencies. It was named by Global Finance Magazine as one of the World’s Best Private Banks in both 2018 and 2019. ECI Development, Ltd., is known for developing expat and retirement residences across Latin America for more than two decades with properties in Belize, Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, and Argentina. It is also currently working on building a Marriot Hotel on the island of Ambergris Caye in Belize.
Joel is also the co-founder of Gran Pacifica and Grand Baymen, which are beautiful beach resorts located in Nicaragua and Belize, respectively. Each of the resorts caters to an expat lifestyle and helps retirees from the United States make the most of their retirement. Joel has written articles about overseas investments for several publications, has served as a keynote speaker at the Central American International Investment Symposium as well as at numerous “Live & Invest Overseas” conferences, and has been featured in Forbes Magazine and in U.S. News & World Report.
Joel double-majored in Political Science and German at Allegheny College (BA) and then received a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Rheinische-Friedrich Wilhelms University in Germany and at The Hague Academy of International Law in the Netherlands. He completed a J.D. at West Virginia University College of Law and received his LL.M. from The Georgetown University Law Center. He lives in Sewickley, Pennsylvania with his wife, Dr. Susan E. Nagel, and their seven children.
Where did the idea for your company come from?
I had worked for various organizations—the European Union, the US Department of Commerce, a big law firm—and I saw that there was a niche opportunity. There were small and medium-sized companies that needed services on a more global basis. They were trying to do activities such as import and export and global operations, but they were really priced out of the market by the large law firms offering those services. So that was really what gave me the idea to start Nagel and Associates originally back in 1992.
Once the law firm was in place, I found that a lot of the entrepreneurs that I was working with wanted more of a relationship than just the classic lawyer-client one where you pay the lawyer a couple of dollars for their time. They wanted ongoing involvement because they were going into a new space where they weren’t comfortable. They frequently wanted me to be part of the plan, part of the team working with them. So, I was invited back to serve on numerous corporate boards of directors. I think at the peak I was on maybe 24 company boards. In doing so, I got the opportunity to work with some really great entrepreneurs in all different types of business, which probably in turn fanned the flames of my own entrepreneurial spirit.
Along the way, I became greatly involved in Belize, which was a brand-new country when I first went there. It was only 10 years old and it needed everything. When you bring a developing country that needs everything together with entrepreneurs, that can be a good fit and it indeed was a good mix. So, I got involved in every aspect of Belize’s culture and society—from banking to insurance, hospitality, real estate development, and media. I mean, I really just got involved in everything one way or another, either as a lawyer or as an entrepreneur, but the law firm was really what gave me the platform to do that. So without Nagel and Associates, I don’t think anything else would have ever really happened.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I move around the world a lot. Generally, I try to give priority to where I am and what I’m doing, but you have to keep in mind the time elements and time requirements of businesses all over the world. That means sometimes if you have to get up at 3 AM in one time zone to deal with a problem in another, you do it. I have a great secretary who keeps me very, very organized and keeps my schedule for me. Sometimes, she doesn’t even give me time to go to the bathroom during the day, but we try to work as efficiently as we can. If a day is allocated for a certain purpose, then I try not to let anything else distract me. Anything else has to wait till tomorrow.
Right now, I happen to be at the airport and am traveling to the US in principle but will actually be stopping in Argentina for about five days. During that five-day window, I’ll really just be focused on my work there. We’re acquiring a vineyard project down there so in a way it’s good because I won’t really have access to any good telecommunications or internet, but even if I did, I would for the most part block other things out so that I could just focus on the task at hand. By doing that, I finish a task, cross it out, and move on to the next task. To me, that’s the way to efficiently move through my work on a daily basis.
How do you bring ideas to life?
That’s a challenge because a lot of people have great ideas and there is often a huge disconnect between having an idea and bringing it to life or breathing life into something. First of all, I’m not afraid to fail so I’ll try different things and I know where to cut my losses if I need to, but by just being willing to jump in and try things, I ended up in a lot of different areas that I never thought I would 30 years ago. So, just being willing to try things is important.
Something that is probably even more important is to put together the best team possible around you to help you with the task at hand, whether it’s a lawyer, an accountant, a CPA, an entrepreneur, or a good secretary. Whatever it is, you have to make sure to staff your project with the right team because if you don’t, it’ll just stay an idea. It’s never going to go anywhere. To me, I think that’s been a key to a lot of my success—bringing the right team together to accomplish the task. If you can’t put the team together, you’re just wasting your time and you should probably move on to something else.
For me, there are two elements to any project—the financial capital and the human capital. In the region where I work, in Latin America, human capital is a bigger challenge than financial capital. People will come up with a great idea and have the money, but they may struggle to put together the right team to make it happen.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I would say the trend that you cannot deny right now is the whole crypto/blockchain trend. It’s invading every aspect of life, such as financial transactions. There are people who would say that it’s just a fad and that it’s going to die and go away, but I know when I talk to younger people—my children, for example, since I have a big family—they’re very comfortable with the notion of doing financial transactions through blockchain and through crypto. I think that it’s a trend you can’t deny, whether you’re excited about it or not. So, you should prepare and position yourself to take advantage of it.
I would say some of the most interesting entrepreneurs that I’m working with right now are active in the crypto/blockchain space, working in various parts of artificial intelligence, payment solutions, even introducing blockchain technology to real estate transactions. So, that would be an area where I would say I’m probably most excited at the moment.
I’m also very active in Belize. The tourism market and the retirement market are really booming there because of its proximity to the US and the fact that it’s English-speaking. A major trend there is alternative types of tourism, like medical tourism and the age-in-place industry for people who want to go places and stay there for longer periods of time. If they need nursing-home care and doctors or nurses, they can access it there easier, cheaper, and faster than they can in the US.
So, ECI Development has been on the forefront of that trend in Latin American markets, building an age-in-place community in Nicaragua where you can be a 50-something, very active person and then all the way through your 60s, 70s, and 80s when you may need more help or assistance. You can get what you need for very low costs—less than 10 cents on the dollar for what you’d pay for similar care in the United States. I’ve also been working over the last year on building the Marriot Hotel in Belize, which will be the first big-box, internationally-branded hotel on Ambergris Caye, Belize’s main tourist island. I’m very fortunate to be front and center working on that project and that’ll be open in time for Christmas, 2020.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I am a firm believer in early-to-bed, early-to-rise. I’m frequently up at like four or five in the morning, and if I run out of steam at 10 or 11 at night, that’s no big deal because nothing really important happens at that time of the day. I like to get myself organized early in the morning, outline my priorities for the day, and make sure that if I only get one thing done, it should be the number one priority that I have for the day. By the time other people come to work at 7:30-8:00, I usually already have my first or second-priority items done and then I’m on to something else. But then if something big comes up out of the woodwork—a big curveball where I have to drop everything and go do something else—then the less important things can wait until tomorrow or the next week or the next month, but at least then I’ve already dealt with the most important thing that day. That’s a philosophy that I’ve lived by for 30 years and that’s worked out really well for me.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I’m a person that likes to be the best I can at all times so that I don’t have regrets. If I were going to tell my younger self something, it would probably be in regard to diet and exercise. I had a pretty nasty bout with cancer last year. My 20-something self probably would have been happy to have some advice about eating better—less chemicals, less meat, and exercising more. Then maybe I wouldn’t have had to go through what I did, but that’s Monday-morning quarterbacking, as we say. I wouldn’t necessarily have even shied away from any mistakes I made in business because all of those experiences are really what built me into what I am today. You have to take the good with the bad. I would have done things to prevent the cancer if I could have, though.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
I think that there’s a lot of misinformation and disinformation disseminated by the large developed countries, whether it’s from the US or Europe, when it comes to the smaller international, offshore, financial centers. All of the things that they complain about with these offshore financial centers actually happen in the large financial centers, like the US. So, for example, if you say that there’s tax evasion and money laundering, whatever negative thing you want to say about Belize, I’m not going to deny their existence or whether they happen, but the entire banking system of Belize is around USD 2 billion. I mean, that’s all the money there is in all the banks. So, the problem is really miniscule and I’m sure there’s individual accounts in the US and in other places that dwarf that number.
In Belize, for example, we don’t take any cash anymore at the bank. Everything is electronic—in and out. But in the US, you can walk into a bank and set up an account with a dubious ID in ten minutes and deposit a bushel basket full of cash. You can’t do that in other places. The Netherlands, for example, just came out and said it was going to put Belize on a financial blacklist, but the Netherlands has Curaçao, which is its little tax haven in the Antilles. In other words, the country came out with a new list of 17 jurisdictions that it was targeting, but it didn’t target its own jurisdiction, which probably has more issues than all the other 17 combined.
So, if people disagree with me on something, it’s this sort-of holier-than-thou philosophy that I think they have or it’s at least what the big countries want people to believe, which is that these little countries are involved in dirty or nefarious conduct. It’s really not the case. Most of the smaller jurisdictions, including Belize where I work, have very strict rules, which have been thrust on them by the whole global community. These countries actually enforce the rules better than places like the United States or the EU. So, many people disagree with me that there’s much more abuse in the developed economies and in the developed-economy banks and financial systems than there is in the offshore world, but I’m prepared to make that statement because it’s true.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
If I’m going to give advice to other people, I would go back to the team approach. All my success has involved some level of teamwork because people have different skill sets. They have different strengths and weaknesses and no matter what business you’re in, you’re not going to be able to do it all by yourself. Even when the names of the top guys, like Bill Gates and those kinds of people, come to mind, the reality is they could not have built their businesses without having a good team.
So, look for talent and for people who are different than you. You don’t want people who just say yes, who are just going to say and do the same things you do. If you do that, weaknesses are going to manifest themselves and the business is going to fail. You really want people who are willing to say no, people willing to take opposite positions, but also people with different skill sets. I don’t mean just mean like lawyers and accountants and those types of professional skill sets. I mean personal skill sets. Some people are more cerebral, some people are more vocal. Some people just react to information in different ways.
I’ve had a lot of experience on boards. The best-run companies have extremely diverse boards. When an issue comes up and is first out on the table, there is often no consensus. But a good board will have a very, very thorough discussion. I don’t expect the board to be a rubber stamp and just go along with whatever the CEO or the president of the company wants to do. I can remember one board I was on a long time ago where there was a fellow that almost always voted no to just about everything because he felt that corporate resolutions should not be enacted unanimously. He would always try to point out the weaknesses or counterpoints. I mean, it’s not my personal philosophy to be against everything just for the sake of being against it, but you do need to have some counter perspective when running a business. And if you don’t, you’re going to get very myopic. You’re going to think your way is the only right way. That might work for a while at first, but that’s why businesses usually don’t last that long because people get full of themselves as the world around them changes. And if they can’t adapt to it, the business is going to fail. So, I guess my advice to everyone is to surround yourselves with diverse people with diverse backgrounds and diverse philosophies, but people who are smart and hardworking. If you do that, your business will probably succeed.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
The primary strategy always has to revolve around the consumer because it really doesn’t matter what you want or you think or you like. It’s always about what the customer wants. So, if you’re a lawyer, you serve your legal clients. If you’re a banker, you serve your banking clients.
The key to success is to put yourself in your customer’s shoes—the old, golden rule of trying to treat them like you would want to be treated. Your customer service should show through in a genuine way, not in a phony way, like someone just routinely saying “thank you, have a nice day.” People say that hundreds of times and don’t even know what they’re saying anymore. Real customer service is getting to understand the customer’s needs and desires and then trying to help that customer formulate a solution. In that sense, the businesses across the spectrum I’ve been involved in are all the same because if you don’t have a consumer that’s going to pay for the service or the product, then the business isn’t going to last. That’s always my strategy—to keep the focus on the customer.
I think for a lawyer, one of the best things you can give your client is access. The issues and problems facing successful, hardworking entrepreneurs don’t fit in just a little box from nine to five. They can happen anytime; they can happen at 3 AM. So, if I’m working with a client on a project, they really know that they have unfettered access to me if they need me. Now, I hope they don’t call me up at 3 AM just because they can’t sleep, but if they’re on the other side of the world and a deal is going down and they need my input or advice, they know they can call my cellphone and that I’m going to answer and help them. So, to me, that’s one of the main ways that customer service manifests itself.
The other thing is that in the legal business, the client often doesn’t even really know what it is that you’re doing because you’re working in a field and in a professional jargon that they don’t necessarily understand. So, trying to bring things to the customer’s level, providing them with explanations on an ongoing basis, and returning their calls in a timely way are external things that have less to do with one’s excellence as a lawyer and more to do with customer service. Frequently, the client will judge you based on the way you interact with them rather on the quality of your advice.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
A failure of mine as an entrepreneur would probably have been in my younger years regarding how I took care of myself from a health, fitness, and diet perspective. When you’re 20 or 30, you can eat and drink what you want and it won’t necessarily be a problem then, but it will affect you later in life. After a year of struggling with chemotherapy though, I really do feel good as new and back in the saddle. Now I take at least an hour each day to go out and do something that is not work related—usually exercise.
By doing that, I think you’re helping your own longevity. There are work challenges now, but there will always be work challenges. If you don’t take your health seriously though, you’re going to be in trouble. I have so many clients who work 18-hour days and you just see that they’re letting their health get away from them.
That would also be my advice to any entrepreneur. It’s not necessarily going to be seen as key to making a million dollars tomorrow, but it is key to staying in the game for the long term. I’ve been at it 30 years and I still feel like I’m a young guy and have a long way to go. I don’t want to have my career cut short because of personal health issues.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Latin America, depending on the country, is anywhere between 10-50 years behind the US. Imagine going back to the 1950s, 60s, and 70s—what things exist now that didn’t exist then? I had a client who came to me and asked for some ideas, saying that he wants to do something where he wouldn’t have to work too hard. So I told him we don’t have self-storage in Ambergris Caye. He said what do you mean? I said that there was no self-storage facility in Ambergris Caye. So, he built a self-storage facility and since then, he’s expanded it three times and has been very successful.
My partner Mike Cobb likes to refer to it as the Latin American time machine. You can take North America and go back in time in other jurisdictions where a lot of the same things don’t exist. On the other hand, one should be very careful about going to a new part of the world and doing something completely new with no experience in it. We have a problem of people coming here and doing something in which they have no experience. That’s a disaster. They’ll blow all their savings. Take what you know, take what you understand, apply it to a new jurisdiction.
Tourism is really booming in the Caribbean and Central America. When most people think about tourism, they think about hotels and restaurants, but tourism is so much more than that. Pick an ancillary niche, whether it’s assisted living, or assisting people who want to travel but need someone to help them, or even self-storage. Think about how people buy a condo and want to rent it out, but they don’t want their granddaughter’s pictures all over the place. So, self-storage is still a huge opportunity. Someone already took advantage of it in Ambergris Caye, but there’s room elsewhere. Maybe try to establish an Uber franchise somewhere where Uber doesn’t exist if you have the capital to put a few cars to work and hire some drivers.
There are a lot of little niche opportunities like that, but they are largely in reaction to the demographic shift. In North America, we have 10,000 baby boomers retiring every day and many people can no longer afford Florida or Southern California for retirement. So, take what there is in Florida or Southern California that services tourists or retirees besides hotels and restaurants and you have a pretty open field in which you don’t have that much competition.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
Personal relationships have really been key to my success over the years. I’m not afraid to take someone out to dinner, spend some money, and get to know them. I’m always happy to develop a new personal relationship.
I recently took a fellow out to dinner in Lisbon, Portugal named Jack Wheeler, who was an advisor to and confidant of Ronald Reagan. He puts out a newsletter called “To the Point.” He has a high-end rugged adventure company, taking people to the North Pole, Mount Everest, the jungles—places where ordinary travel agents don’t go. He has been to every country on the planet. He knows every political leader, every opposition leader, every mountain range, every lake in the world and he can talk about anything to anyone forever. We had an extremely enjoyable dinner. We agreed to do an investment conference and trip to Brazil this summer focusing on the new Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, and some of the financial reforms he’s implementing there. That dinner with Jack Wheeler was probably $100 very well spent because it will probably lead to some business and personal satisfaction in the future.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Because I travel around the world, I really appreciate VoIP. Ten years ago, I’d have a $5000 phone bill and now it’s $100. I do more work, more talking, more things online, and more downloading than ever before. It’s been a real boon to my productivity. It has allowed me not only to do business with people really anywhere around the world, but also to drive down costs and to redeploy my resources to other areas. My favorite app in this space is Telegram, which has a high degree of security built into it and makes texts and phone calls easy.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
A book I can recommend is The Prize by Daniel Yergin. It’s all about the history of the last 100-plus years of the world from the perspective of oil, with oil being “the prize.” If you read that book, I think you’ll understand about how the world really works and about why there are double and triple standards, particularly in international diplomacy as well as in business. It’s all about who has got the prize.
The book starts with World War One. It really explains WWI and WWII from a different perspective, about what was really going on. Why were Germany and Japan expanding? Well, they didn’t have the prize and they needed the prize. Why did the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor? Because they needed the prize. It’s really a foundational book that I can recommend to everyone and if you are working globally in any capacity, it will help you to better understand the world in which you are operating.
What is your favorite quote?
A line from Sun Tzu in The Art of War:
“The prevention of defeat lies in our own hands. Hence, the skillful fighter puts himself in a position that makes defeat impossible.”
I love this quote because I think it applies quite well to the concept of asset protection, which I’m really passionate about. It’s like having a good defense in football. You have to make sure you don’t lose your assets. Then, you can work with great developers and look for ways to grow your wealth, but you have to have a strategy not to lose what you already have.
• Enlist the best personal and professional team possible for the task at hand—even the most successful individuals always had a team supporting them
• Have the top priority of your day accomplished as early as possible in the day
• Take good care of your personal health even at a younger age
• Customer service and being accessible to your clients is often just as or more important than the excellence of one’s product or service
• Invest in personal relationships and interactions even if it means paying for a dinner or two