After 15 years in the public sector tourism industry, Pilar Bush stepped away from government in 2008 to form AtWater Consulting Ltd. with her good friend Kathy Jackson. Four years and several controversial clients later, AtWater is thriving.
The Journal’s Alan Markoff spoke with Bush over lunch at Casanova’s Restaurant and discussed, among other things, her company, the state of Cayman Islands tourism and how she was one Y chromosome away from being called Pele.
Many people would probably be surprised to learn that when Pilar Bush was about 10 years old, she didn’t speak English very well. When she was four, she and her family left the Cayman Islands when her father took a job in Brazil working for an American oil company. They didn’t return to Cayman until she was 10.
For the last three years of her stay in Brazil, in the city of Aracaju, Bush spoke mostly Portuguese.
“I only talked English to my parents,” she said. “By the time I came back [to school in Grand Cayman], I was actually put back a year to get caught up on my English.”
Bush did indeed catch up on her English and eventually skipped a grade to get back on track with the children her own age.
“Much to my father’s dismay,” she said with a laugh, “I learned English, and I learned it very well.”
It’s hard to say what might have dismayed her father – even jokingly – most about her great command of the English language: The fact that she admittedly talks a lot, or her propensity to be brutally honest and say the things that need to be said, even when there aren’t welcome ears to hear them.
Bush said her father Floyd had really hoped for a son when her mother Amanda had become pregnant with her, the first child of their marriage.
“Had I been a boy, my name would have been Pele,” she said, noting that her father was a big fan of the Brazilian football star. “I don’t know if Pele Bush would have worked, but he got a girl, so he was looking for the name that was closest to Pele, which was Pilar.”
Bush said her father was also a big fan of American film star John Wayne, who at the time was married to a Peruvian woman called Pilar. In addition, her father was also an avid sports fisherman and Ernest Hemingway had a boat in Cuba that he fished from called Pilar.
“So I ended up with a name… inspired by football,” she said.
It is appropriate that we met for lunch at Casanova’s Restaurant By the Sea on George Town Harbour.
Casanova’s was heavily damaged by Hurricane Ivan in September 2004 at a time when Bush was planning her exit from the Department of Tourism. But just as Casanova’s had to put its operations on hold for an extended period of time after the hurricane to undertake massive renovations, Bush had to put her plans for a New York-based version of AtWater Consulting on hold to lead the Cayman Islands tourism product – as the director of Tourism – through massive renovations. Both Casanova’s and Bush arrived at their post-hurricane destinations better than ever; Cayman’s tourism product, on the other hand, has been largely stuck in neutral gear since 2008.
The restaurant is a confluence of tourists and residents, and although the country has seemingly never found the right balance for that equation on a national tourism level, it works in Casanova’s.
Just outside the window, anchored only a few hundred yards away, were two Carnival Cruise ships. During her time with the Department of Tourism, the value of cruise tourism was often debated. And although it was ultimately decided that a good balance of cruise and stayover tourism was ideal and that Cayman needed a cruise ship berthing facility, nearly a decade has gone by without that project having even begun.
“I think, and I won’t be popular for saying this, but I think that we have failed to truly exercise leadership in tourism as a country,” she said. “We try to satisfy too many stakeholders; we try to satisfy too many customer needs. We need to stand for something.”
Bush believes cruise tourism has a place in Cayman.
“Even if we were to stand for the affluent, discerning visitor who’s looking for a destination with… distinction and obviously sun, sand and sea, that doesn’t preclude cruise ship tourism at all,” she said, pointing to the ship Carnival Freedom in the Harbour. “Those top three decks and all those exterior cabins, even in July, cost upwards from $5,000 to $7,000 for seven nights. So they’re affluent, discerning visitors who are looking for a quality experiences with the sun, sand and sea, on that ship.”
Bush said the problem isn’t that cruise tourism negatively impacts stayover tourism, but that Cayman has failed to properly manage tourism as a whole.
“What we have not done is designed, engineered and built our land-based product to handle them,” she said. “They’re not mutually exclusive, but because we’ve failed to plan, because we’re lazy… we live in the shallows.”
Bush said Cayman needs a cruise berthing dock, but the right one with the right economic model. Those who say Cayman doesn’t need cruise tourism, don’t appreciate all the ramifications of losing it.
“Let’s take it to the extreme,” she said. “Suppose we decided we didn’t want cruise tourism. It would take us three to five years to reallocate the physical assets, the business entities, and the human resources that are employed to serve just cruise tourism… to something else. And it would be the private sector’s and the government’s responsibility to figure out what is that something else.”
Food and drink
Although she was once fluent in Portuguese, Bush said she’s forgotten most of the language now. But she hasn’t forgotten some of the other things she acquired during her formative years in Brazil – like her love of certain food and drink.
“Bread and coffee – you don’t separate me from those two things,” she said, adding that in Brazil, it was permissible for children to drink coffee.
“I think I started drinking coffee at [age] 7 or 8 and I haven’t given it up and I have no intentions of giving it up,” she said, adding that she’ll drink coffee any time of the day and that her day doesn’t start without it.
“I also associate coffee with starting things,” she said. “So if I’m going to sit down to a task, I’ll have a cup of coffee.”
For lunch at Casanova’s, Bush would have both bread and coffee as the bookends for lunch.
In between there was carpaccio condito, thinly shaved slices of raw beef tenderloin served with mushrooms, olive oil and a lemon dressing. The tangy olive oil and lemon dressing makes this dish refreshingly different than the typical beef carpaccio.
For the main courses, Bush chose risotto with mushrooms and shrimp while I opted for fettuccine alla Greca, a delicious Italy-meets-Greece pasta dish that has a sauce made from fresh tomatoes, olives, capers and chunks of feta cheese. I ate the whole dish; Bush only about half.
“No, it was very good,” she told the waiter who, upon seeing the half-eaten meal, asked if she had not liked the dish. “I was just too busy talking.”
In addition to living in Brazil as a child, Bush also spent time in Canada as a young adult while attending the University of Waterloo in Ontario.
At Waterloo, Bush obtained a degree in economics, which she said she wanted to use to help formulate economic policies for developing countries. She had a scholarship through the Bank of America and thought at one time she’d work in Cayman’s financial industry. But her internship work at the bank changed her mind.
“Every summer and every Christmas I would dutifully work in the client account department,” she said. “It didn’t take three summers for me to realise banking wasn’t for me.”
Bush applied and had her scholarship transferred to government for her last year of university. After graduation, she had an obligation to work for government for a certain period of time and ended up working in the Ministry of Tourism under the leadership of Truman Bodden.
She soon learned how important tourism could be to developing countries.
“What keeps me attracted to tourism is how much you can get done in terms of social policy, economic policy through tourism,” she said. “For a small island like us with limited natural resources, tourism is powerful. It’s woefully under-performing in the Cayman Islands and we settle for far too little in terms of depth of economic impact, but there are countries that transform their entire make-up of society in a good way through tourism.”
Bush said she found it interesting that Turks & Caicos was outperforming Cayman in terms of tourism, despite the reputation issues it has faced in recent years.
“Their tapestry is not as well developed as ours; they don’t have the culinary offering; they don’t have the arts and culture; they don’t have the shopping that we have; and yet they can do it.”
Bush said tourism is tough business “if you want to play in the shallows” and that too often, the discussion on tourism in Cayman is focused on a superficial level that only includes things like accommodation revenues and arrival numbers.
“Get down to the heart of what matters for the visitor,” she said. “The visitor is the driver.”
Living abroad was essential to her development, Bush said.
“It forces you to look at the world through different perspectives in a way you can get intellectually.”
She said living in Canada when she was a young adult “when you’re trying to figure out who you are and what you stand for” was particularly enlightening.
“What I loved about Canada is… [the country] respects your right to be who you are,” she said. “You don’t have to become Canadian. If you listen to Canadians describe their different ethnic groups, it’s Chinese Canadians, Greek Canadians, Caribbean Canadians… They respect ethnicity of origin and then ask you to share values of Canada. I went to America and America is a bit different. You are going to be an American first and then your diversity is a second layer. So I think as a young adult, going to Canada was important.”
Although the weather in Canada was a stark contrast to Cayman’s temperate subtropical climate, Bush said it was fantastic.
“Four seasons means you have legitimate reasons to go shopping,” she said with a laugh.
Her stay in Canada also helped instil an environmental sensibility that she didn’t have before, Bush said.
“People who don’t know me probably would laugh and scoff at that, thinking that I represent so many developers around the Caribbean,” she said. “But I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. Development and environmental responsibility can coexist. Environmental conservation and development might not coexist, but responsible management of the environment and development can absolutely coexist.”
Bush said the University of Waterloo was one of the leading institutions in North America for environmental study.
“You couldn’t be at the school and leave without a sense of respect, responsibility and appreciation of managing the environment well,” she said. “But it’s about managing it and respecting it as opposed to being a slave to it.”
After returning to Cayman after graduating from university, Bush fulfilled her scholarship obligation of working for government. However, the day her obligation ended, she quit.
“I really wanted to leave… government and anything close to it,” she said. “I wanted to go back to financial services. I just figured financial services was a narrower scope, but at least it was results oriented. In my first three years with government I got very frustrated. You’re young and you’re idealistic and you want to change the world and I got very, very frustrated.”
But an Irishman name Ray Wilson, an ex-Aer Lingus CEO who was heading up Cayman Airways at the time, pulled her in a different direction.
“He basically sat me down and said ‘But you’ll never make a difference in financial services’. Whether that was right or wrong, I bought into that; I was seduced by making a difference,” Bush said. “He persuaded me to go to Cayman Airways as manager of strategic planning. But I would say my four and a half years at Cayman Airways taught me exactly how not to do strategic planning.”
But there were several good things that came out of the experience, including her obtaining a Master’s Degree in aviation in Montreal,
“I learned both the commercial side and the regulation side [of aviation],” she said, adding that she also learned about airport management.
“[What I learned] helped me in my time at Cayman Airways and I still drew on it all my time in tourism, managing relationships with Delta, American, [British Airways],” she said. “And now back in this role of chairing Cayman Airways, I continue to draw on it. In her four years at Cayman Airways, Bush worked for four different CEOs. One in particular made a big impact on her management style.
“I had a great CEO who was a turn-around specialist from Air Canada – Mark Winders – and he appointed me, when I was 27 or 28, to be VP [of Marketing],” she said.
Winders’ assessment of her marketing performance was the bottom line – revenue.
“What did you deliver?” Bush said was focus and nothing else. “You don’t get lost in the creative; you don’t get lost in the promotion; you really focus on ‘does this drive demand?’; ‘does it generate a transaction?’.”
Bush said Winders taught her about managing people.
“He said when you tolerate a non-performer under you and you can’t coach or correct them, you need to move them, otherwise the right next step is for me to move you,” she said. “And he did that once. He basically said: ‘That person’s a problem; you and I know that person’s a problem. Coach, correct or terminate them because if you don’t, I will terminate you.’ And that instilled a level of accountability for people that has not made me popular over the years.”
Bush said she demands a lot out of her employees.
“When I hire people today, I tell them, I’m really, really hard to work with – everything you’ve heard is true, probably worse,” she said. “But when you do two years with me I hope you’re going to have your choice of jobs, not because you’re Caymanian, but because you’re the best at what you do.”
Bush said she tells people that if they’re taking the job just to say they work at AtWater, she doesn’t want them; she wants people to come to work at AtWater.
“I think that’s part of the Caymanian heritage that we’ve lost,” she said. “Our forefathers must roll over in their grave at the laziness and entitlement with which we act today.”
Department of Tourism
After she left Cayman Airways, Bush started working at the Department of Tourism in February 2001. She ended up spending seven and a half years with the Department, although not in way she originally envisioned.
“I was hired to head up Cayman Islands marketing in the United States and at the time, it was based in Miami,” she said.
However, within months of her hiring, the decision was made to move the marketing office to New York.
“The centre of marketing in the United States is New York,” she said. “All the media houses are there, the travel agency conglomerates are there, branding is there, partnerships are there… so we made the decision to move.”
A senior management shake-up in the Department saw the departure of then-Director of Tourism Angela Martins and Bush was appointed acting director by then-Governor Peter Smith. After almost a year, Lania Rittenhouse was hired as the permanent tourism director and after that, Bush headed to New York to do the job she was originally hired to do.
It was while she was in New York that Bush had the idea to start AtWater, but to do it from there. She gave her notice to end her employment in April 2003. Just prior to that; however, Rittenhouse had resigned and Bush was persuaded to stay on while the government recruited a new director. When the hiring process was close to completion, Hurricane Ivan hit Grand Cayman and the short-listed candidates for director backed away from taking a job that was completely different in nature from what they applied for.
“So in November of that year I agreed to be director of tourism for the purposes of rebuilding,” Bush said. “In my mind at that time was ‘this was not the time to be selfish – you have enough time to go pursue your dreams; go help rebuild’.
Bush accepted the position and it was confirmed in January 2005.
“I had a three-year plan and I stayed an extra six months,” she said.
Five months after she was hired, a new government was in place and her boss changed from McKeeva Bush to Charles Clifford, with whom she had some differences.
“I resolved within myself that he and I both wanted the same things, which was to help Cayman get over Ivan… and so I would work with him,” she said. “I gave him my word a week after he got elected that he never had to worry that I would work against him and I never did.”
Her decision to resign as tourism director in July 2008 had nothing to do with any difficulties with Clifford, Bush said, adding that one of the reasons she left was simply because she thought she had done her part in getting Cayman’s tourism product back on track after Ivan.
“Second, my personal circumstances had changed. I had a child,” she said, adding that after taking 10 weeks off for maternity leave, she had travelled or done town hall meetings for 22 of the next 42 weeks leading up to her son’s first birthday.
“As a single parent… when I was gone, there was no parent at home, and that was not what I wanted.”
Bush said she loved the work and that being a director of tourism is an incredibly good job.
“So it was more that I was satisfied with my contribution and I didn’t want my son to grow up without me.”
Immediately after leaving the Department of Tourism, Bush formed AtWater Consulting Ltd. with her friend Kathy Jackson, who she’d worked with at the DoT as well as at Cayman Airways. AtWater began business on 7 July, 2008, four years ago last month, with both Bush and Jackson working out of the guest bedrooms in their respective homes.
“We started it with a very simple premise: We wanted to add real value to clients; we wanted to be part of transformative change and we wanted to have time for our families,” she said. “We lost the plot on time for our family along the way.”
Nine months after launching, they needed to hire more staff and they rented offices on Shedden Road.
“Our little guest bedrooms didn’t work for staff,” laughed Bush.
The global financial crisis really started with the collapse of Lehman Brothers just two months after AtWater opened. Rather than hindering business for AtWater, it drove business the company’s way.
“When Lehman fell, 11 out of 32 resort development projects in the Caribbean… were financed by Lehman. A third of the Caribbean’s resort development projects lost their financing.”
In the changed economic landscape, developers needed professional help in marketing their projects.
“That’s how we got called in,” Bush said.
By July 2010, two years after starting, AtWater needed to expand again and moved to the Marquee Place on West Bay Road, its current home.
Although the company has enjoyed success, Bush and Jackson have maintained core company values.
“One thing Kathy and I are completely symbiotic on, and… the young people and the talented people we attract at AtWater, we all… agree that we want to give back.”
The company has done pro bono work with many nonprofit organisations, including the Cayman Islands Amateur Swimming Association, Big Brother, Big Sister and The Cayman Islands Little League Association. Last year, the company also helped kick off the first Cayman Thanksgiving.
The amount of pro bono work the company was doing reached a point where Bush and Jackson agreed to consult each other before agreeing to take on more.
“Right now we’re helping to launch a literacy foundation. I’m not allowed to take on the next pro bono project without consulting with Kathy, but on the day that Woody Foster called me, and… said, ‘Pilar, we think we need your help. We have all these ideas but we just need to crystallise them, get an action plan and get it going’. I said, ‘Woody, I’m not supposed to say yes, but if it involves literacy and books, I know Kathy will give me a pass’. So we’re really excited… they’re about to kick off in September.”
Bush said that being able to give back to the community in a way they think can bring transformative change is one of the reasons she and Jackson wanted to own their company. But at least once, with the Waste Initiatives & Sustainable Environments group, that decision has brought serious grief to Bush personally.
“What I learned through the WISE experience, which was pro bono, was that at the end of the day, greed is a very powerful thing and that if you’re not wired to think about commercial return, you can get blind-sided by something that, to use a Caribbean expression, knocks you for six,” she said. “The reason WISE disappeared quickly was because I had put my heart and soul into it for what I thought was the right reasons and people who were bidding on the project or had a commercial interest in the project felt that WISE was having too strong an effect and at the time I got two separate death threats.”
Bush said she didn’t talk about it at the time because she didn’t want to hinder Cayman activism, which was just starting to take shape.
“It was easier for me to stop than to make people be afraid to speak,” she said.
Despite what occurred when she was involved with WISE, Bush remains an advocate for a solution to its solid waste problem. One of AtWater’s clients – the Dart Group – is now in an effort to close and cap the George Town Landfill and to create a new solid waste management facility in Bodden Town. But Bush said she was advocating for a solution for the George Town Landfill problem more than a year before the Dart Group got involved.
“When I decided to get involved in the whole waste discussion, it wasn’t at all about Dart and I may never convince people it wasn’t about Dart,” she said. “It was because I had just left being the chairman of the technical committee for sustainable development. Small island states in the Caribbean who have tourism are all grappling with landfill issues. So they get new airlift and they build more hotels… but they don’t figure out what they’re going to do with their waste. So that’s why it connected to me.”
Despite the controversy and protests, Bush said she has confidence that the right outcome will prevail with the landfill issue because it’s the right thing to do, even if it doesn’t generate millions of dollars for government or someone in the private sector.
“That’s part of the point of government; to do the right thing when there is no commercial return and dealing with solid waste is the right thing to do,” she said. “For a variety of reasons… put Dart aside – leadership of this country owes it to this and future generations to do a better job of managing waste. And if a group of land owners or political activists in Bodden Town think it’s a cheap shot at Mark Scotland, then they’re really missing the bigger picture. It doesn’t matter; Mark Scotland doesn’t matter; Dwayne Seymour doesn’t matter; it’s what do we do with our waste.”
Bush also thinks the government should support recycling.
“Recycling is not hard,” she said. “Is there a transition period? Is there a teething period? Yes, there is.”
Recycling can be instituted in a number of ways, but any of them will take the will of the government.
“One of the most disappointing things about successive governments is the lack of focus, the lack of grit and lack of follow through,” she said. “You’ve got to know what you stand for, you’ve got to have focus to go after it, you’ve got to have the grit to press on and then to finish it.”
Bush said the country simply doesn’t want to focus on the problem. “We don’t want it,” she said. “We have gotten addicted… to the discussion. We’re addicted to the chat and to scoring points in the debate. We need to care about results.”
As a single mother, Bush has to juggle a lot of different things. Needless to say, her son Nathan spends a lot of time in business situations.
“His language is things like, ‘Mom, I really don’t like that plan. What’s the alternative?’ – at 4 and a half,” she said. “He’s been to one too many meetings.”
Nathan has also caused her one of those embarrassing single-working-mom moments.
“We were trying to kick off the [ForCayman Investment Alliance], so we did a whole series of small focus groups in the Dart conference room,” she said, adding that one particular meeting was running late and the nanny needed to go home, so she dropped Nathan off at the meeting.
“I’m supposed to be this polished professional and I’m presenting to 20 people, and my son comes in and he sits right next to me,” she said. “I’m talking about the Dart Group of companies and Camana Bay and how open and accessible it is and I said something like, if you look around, the whole ethos of Camana Bay is it’s open and accessible; there are no gates in Camana Bay making it a gated community.”
Nathan, however, corrected her.
“In front of 20 people, my then four-year-old son taps me and goes ‘yes there is mom.’ I’m like, no, no sweetheart, there are no gates.’ He goes, ‘Yes, there is mom’. I’m like, ‘It’s 9 o’clock, why are you not asleep. Oh right, you’re with me. OK sweetie’.”
But Nathan was persistent.
“He says ‘Mom, there is a green gate’. And sure enough, if you park by Mailboxes Etc. or in that parking lot and you walk towards Ortanique, there is a gate that closes off the Terraces. I’m at Camana Bay almost every day for the past two years; that gate had become oblivious to me, but a four-year-old not only registered the gate, but would not let me tell an… inexactitude to people. So… I’ve done a much better job of arranging child care these days!”
Bush is an avid reader who is in turn very proud of her son’s reading ability. When she was pregnant during her time at the Department of Tourism, Bush told her team she didn’t want any gifts of toys at her baby shower, but instead wanted to establish a library for her child.
“So every gift I got for my shower was a book,” she said. “So he was born with a library and he just finished kindergarten at Cayman Prep and he is one of the two top readers in his class, reading a full year ahead, so yes, I’m very happy.”