When I first visited Panama, I was ready to hike exotic tropical rainforests, visit historical sites and, of course, see the Panama Canal. I wasn’t expecting to find a U.S.-style capital city with modern architecture and first-class infrastructure. In fact, Panama largely resembles South Beach, Fla., with its shopping centers, upscale restaurants and seaside boardwalks.
Panama has a population of 3.3 million, and even though everybody speaks Spanish, English is spoken as a second language. It’s the second largest free-trade zone in the world, and the U.S. dollar is its currency. Panama is also politically stable, safe, and the most globalized economy in Latin America, according to a 2007 study in Foreign Policy magazine. No other place in Latin America offers more direct flights to the Americas and the Caribbean. No wonder it’s becoming the business capital of the region.
The self-storage industry began in Panama about 15 years ago, and it’s experiencing rapid growth, with about seven completed facilities and as many others on entitlement or under construction. These facilities are operated by local owners and were built according to Panamanian standards.
When Brazilian company Galores Mini Depósitos, which was involved with cold storage, wanted to expand its business, Panama City was the logical choice. When the company executives arrived in the country, they visited a self-storage facility, looking to rent units. To their surprise, it was full. As they “shopped” for a local storage unit, they realized all facilities were at full occupancy and operating on waitlist status. They waited for more than three months for a unit that didn’t meet their expectations.
That’s when Galores Mini Depósitos made the decision to enter the self-storage business, bringing to the Panama market a complete U.S.-style product. How did it accomplish this? For starters, its team visited several facilities in the United States to understand how storage facilities are built. It also met with several operators in Puerto Rico to see how the U.S. concept was introduced and marketed to Latin American customers. It teamed with stateside vendors and attended tradeshows to gain the knowledge it needed to develop and operate a third-generation facility.
Panamanian zoning and approval processes are similar to those in the United States. Several agencies, including an environmental organization and the fire department, must review projects and endorse them. This process could take six to eight months. The biggest hurdle was finding local engineers who would understand and approve the use of a much lighter structural steel system, and then securing trained labor. The solution was to combine Spanish-speaking experienced crews from the United States with local manpower.