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The legendary Linton Tibbetts - Part One

Published on Sunday, September 6, 2009 Email To Friend    Print Version

Linton Tibbetts with photographs of him at Buckingham Palace, receiving his OBE from Queen Elizabeth, in 2003. He humbly says: “It was an experience that you don’t want to miss.” (Photo by Katie O’Neill.)

By Steven Knipp

There are so many amazing facts about the astonishing life of business legend Linton Nathaniel Tibbetts, that one barely knows where to begin. Younger Caymanians will immediately associate his name with Cox Lumber, the tiny three-man outfit in Florida which he bought in 1949 for $1,500 and then transformed into a mega-family business that employs more than 1,600 people and boasts annual sales in the hundreds of millions.

But Mr Tibbetts’ empire quickly extended far beyond that one business spreading from Florida and the Sister Islands to Grand Cayman; over the years he has started two banks; today he sits on the board of the Sun Trust, a federal bank, a position he’s held for more than 40 years. He started an airline, a resort, built shopping malls, and owned vast real estate holdings, both here in Cayman and in Florida. He also owned a successful shipping business from 1972 until 2007. He’s even been a rancher, owning a sprawling ranch in Florida with 350 head of cattle.

He has travelled far and wide, from Europe [where Queen Elizabeth awarded him the OBE for his services to Cayman] to the Greek Islands, and Tahiti in the South Pacific and Australia. But he says that Little Cayman is “still my favourite place in all the world.” He maintains a home in St. Petersburg, Florida where he looks after his extensive holdings there. Despite his vast wealth, he still prefers to spend as much time as possible in Little Cayman, in the lovely sun-dappled oceanside home which he himself built there 39 years ago, and where he and Polly, his wife of 61 years, dote on their grandchildren.

This Net News reporter had the genuine pleasure of spending a day with Mr. Tibbetts on Little Cayman, as he and his staff were putting the final touches on his latest gift to his beloved Sister Islands - The Little Cayman Museum, which had its grand opening on Saturday 27 June.

Asked what accounts for his astonishing business success, Mr Tibbetts ponders the question for a second and quietly says: “Mainly, it is hard work. Hard work and foresight.” In fact his remarkable ability to somehow guess what developments might occur that could affect business is well known; several years ago, he was given a large crystal ball, as a thank you gift from Sun Trust Bank for his keen insights.

Mr Tibbetts’ enduring work ethnic no doubt came from his father, an extraordinary man from the Brac, whose family hailed from Nova Scotia; he was an acclaimed sailing-ship builder who personally built 10 large sailing ships, all by hand without the use of a single power tool, each taking two years to complete.

Aside from his unique foresight in business matters, Mr Tibbetts say his love of land has also served him well in business. “I’m a ‘land- aholic,’” he says with a wry smile.

“Just as an alcoholic finds it very difficult to pass up a drink, I find it hard to pass up a good piece of land.”

The trick to making money out of land, however, says Mr Tibbetts, is to always do your research about a property that you are interested in, “and then go with your gut feeling.”

Once Mr Tibbetts finds a location which has potential, he often buys large swaths.

“Say, you need four or five acres of land for a lumber yard, I will often buy 40 or 50 acres, purchasing land on both sides of the plot that I like – this is for future expansion.”

Asked if he ever worries about making a mistake, he says “No, because if I took time to worry about things, I wouldn’t have time to plan.”

While Mr Tibbetts admits that his phenomenally keen foresight is probably the single most important trait which accounts for his legendary achievements, he says that the people whom he has hired have always played an important part also.

“You’re only as good as the people around you,” he says. “You often need to delegate. But just make certain that the people you delegate to are competent.

“Treat staff like your family, take care of them the best that you can, and they will stand by you. Whenever some of our staff come to me for help, and I can help them, I do.” He is proud of the fact that many of his staff have worked for the family business for 20, 30 and even 40 years.

And while he is an admitted land-aholic, Mr Tibbetts is no workaholic as is common with many tycoons; “I’m always in the office early, usually before anyone else. But I’m out by 5:30pm, because evening and night are family time. Once I’m at home I never talk business.

Also, unlike many famous property moguls, Mr Tibbetts never feels the need to impress with his wealth. He dresses like any ordinary Caymanian, with no fancy watches or footwear, or cars. The pick-up which he drives on Little Cayman even has roll-down windows. “I once bought an old Continental with power windows. But soon after I brought it over, I started having problems with the windows; so it’s just a matter of what works and what doesn’t.” He’s been known to pick up a nail. “Every nail I find is worth $15,” he says, “that’s the cost of repairing a tire.”

Asked what accounts for the toughness of those born on the Brac or on Little Cayman, he says. “What choice did we have?

We had to start working hard when we were young, in order to survive.”

Part two of this special busienss monday report on Linton Tibbetts will appear next week

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