>At age 66, Robert Gow could be enjoying a well-earned life of leisure in Houston—puttering around the links with friends at the club or spinning stories on a River Oaks patio about his exploits as a jungle-adventure guide. Retired from a series of enterprises ranging from offshore oil drilling to producing dental crowns and industrial diamonds, he could be confining his yen for risk-taking to the occasional poker game.
But Gow, who used to enjoy ratcheting up the adrenaline flow for the travelers he led into the wilds of Mexico—and who was once in business with former president George Bush and was briefly George W.’s boss—is caught up in his most ambitious venture ever. Not only could it make him a great deal of money but also it could transform a scrubby stretch of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, provide jobs in a destitute area, and even help save the rain forest. And it’s all riding on a common, fast-growing plant known for its strength and pliancy: bamboo.
Gow is betting a sizable chunk of his net worth that bamboo will become Mexico’s next green gold, the nickname once given to henequen, a kind of agave. In the Yucatán, henequen made huge fortunes for Mexican hacendados, whose huge haciendas had been converted in the nineteenth century from cattle-raising operations to henequen plantations. By the turn of the century, demand for sisal, the fiber derived from henequen that is used for making rope, twine, and rugs, had created one of the world’s highest concentrations of millionaires. But in the following decades, the market declined because of the advent of artificial fibers.
Although the demand for bamboo has yet to reach such proportions, Gow is banking on its growing use as a substitute for the hardwoods of the rain forest. He has joined the ranks of bamboo believers, who think that it will one day be used in the U.S. for everything from housing framework and floors to furniture and fencing, as it already is in Asia and some parts of Central America. With a crew of workers from a nearby Mayan village, Gow has planted hundreds of acres of the Hacienda Xixim (pronounced Shih- sheem), the old henequen plantation he owns in the Western Yucatán, with Dendrocalamus strictus, a species of solid-core bamboo native to India.
Dendrocalamus strictus is a “clumping,” or controlled-growth, bamboo, which makes it considerably more desirable than the invasive species of “running” bamboo that are common in the U.S. and can quickly wear out their welcome with unwary gardeners. Unlike trees, bamboo can be harvested continually, and the culms (stalks) will grow back bigger and stronger than ever (which is where its environmental benefits come in). However, Dendrocalamus strictus plants have a major drawback as a crop: They bloom and seed only once every sixty years or so. When Gow learned in 1994 that India’s stands of Dendrocalamus strictus had just begun to bloom, he took advantage of the brief window of opportunity to buy seeds. Because the Asian plants won’t seed again for more than half a century, Gow is well ahead of any would-be rival growers in the West. “I have another fifty-five years to make my fortune,” he jokes.
At full maturity, the bamboo culms grow to a height of sixty feet and a diameter of four inches. When I visited Xixim recently, the bamboo was almost as tall as the surrounding trees and already yielding a bumper crop of new shoots. The culms were tied with different-colored ribbons to track their growth rate, and they looked as though they were decked out for a festival. Gow expected that his workers would have to use at least 200,000 white ribbons to mark the new shoots. “During the rainy season, the shoots grow a foot a day,” he says. Given Gow’s booming voice and commanding presence, they wouldn’t dare do any less.
Gow grew up in Massachusetts and studied engineering at Yale, and he still retains the trace of a patrician Yankee accent although he has lived in Texas since 1962. That year he came south to join Zapata Offshore, the oil business then headed by George Bush. He had met Bush through Ray Walker, a cousin of Bush’s who was Gow’s roommate at Yale. In 1970, after leaving Zapata, Gow started a Houston-based diversified agribusiness company called Stratford of Texas. Before the company folded, its holdings included a large finca in Guatemala where it raised nonflowering tropical plants for export. One of Gow’s Houston employees in the early seventies was George W. Bush, whose responsibilities included sizing up plant nurseries for possible acquisition; he stayed for about a year before leaving to join a family friend’s political campaign.
Although the plant business, called Green Thumb, did well, later becoming the largest of its kind in the world, the company’s feedlot venture failed in spectacular fashion, forcing Gow to sell Stratford. (The company’s failure inspired case studies at the Harvard Business School.) It was a humiliating time for Gow, who found himself unemployed and broke in Houston in the seventies, during the city’s boom years. “I was broke in Houston before it was fashionable,” he says. “It was personally discouraging. I had had a successful life before then—I was a vice president of a company on the New York Stock Exchange [Zapata] at twenty-eight and its president at thirty-six.”
Far from making him shy away from risk, however, the Stratford debacle seemed to have the opposite effect. Certainly, no one who wanted to play it safe would consider doing what Gow has done—“start a new business in a new country in a new language,” as he puts it. Aside from those potential stress factors, Gow’s bamboo venture has also been a considerable gamble on two fronts. “There were two big questions we had to answer,” he says. “The first was whether Dendrocalamus strictus would grow in the Yucatán.” That question has been answered, but he hasn’t started celebrating yet. He’s still working on the answer to