Retired Houston agribusinessman Robert Gow has always taken risks. Now heÍs betting that bamboo will make him rich—and benefit the Yucatán too.
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 the second question: What are we going to do with all this bamboo?
Fortunately, Gow didn’t have to look far for help with the problem, since the Mayan workers from nearby Opichen who planted the bamboo have also proved to be excellent craftsmen. As the bamboo culms have grown tall and sturdy enough, the crew at Xixim has been making a variety of products, from garden gates and fences to palapas and headboards. With the decline of the henequen industry, unemployment in the Yucatán has soared; many villagers have to leave home and travel as far away as Mexico City to find jobs. But in Opichen, at least, Gow’s permanent workforce of some 75 men has made a serious dent in the unemployment rate.
In the Yucatán, when you dig below the surface you discover layer upon layer of history—almost everything new is built on a foundation of something old. Some of Xixim’s bamboo plants are watered by an irrigation system adapted from the hacienda’s colonial-era norias (“wells”), and many of the walkways along the fields are actually roadbeds that were originally constructed by Mayan laborers in the 1850’s and were later used during the henequen boom as the base for narrow-gauge rail lines. They’ve proved useful for hauling bamboo as well.
Xixim’s thriving rows of bamboo would appear to reflect careful investment and years of planning—to embody the business principles Gow once taught in a course at Rice University called Creative Entrepreneurship, in which he emphasized the importance of cost-benefit ratios and market analysis. But his bamboo venture would hardly fit a conventional business plan, Gow admits. “If one of my students had suggested planting bamboo in the jungle, I would have given him a D,” he says. For one thing, no business plan could have taken into account the amount of luck and happenstance involved in the venture.
When Gow bought Xixim back in 1985, he had a different plan in mind for the hacienda. He had just sold his controlling interest in a Texas petrochemical company and was looking for a place where he could play hacendado and occasional adventure guide. He planned to plant a few citrus trees and perhaps a small garden. Most important, he says, was a long, dramatic driveway: “I had a Tara complex.” Although he was living in Houston at the time, he wanted to locate his dream house south of the border and use it as a base for expeditions to the jungles and cenotes (deep, water-filled sinkholes) of the Yucatán. He had become fascinated with Mayan history and culture and had even taught a class at Rice called Red Blood and Green Gold, about the zenith of Mayan civilization and the rule of the henequen lords.
Gow found Xixim by chance while hacienda hunting with a friend on a dusty road in the Yucatán’s Puuc hills, not far from the dramatic Mayan ruins of Uxmal. Like most of the Yucatán’s other henequen plantations, it had fallen into ruin; only a stand of tall trees betrayed the presence of its casa principal amid the surrounding scrubby jungle. Gow and his friend pushed their way through heavy brush to find the front gate and then the casa, which was missing its roof and floor and had trees growing inside its rooms.
Still, it had potential, as they say, and within a few years Gow had restored the casa principal into a showplace with an arcaded terrace and graceful patios. He had flame trees planted along the long, winding driveway and started a grove of citrus trees. “He’s really brought the old place to life,” says Karen Witynski, a specialist on Mexican architecture and antiques who visited Xixim while working on her latest book, The New Hacienda. “When you visit, you feel as though you’ve gone back in time.” Indeed, Gow has been known to greet arriving guests in the style of the old hacendados, with music and flowers.
Gow learned much of Xixim’s history when a team from the Graduate School of Latin American Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin selected the hacienda for a study project. The architects determined that it was probably built in the late 1500’s as a cattle ranch and was adapted to the cultivation of henequen during the 1840’s. Travel writer John Lloyd Stephens, the author of Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, journeyed near Xixim (whose full name is Hacienda San Francisco de Xixim de Sureste) back in 1841. A picture of one of the caves on the property, featuring a Mayan carving of a deer and three skulls, appears in another Yucatán classic, The Hill-Caves of Yucatán, by archaeologist Henry C. Mercer, who searched for traces of prehistoric humans in the caves of the region in 1895. When Gow began bringing adventure-travel groups to Xixim in the late eighties, his guests often had their picture taken next to that same carving.
By the mid-nineties Gow had ended his adventure-travel business, gone through a divorce, and sold his interest in yet another business. He had begun settling into the casual life of an occasional hacendado, traveling back and forth to Houston, where his children and grandchildren live. “That was when Dendrocalamus strictus came along,” he says. It was one of his guests at Xixim who began telling him about the wonders of bamboo and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to buy Dendrocalamus strictus seeds. But it wasn’t until after Gow had bought and actually planted the seeds that he began to discover how well-suited Xixim was for a bamboo operation.
Although the Yucatán has no aboveground water sources—no rivers or lakes—its porous limestone ground covers a vast series of underground rivers and reservoirs, which Gow was able to tap into after digging out the hacienda’s old norias. And although the Puuc hills do not get regular rainfall except during the rainy season, Gow has found that to be a blessing in disguise. Most of the bamboo processing and assembly work is done outdoors, under the trees, and daily rainfall would curtail production.
Some of Gow’s fellow hacendados, most of whom departed their haciendas for their mansions in Mérida long ago, are skeptical about his venture: After watching the bottom drop out of the henequen market, many of them have tried to cultivate tourists rather than crops; the Yucatán’s henequen and coco palm hacendados were among the main investors behind the transformation of Cancún into a tourist resort.
Gow is not lacking in boosters, however. As word has gotten out about his venture, he has found considerable support from the growing world network of bamboo enthusiasts and businesses, and he’s become a regular guest speaker at functions of the American Bamboo Society.
Gow’s enterprise has also begun to stimulate new demand for bamboo. “He’s a pied piper,” says Witynski, who, with her husband, Joe Carr, is designing some of Gow’s bamboo products and selling them at their Austin store, Texture Antiques. In Waco, a company called Brazos Oaks is selling walking sticks and canes made from Xixim bamboo.
One of Gow’s associates is a retired Coast Guard veteran from New England named Dave Flanagan, who got interested in bamboo when he was stationed in Panama and has studied bamboo craftsmanship with Japanese masters. Flanagan is now designing fences made of bamboo from Xixim and selling them on the Web (www.bamboofencer.com). “Gow is a real pioneer,” says Flanagan. “He’s a man with a vision who has been willing to risk his fortune on a venture that has the possibility of transforming a devastated area into an economic savior for the Maya, who have nothing else to turn to.”
Gow clearly enjoys being a pioneer at this stage of his life. After all, most entrepreneurs these days seem to be high-tech wizards in their twenties (his son, for instance, has started an Internet business). By going back to the land for his venture, Gow is a kind of throwback to the old Texas wildcatters he so admires, adding a brave new chapter to the Yucatán’s saga of red blood and green gold. He also seems to relish his new role as environmental hero—although he hasn’t forgotten the bottom line. “If I don’t make money, no one else is going to try to do what I’ve done,” he says. “I’ll just be that ‘crazy gringo.’”