Hotels, Hotelier Interview, Don Luis Bulnes Molleda
Los Cabos Magazine Issue 11, Winter 2007, Hotels. Cabo San Lucas and the Los Cabos area of Baja California, Mexico.
Walking into the lobby of the luxurious Playa Grande Resort, my eyes immediately look upward to the five-story domed ceiling. Massive columns encircle the expansive great room, beautifully appointed with marble floors, beveled glass, Mexican winged sculptures, and lovely murals. This is a far cry from what Cabo San Lucas was a few short years ago, especially for the developer behind the scenes, Luis Bulnes Molleda.
It is said, “The only constant is change.” Many of us have lived in Los Cabos for five, ten, fifteen years, and we think we’ve seen change, but we haven’t really experienced what has taken place for Los Cabos to be what it is today.
I decided to ask the man who should know. One of but a handful of the original 20th century pioneers left who shaped Cabo San Lucas more than 50 years ago, I was intrigued by the opportunity to meet with such a force in the development of the community as hotelier, fishing fleet entrepreneur, restaurateur, and land developer. What did he experience, and what are his thoughts on the future of Cabo San Lucas? How has he managed to balance all that he has done with his love for and reverence of his family?
I was shown into the spacious offices of the Solmar empire. Don Luis, as he is respectfully known, entered with a lively step and a big smile. We shook hands and I immediately felt at ease. I began with the question that is always on the public’s mind, “What brought you to Cabo San Lucas?”
Don Luis explained that he left Spain in 1948 at age 19, and migrated to México City to work for a large canning company. Not caring for the big city, he accepted a transfer to Sinaloa State, however, that winter all the crops froze, so the company sent him and Conchita, his bride of four years, to manage the Cabo San Lucas tuna cannery. They flew from México City, arriving in La Paz several days later, on September 12, 1955, due to airplane repairs in Mazatlan. A storm greeted them. The only transportation to Cabo was a fuel truck. Don Luis and Conchita arrived in the middle of the night to what was jokingly referred to as “Islas Marías” (the name of the federal prison). Their first impression was terrible. There were no restaurants, no electricity, no food, and no water in the manager’s house. The sheets were such that they threw their overcoats on top of them to sleep. I can’t imagine what it would be like, as a wife, to follow my husband to such a rugged off-the-map corner of the world.
The cannery was actually a ship, but it caught fire and was replaced with the structure we know today as the old tuna cannery near Land’s End. With the only bank 120 miles away in La Paz, Don Luis would make six trips a week to that city. He recalls having slept only six hours in one week. He shrugged, and I got the feeling he was back there at that moment in time. He said he would put his hand out of the car window to brush the trees to stay awake. The cannery plant had the only generator and the only light seen coming into town at night was the plant’s light, always a welcome sight to this traveler.
There was never a question of whether he would remain in Cabo. It was meant to be. Conchita, an accountant, worked at his side, taking care of the books. I was curious to know who his mentor was, and if, by chance, it was his wife. He said, of course, but the problem was that they worked together all day and then took the business to bed with them. He hastened to say if he had to do it all over again, he would marry the same woman! Conchita is also an accomplished music composer and Don Luis proudly distributes her CDs to guests.
He then named as mentors Sr. Pando, the tuna factory owner, and his nephew, Servando Martínez Pando, who came from the same town in Spain as Don Luis, and who guided him through the canning business. He learned well, taking the canning record from 14,000 cases to over 300,000 in the 20 years he worked for the company. He was asked to return to México City, which he says was a mistake on their part. He resigned and remained in Cabo San Lucas. Others that helped shape Don Luis’ life were his good friend, Atilio Colli, a sailor, and his father, Sr. Colli Franconi, and Demas Almansa, the cannery foreman. Together they formed the first tuna fleet in México.
Don Luis joined forces with Luis Coppela to build the Hotel Finisterra, sold his interest, and then built the first phase of the Solmar Beach Club Resort with 20 rooms, then upped it to 40, then 60, and finally to the 80 rooms today. In addition to Playa Grande, he owns Hotel Quinta del Sol, and El Galeon, La Fonda, Sea Queen and Romeo y Julieta restaurants. How does someone who has been in Cabo for 50 years feel about the progress of Cabo San Lucas? “With progress, we have to pay the price,” Don Luis replied, then wistfully looked off as if remembering those early days, saying he used to handle a lot of money going to and from the bank in La Paz. A friend gave him a pistol to carry, but he never had to use it. In those days, it was unusual to pass another car on his daily round trips, but he never had any fear. He then mused, “What have we lost? It’s difficult to compare those days with today. There are not many natives left. In 1955, there were only 400 people living in Cabo San Lucas. Everyone knew each other. Now the population is 150,000 with a 20% annual growth rate. There are not many places in the world with this fast a growth rate, so with progress unfortunately comes drugs, prostitution, and crime. Are we getting overbuilt? No, not unless we fail to preserve and maintain our quality of life.”
Don Luis stated that this municipality produces a lot of money, when asked if he and his family are involved in the shaping and planning of the community. “If you compare this town with another tourist town with the same amount of income, they have paved streets, water, and an infrastructure. They have 1,000 employees; we have 2,000, but we still have dirt roads, traffic jams, and no water.” How does he see Cabo San Lucas in 10 years? “We have to work together, to get a group of experts to plan the future of Cabo San Lucas, such as engineers, lawyers, and, yes, I would be willing to volunteer my services. Progress is good, if we plan for it.”
When I asked him how he was preparing his son, Francisco, known as Paco, to take over as his successor, and what advice he gives him, he laughed and said that his son does the work, he (Don Luis) only gives him ideas. He’s very proud of Paco and says he would not have forged ahead if Paco were not there to take over. Don Luis’ daughter lives in Arizona and he has eight grandchildren, including twins. It’s obvious he’s very proud of his family. It’s no secret that he and Conchita are a wonderful love story. When asked how he keeps their romance alive, he smiles, but then with a serious look, says, “The expression “macho” does not work. Your companion, your partner in life has to be treated as an equal. We are in the era that women can do anything that a man can do. Sure, we’ve had the usual problems, but when you treat your companion as your equal, it all works out.”
I couldn’t help but ask if there was any one moment where he can look back and say it was the greatest thing. His remark was so in keeping with the character of this icon. “It feels good to know that a lot of people depend on me for employment. If someone wants to work, they have the opportunity.” Some employees have been with Don Luis since the very beginning, some whose sons and their sons are employed in one of his many operations. He finished by saying, “When someone says the “patron” is the boss and is the enemy, it doesn’t work.”
When I asked what sacrifices he’s made along the way, he replied, “My son did not have a childhood. His friends were the workers. He went to school here, but had no friends his age. He learned construction, mechanics, electrical, and how to drive. Someone asked Conchita one day, “Senora, do you see who is driving that truck?” It was her nine-year-old son, Paco.
I knew he was involved in a new mega project on the Pacific side, so I asked what his plans were for future developments. He laughed and said, “Don’t you think I’m doing enough?” A joint venture still in the planning stages, it includes Ernesto Coppel, Albert Meas, Ken Joli, and Juan Mucino. Four golf courses and hotels are slated for the five contiguous parcels. His project, Rancho San Lucas, will take four or five years to complete. A road to the development is planned, from the Tourist Corridor near Cabo del Sol to Highway #19.
When I asked if he was ever going to retire, he laughed again. “I cannot work 24 hours a day!”
By Sandra A. Berry
Los Cabos Magazine, Issue 11, Winter 200, February, 2007
In October of 2011, Don Luis Bulnes Molleda passed away, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy. He was not only a major force in developing one of the world’s top tourism destinations but also a key local benefactor creating several programs to promote a higher standard of living in Los Cabos.