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Blue chip Billy

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  • | 10:31 a.m. November 25, 2016
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When the city of Sanibel needed to comply with disability laws for beach access, Billy Kirkland was the first one to volunteer to deliver the city's beach wheelchairs to Bowman's Beach.

But you might forgive Kirkland if he had decided against helping out bureaucrats. After all, the Sanibel entrepreneur recently won the Southwest Florida Blue Chip Community Business Award for overcoming bureaucratic adversity to achieve success.

Kirkland's skirmishes are legendary on Sanibel, a small barrier island in Lee County with its own city government and a reputation for aggressive enforcement of the most minor infractions. Business owners joke that you can't move a shrub without government approval.

But when Kirkland moved to Sanibel in 1985, little did he know the kinds of bureaucratic obstacles he would face. After all, the entrepreneur had operated successful beach concessions in Panama City Beach and Fort Myers Beach.

Soon after he arrived, Kirkland's request for a permit to rent beach chairs and sailboats in front of a Sanibel hotel bogged down for seven years because of opposition from some residents and bureaucratic wrangling. “I had the longest ongoing code violation on the island,” Kirkland says.

Kirkland won't say how much he spent on attorneys' fees, but he ultimately lost the case. His wife, Salli Kirkland, says it took three years to pay the lawyers. “Any other person would have just walked away,” she says.

There was an emotional toll, too. Some Sanibel City Council meetings frequently became heated. “I don't go to council meetings anymore,” says Salli Kirkland.

But Billy Kirkland doesn't get ruffled easily. “I've always felt I know who I am — and I'm a good person,” he says. There's a streak of perseverance, too. “You have to have a real tough skin.”

What's more, if you're successful navigating the bureaucracy, there's a reward for sticking it out because it keeps competitors at bay. “It keeps everybody else from coming out here,” Kirkland says.

Today, Billy's Rentals' annual sales top $2 million from two locations on the island. Kirkland got out of the beach concession business after Hurricane Charley in 2004 and focused on growing his bicycle-rental business. On a sunny day, you can spot hordes of tourists riding bikes with the trademark Billy's plate on each basket.

“We're permitted to have 800 bikes,” Kirkland says. “We're probably one of the biggest bike rental companies in Florida.”

Kirkland says the keys to overcoming objections are to take the time to speak with people to calmly explain your side, persevere despite the odds and volunteer with service clubs and charitable endeavors.

For example, when he was trying to obtain city approval for new Segway tours on the island 10 years ago, Billy Kirkland volunteered to direct traffic at charity events on the island so people could see how safe they were. To generate goodwill at City Hall, he invited all the city's rank-and-file employees for a free Segway ride. Despite opposition, Kirkland won the right to operate the tours on local paths.

Kirkland also credits his community efforts for winning approval to rent surreys. Surreys are four-wheeled carriages powered by its pedaling occupants and they're 42 inches wide. But to keep them off the Sanibel paths, the city had approved an ordinance that surreys for rent couldn't exceed 36 inches in width.

“We got grandfathered in for the next 15 years,” Kirkland says.

Kirkland says volunteering equipment, time and money at charitable events wins support from residents, fellow business owners and city bureaucrats. He's been a member of Kiwanis for 30 years, entitling him to a special honor: “I'm one of the Kiwanis Santa Clauses,” he says. A couple years ago, he was rewarded with one of the highest honors on the island when he was named grand marshal of the Fourth of July Parade.

“We're not just a business,” says Kirkland, who lives on the island and employs 28 people. “This is our home.”


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