Serial entrepreneur John Williams landed in Mexico City in 1985 with a blossoming export business but became successful over the next three decades by selling insurance and real estate to expats. He is now Oaxaca’s man with the Midas touch.
A native Texan, 62-year-old Williams was born and raised in Austin and graduated in 1978 from the University of Texas with a bachelor’s degree in art history with a specialization in Pre-Columbian art history.
“I had a professor who had written a book called “Images of Mexico,” which was the best resource for contemporary art in Mexico at that time,” Williams said. “He used to invite students down to Mexico City and that’s when I fell in love with Mexico. I lived in Mexico City for 27 years.”
But right after he graduated, Williams moved to Dallas to learn the insurance business, which he parlayed later into a very successful business in Mexico.
“While I was in Dallas, I was going back and forth to Mexico a lot,” he said, “and met my future business partner. In 1984 we decided to start a business exporting automobile parts from the United States to Mexico, which was very successful.”
The next year Williams moved full-time to Mexico City to run his business and then added real estate holdings to his portfolio.
“In addition to our export business I was a landlord in Mexico City,” he said, “but I was also looking for new business opportunities. I found a good one in San Miguel de Allende.”
Williams discovered a tailor-made opportunity for his skills and background: selling insurance to the many expats who make SMA their home.
“I found out that San Miguel had no competent insurance agent that catered to the needs of the expat community,” he said. “So I got my insurance license and sort of became the insurance king of San Miguel while still doing real estate in Mexico City.”
Williams had a thriving insurance business in SMA for 17 years, selling international medical insurance and home and automobile insurance. He sold his brokerage twice during that time, once to someone who could not handle the business and the second time in 2011 to another agent.
He moved to Oaxaca in 2013 and found a native-born Oaxacan attorney to be his business partner in a new real estate venture, selling homes primarily to the local expat community.
“I first went to Oaxaca around 1984,” he said, “and really loved it. It’s much calmer than Mexico City. I like to be surrounded by a lot of culture and Oaxaca has plenty. I’m very interested in classical music, colonial and Pre-Columbian architecture and art, especially contemporary art. I’m a collector, so it really appealed to me.”
Oaxaca is a city of about 600,000 people located nearly a mile high in the foothills of the Sierra Madre in Mexico’s southwest corner. It is the capital of the state of Oaxaca and depends heavily on tourists attracted to its colonial-era architecture, world-renowned food culture and nearby archeological sites of the native Zapotec and Mixtec cultures. It is also a United Nations World Heritage site.
“The city is just awash in culture,” Williams said. “There is a very vibrant classical music community, which is very interesting to me since I play the harpsichord. And you can find many other cultural events, such as the Metropolitan Opera simulcast at our local opera house, Teatro Macedonio Alcalá, which was built over a century ago.”
Nearby lies Monte Albán, a Pre-Columbian historic site that was inhabited over a period of 1,500 years by the Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs.
“Monte Albán is one of the most important Pre-Columbian sites in all of Pre-Columbian art history,” Willliams told us. “With all of this wonderful culture surrounding us, we’re still just hours from Oaxaca’s beautiful coast. When the government completes the new highway it will cut driving time to just a couple of hours. It’s really the ideal place to live in Mexico.”
Williams has owned Real Estate Oaxaca for the past four years, selling and renting homes primarily to the local expat community.
“I would say that we have several thousand expats living in Oaxaca,” he said. “A great thing about living in Oaxaca is you can either engage with other expats or not. Most are the adventurous sort, which is very different from San Miguel. There, you can’t really get away from the expat community. They’re all over the place. Here, you can be involved or just disappear.”
Expats in Oaxaca can get involved at the Oaxaca Lending Library, where expats meet socially, borrow books or attend cultural presentations. Williams often lectures on Pre-Columbian art at the library.
Williams lives in El Centro, just off Jardín Conzatti in Oaxaca’s beautiful downtown area. His home is about 2,200 sq. ft. with three bedrooms and four bathrooms on two levels, but has no pool.
“Many expats like living downtown because of the restaurants, shopping and cultural activities, but it isn’t cheap,” he said. “If you are looking for about 2,500 sq. ft. with three bedrooms and two baths, be prepared to pay about US$500,000.”
He has a listing in the city’s center for a compound of three separate houses on about 7,500 sq. ft. of land with a pool for US$550,000. But most expats in Oaxaca rent their homes, he said, because many have just U.S. Social Security payments for income.
Like many inland cities in Mexico, Oaxaca’s cost of living is inexpensive enough that most expats live well on just their Social Security payments, including an occasional night out on the town.
“I’m not much of a nightlife person, but the restaurant scene in Oaxaca is world-renowned,” he said. “The food is incredible. You can get a five-star gourmet meal with a fine wine for about US$30 per person, and I am talking really high-end gourmet food with a tip.”
Getting around town on public buses also is easy and costs about 7 pesos to get almost anywhere, so an automobile often is not needed. For groceries, Wal-Mart and Chedraui are the two largest supermarkets, but many expats shop at local markets for their fresh fruits and vegetables.
Williams said one of the real pluses to living in Oaxaca is the cost and quality of healthcare services, particularly the cost of elder care.
“The two friends I live with are both incapacitated and require full-time nursing,” he said. “They both have registered nurses who are excellent and are with them from early morning until early evening. I think the cost is somewhere around US$2,000 a month.”
Since Williams is not yet on U.S. Medicare, he uses Mexico’s IMSS, the Mexican Social Security Institute, or Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social. It is available to all expats for an annual cost.
“IMSS costs me about US$300 a year,” he said, “and I have unlimited coverage with no deductibles or co-payments of any sort. It’s excellent comprehensive medical coverage and includes an annual physical.”
For more information on healthcare, read our article, “Health Insurance Options for Expats in Mexico.”
Williams will sign up for Medicare coverage when he is 65 to cover him when he is in the U.S. visiting family. But after years of starting and running successful businesses in Mexico, Oaxaca is the place he wants to call home for the rest of his life.
“I love this place, the culture, the food and the people. Oaxaca has it all for me, especially the people, friendly, very friendly.”