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Computer legend in paradise

Computer legend in paradise

Commodore and Kit Spencer made Bahamas their home

The Bahamas Investor Magazine
January 4, 2007
January 4, 2007
Jessica Robertson

It boasts a favourable tax environment, particularly for Europeans. The climate is ideal for those who enjoy the outdoors. The infrastructure includes banks, restaurants and other services and facilities that exceed expectations for a population of 300,000. The native language—English—makes it easy to get involved with the local community. Regular flights from many major US and international hubs make travel a breeze. And of course there’s the exquisite natural beauty.

That’s the marketing pitch for making The Bahamas home, as offered by the man who launched the top-selling computer model of all time. The Commodore 64 sold 17 million units, and Christopher “Kit” Spencer was the man behind the marketing.

That pioneer model in the personal computer market kept the Commodore company going for many years, and it also enabled Kit Spencer to adopt a lifestyle that many would envy.

Retired in his early 40s, Spencer decided to move with his wife to The Bahamas, becoming a permanent resident and orchestrating a complete lifestyle change that includes golf and tennis at least three times a week, hobnobbing with movers and shakers, a breathtaking view of Nassau Harbour from his lovely, yet not ostentatious, Paradise Island home, and the time and money to travel the world.

Building Commodore
Kit Spencer knows he’s lucky to live the life he’s etched out for himself over the past 20 years, but he’s quick to point out that he paid his dues early on. And even that has a lot to do with luck—luck, marketing know-how and being in the right place at the right time.

In 1981, Kit Spencer was one of a team of nine men working to create the computer that is considered to have overhauled the personal computer market in the US.

“We did it in just nine months, from the start of development to launching it on the market. It was unbelievably intense. We were writing manuals and programmers’ reference guides in conjunction with the product being developed. Instead of finishing the product and then writing these things when they were finished, we were writing as they were going along,” he recalls.

Knowing that the key to the product’s success was a solid collection of software programmes, Spencer developed his wish list—word processing, educational programming and gaming so the Commodore 64 could go head-to-head with Atari—and found programmers who could deliver.

When the new computer hit the market at just $595 in August 1982, Spencer knew he had to do something to generate the kind of publicity a new product launch required.

“I stood up at the consumer electronics show when we launched it and had a press conference. I made a prediction. I figured I had to do something to get publicity, so I said, ‘I believe we’re going to sell a million units in a year.’ It makes a great headline, but I knew the potential was there, and I knew what we were committing to,” he recalls, adding that a year later he was forced to hold another press conference admitting he’d been wrong. The Commodore 64 sold 1.2 million units that first year.

Spencer and his team were responsible for a few other things that led to the Commodore 64’s overwhelming success, including the fact that it was the first personal computer to include a modem for under $100.

This, says Spencer, was included so that users could dial up to an online community to get information and solutions to problems. The marketing team at Commodore also had an inkling that something bigger was coming. They inked a deal with Compuserve that would allow users to download software. “We built in an agreement to download software even though you couldn’t do it at that time because the dial-up connection was too slow,” says Spencer. “We knew what was coming.”

Such success, however, came at a tremendous personal price. When he first arrived in the US to take on the role of international marketing director for Commodore, Spencer says he got a call from The Wall Street Journal. They had one question for him: “How long are you going to last?” Apparently there had already been six men employed in the position in just two years. Half had quit, the other three were fired. The pace and work environment were intense. Spencer said he watched good friends have complete breakdowns and the self-described workaholic was determined not to join them.

At home in The Bahamas
At the age of 39, Spencer decided it was time for a change of lifestyle, and largely because of the Commodore 64 success he had helped orchestrate, he was financially in a position to act.

Commodore had incorporated in The Bahamas following some tax law changes in Canada. Commodore’s chairman, Irving Gould, also called The Bahamas home. Spencer had visited The Bahamas on company business, and when he decided it was time for a change, company president Jack Tramiel tried to persuade him to return to Europe to head up Commodore’s European operation. Spencer, however, had his eye on paradise.

Determined to keep him with the company, Tramiel offered him the position of vice president of Commodore International Holding Company in Nassau.

“I decided it was time to change my lifestyle. I could have reasonable financial security for life if I cashed in my shares. Tax-wise The Bahamas was a good place to do that,” he says.

Although Spencer was 20 years ahead of the baby boom movement in relocating for tax reasons, there are definite benefits to be had for Europeans considering such a move today.

According to Howard M Liebman, partner in the Brussels office of Jones Day, The Bahamas is a viable alternative to the traditional jurisdictions of Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Gibraltar, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, which are commonly used by European companies and individuals.

“In this day and age, The Bahamas is not all that distant from Europe and benefits from excellent communications and transportation links. It has a common law system, as do Gibraltar and the Isle of Man, but it is closer to the US,” he wrote in the 2006 edition of the Bahamas Handbook.

Like Spencer, Liebman points to the more favourable climate offered by The Bahamas and its stable legal and tax regimes as benefits to a European individual seeking a change of residence.

Living the good life
Indeed, The Bahamas proved to be a good move for Spencer who has lived off his investments since retiring in the late 1980s. Although he doesn’t offer specifics, he explains his personal investment strategy as being more hands off than anything else.

“I don’t want to be actively involved day to day, hanging on a telephone, looking at a computer screen,” he says. “I tend to make strategic decisions about where I want to invest, like areas of the world, types of investments, stocks or bonds—then I also make strategic decisions about the types of companies I want to work with. I’ve got investment accounts with several people, including three Bahamian outfits.”

For Spencer and his family, The Bahamas was more than a second residence to visit for the odd vacation. It became home. And being the personable fellow that he is, Spencer became actively involved in his new community.

An avid tennis player, he was elected president of the Bahamas National Tennis Association. During that time he spearheaded the effort to raise $1.25 million to construct the country’s National Tennis Centre, which includes nine courts, a clubhouse, restaurant and pro shop. He jokes that, at times, it felt as if he’d rejoined the workforce.

One of the attractions of living somewhere like The Bahamas is the opportunity to get to know people from all walks of life. That came in handy when Spencer found himself using his marketing moxie to persuade the International Tennis Federation (ITF) to incorporate in The Bahamas as Commodore had years before.

The ITF had been looking at the more traditional jurisdictions, but were interested in what Spencer said The Bahamas had to offer, so they flew in for a due diligence.

As he tells it, they were finishing up a few meetings and had more or less settled on The Bahamas. They turned to him and said they needed to meet with a potential lawyer and offered the name of one who had come highly recommended. They also needed to meet with an accounting firm. Spencer left the room for a few minutes, made a few phone calls and led the ITF representatives a block down the street where the very people they were interested in meeting were waiting for them.

“I was fortunate enough to have the right connections to facilitate the introductions. Here you know all the senior people. It’s easy enough to make appointments and see all the key people. If you were in New York or London, it would be much harder—they’re too busy, they’re not here, you don’t know them. [In The Bahamas], if need be, you call them up and say, ‘Look, what’re you doing tonight? Let’s get together,’” he laughs.

Although The Bahamas is home, Spencer has not lost his sense of wanderlust. He developed a love for travelling to far-flung places straight out of university when he joined the Voluntary Service Overseas, the British equivalent of the Peace Corps. He spent a year teaching science at a remote high school on the Congo/Rwanda border. On his way back to Britain he stopped in Sudan, Egypt, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and various parts of Europe.

All told, Spencer has visited more than 70 countries and keeps adding to the list. His most recent adventure was a walking and bridge excursion in Malta.

“I’m at a difficult stage now. I always said that I was lucky enough to be able to retire early while I was still fit enough to do the things I enjoyed doing. If that’s the case, you should go back to work in your sixties when you can’t do other things,” he says.

Considering he spent his sixtieth birthday hiking to the Everest Base Camp in the Himalayas with a childhood friend, Kit Spencer may have to reconsider his timeline.

Regardless of what exotic adventures the future holds, one thing is certain—no matter where he travels, The Bahamas is where he hangs his hat.

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