Kirkland looks back on 25 years of business, community goodwill
A quarter of a century ago, Billy Kirkland had no idea that he would be doing anything other than working by himself.
But after 25 years of building not just a fine reputation as a provider of essentials to Sanibel’s budding tourism industry plus a keen business acumen and community spirit, Kirkland now finds himself looked upon as one of the island’s best known and respected icons.
"I first came to Sanibel in 1976, but at that time the city wasn’t willing to issue me a license to start a beach chair rental business," recalled Kirkland, who at the time ran a similar business in Fort Myers Beach. "I was an outsider then."
He also remembers the date — June 3, 1985, to be exact — that he began working on the island as a pool maintenance supervisor at the Hilton (today the Sanibel Inn), where he was responsible for hosing down the pool deck, handing out towels to hotel guests and renting sunfish sailboats.
"I was making $250 per week," he noted. "Before I started that job, I had about $200 in my pocket and my little yellow pickup truck. That was it… nothing else."
A short while after starting his job, Kirkland asked the general manager of the hotel if he could start a side operation of renting beach umbrellas and selling suntan oil to guests.
"He said that would be okay," Kirkland said. "That business became so popular that I had to hire a couple of people to help me run it."
Two of his first employees were David Lowden and Robin Ramming.
"Billy hired me to be a windsurfing instructor," Lowden remembered. "He’s the one responsible for hooking me into Sanibel. I thought that I was just coming over here for a few days to have some fun. I really enjoyed the time I spent working for him."
Lowden, who is currently a senior banker with Bank Of America on Sanibel as well as a community activist and member of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s Board of Directors, also credits Kirkland’s success to his laid-back, carefree attitude.
"I always admired how much pride he took in being kind of a ‘beach boy,’" he said. "He adapted the island lifestyle into his business… and it works!"
Ramming, now the manager of The Bait Box, described his days working with Billy as "awesome."
"The pay wasn’t very good back then, but the job was great," recalled Ramming. "I got to spend my days at the beach having fun, teaching sailing, meeting lots of new people. I’d say it was a real dream job."
After the first season of running the beach rental concession at the Hilton, Kirkland branched out and ran a similar operation at the West Wind Inn. Then, he teamed up with the Casa Ybel Resort, the Ramada, Sundial and ‘Tween Waters Inn. Soon enough, he had assembled his own beach concession empire, along with a staff of 18 employees.
"When I first came to Sanibel, I had kind of burnt out on managing employees," said Kirkland. "I was just looking to do my own thing. But before I knew it, I was back to doing the same old thing."
In 1997, Billy opened his own bicycle rental business, leaving the hoteliers to operate their own concessions, which he still consults for to this day. Finally, in August 1999, Billy’s Rentals opened up at 1470 Periwinkle Way.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
"One of the biggest changes I’ve seen over the years is that the City of Sanibel now accepts me as a part of the island," Kirkland explained. "If it weren’t for the growth and the quality of the shared use paths, I don’t think my business would be as successful today."
Billy also attributes his success to his loving and supportive wife, Salli, his many friends across the islands and those who visit Sanibel year-after-year, along with his dedicated staff, many of which have remained in his employ for over a decade.
"I’m living the American dream," he added.
But what does he see in his future over the next 25 years?
"Some people talk about retirement, But I don’t think I’ll ever fully retire," said Kirkland, who noted that his next project will focus on writing a manual on operating a bicycle rental business. "I hope to take some more time to relax and go fishing… but we’ll see."