Recess Attorney runs thriving vacation rental business

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Edwina “Joy” Divins took a sabbatical from her legal career – and five years later, is still enjoying beaches instead of legal briefs.

The Jackson business owner was a successful corporate attorney until parenthood made her rethink her priorities and find something with flexibility, family time, and comparable revenue.

She and her husband had been renting their properties on Lake Michigan to vacationers. They also bought a beachfront condo in Nuevo Vallarta and rented it out as well. Later, friends and neighbors with second homes in Mexico asked Divins to rent their properties too.

And that was the start of her entrepreneurial venture, VallartaJoy Luxury Vacation Rentals, run from her home in Jackson. A member of the International Association of Travel Agents, Divins now has more than 175 properties along the Bay of Banderas in the resort area called Riviera Nayarit and in nearby Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, as well as rentals near Lake Michigan and in the St. Joseph/Stevensville area.

 “We rent them by the week, month or year to help people from all over the world create fantastic vacation memories on the shores of the Pacific or Lake Michigan,” Divins says. “Our homes near Lake Michigan are great winter refuges for Whirlpool transferees and D.C.Cook Power plant contractors working long-and short-term assignments in the area.”

It’s a far cry from her days as an attorney at a large national firm and then in-house for more than 20 years with Boeing, GE, Kellogg, and Domino’s Pizza.

Divins, who was featured in the national magazine Essence in September 2007, says vacation rentals of privately owned beach condos and villas are one of the fastest growing segments of the travel industry.  Internet cafes and Wi-Fi in the homes and building lobbies allow lawyers or other business people to stay connected while on vacation or during a working vacation. 

“Many Americans are discovering the practicality of renting someone’s well-equipped vacation home instead of a luxury hotel suite,” she says. “We offer the convenience of a hotel, but the amenities of home.”

The homes, valued from $350,000 to more than $2 million, range from oceanfront studios to four-bedroom villas on a golf course or with ocean views. Divins’s company hosts families, couples, honeymooners, golfers, spa gatherings, wedding parties and more.

 “We have quite a number of regular guests from Michigan who spend the winter in our condos and invite friends and several generations of family members to visit,” she says. “About 60 percent of our business is with Canadian guests, and that number is growing since the Canadian dollar is so strong lately.

“We also get a number of U.S. retirees or people planning retirement who want to ‘try it out’ for a few months to see what living in Mexico is like.”

A new niche is catering to U.S. residents who visit Vallarta for health care. 

“We’re considering working with local clinics to coordinate ‘medical stay vacations’ where people can rent our homes to recuperate after elective surgery or other procedures,” she says.  “We think it will take off once people realize the excellent quality of care and world class trained physicians and surgeons who live and work in Vallarta.”

The southwestern part of Mexico in Riviera Nayarit, along the Pacific Ocean, is safe, secure and free of crime issues that are often in the news, Divins says. There is a U.S. Consulate office in the neighborhood. Puerto Vallarta and Nuevo Vallarta – made famous in the 1960s movie “Night of the Iguana,” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – are international tourist destinations and a port of call for major cruise ships.

Although the hours are as long as in the legal world, Divins enjoys the flexibility of her entrepreneurial enterprise and the ability to work virtually – and anywhere – from her iPad, laptop or PC.

“Creating a custom database and developing systems for processing rental transactions took lots of time and energy, but they make life so much easier and virtually paperless – or more ‘green,’” she says. “Every day is a different day that requires creativity, people skills, a sense of humor, patience and the ability     to constantly manage change.

“Escalating oil prices, weather, political happenings, unemployment and the economy’s ups and downs all impact the volume of business and subsequently our success and our contractors’ and assistants’ livelihoods.”

Divins, a native of Canton, Ohio, earned her undergrad degree in English literature with a minor in political science at Spelman College in Atlanta, where she started the National Honor Society chapter.

“I loved reading and writing critically and analyzing things and people,” she says.

Originally planning a career in psychiatry, in college Divins spent a week at the American Medical Association’s law department in Chicago, shadowing an African-American female in-house attorney.

“I was hooked after spending time in the medical association’s law department, so I began applying to law schools during my junior year in college,” she says.

She earned her law degree from the University of Iowa and clerked at Varnum Riddering et al in Grand Rapids during her second summer in law school. It was her first experience of Michigan and summers at the Lake Michigan shore. Coincidentally, her former boss/partner advisor at Varnum Riddering now owns a condo that Divins manages in one of her complexes in Vallarta.

After working at a large national law firm spending much of the time researching and writing and only seeing a sliver of any particular legal issue or dispute, Divins developed a passion for in-house practice, where the whole legal issue was there to resolve.

“You are constantly interacting with all levels and kinds of people and you see the effect of your advice and counsel almost immediately,” she says. “The range of issues and personalities are probably similar to those I would have encountered if I had become a psychiatrist.”

Although she maintains law licenses in Ohio and Washington and does CLE requirements, Divins no longer practices law.

“I serve as a volunteer mediator for the District Court and CAA and also do private mediations when asked, specializing in employment law and litigation since that was my area of expertise at various Fortune 100 company legal departments,” she says.

“Since my business is well-oiled and established now, I enjoy mediating and counseling my executive and professional career coaching clients when I need an intellectual challenge and have the time.”

She is a member of the American Bar Association and its ADR/Mediation -Dispute resolution section; National Bar Association, where she is a member of the Corporate Counsel and Litigation section; and serves on the advisory board of Corporate Counsel Women of Color, an international organization of in-house females of color.

She is on the board of the Jackson Symphony Orchestra Guild and served as recording secretary. She is a member of the Jackson/Lenawee/Hillsdale counties’ Foster Care Review Board, appointed by the Supreme Court- State Court Administrator’s Office, hearing appeals and making recommendations to the Probate court regarding cases of abuse of neglect of children and removal from or reunification with their parents. 

“Reviewing foster care cases provides a window into the lives of so many people who are struggling to survive in today’s economic times with all its challenges, and many with personal struggles and challenges that make it even more difficult,” she says.

Her neighbor, Anne Campau, an attorney who was a trustee and headed the Distribution Committee of the Jackson Community Foundation, invited Divins to learn about the JCF and attend events.

“I was impressed by how generously the Foundation supported a broad range of community activities and organizations and by the commitment and experience of the influential board of trustees,” she says. “They invited me to get involved in a committee to see how the grant making process is organized and later invited me to join the finance committee.

“Retired Judge Carlene Walz Lefere was my board mentor and I continue to learn so much about Jackson and foundation business from her. I most enjoy seeing how the Foundation accomplishes its mission and supports Jackson in so many ways.  I joined the board in 2006 and recently led the CEO search.”

In her spare time, Divins enjoys playing golf, tennis, reading, creative writing, traveling, executive and personal coaching and mentoring, and “all things Brazilian” – she and her son spent six weeks last summer in Brazil, where she worked virtually and visited friends.

In 1998, Divins got married at Cascade Manor House in Jackson during Hot Air Balloon weekend, and she and her husband Dave made the city their home, while she commuted to Battle Creek and Dave to Ann Arbor. Her husband’s current company is based in Los Angeles and Divins works virtually from home. They love Jackson as a place to raise their 6-year-old son Glen.

“Jackson is safe, has beautiful neighborhoods with parks and golf courses nearby, friendly people and is a great place to raise a family. With the Michigan Flyer airport shuttle service stopping in Jackson, we can easily commute to Metro Airport for work travel,” Divins says. “We could live anywhere, but we feel at home here.”
 

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