Milwaukee entrepreneur a Costa Rican hotelier

Serial entrepreneur and boutique hotelier Steve Jacobus’ first job out of college 31 years ago was selling postage meters for Pitney Bowes in downtown Chicago. But Jacobus, who grew up in the Milwaukee suburb of Elm Grove, lasted only six months.

It wasn’t because he didn’t do a good job.

“Actually, I was very good at it, so I ended up starting my own company in the Loop, the city’s financial district, right after my Pitney Bowes’ job,” he said.

Jacobus’ firm was Chicago Marketing Service, providing financial printing and marketing solutions for banks, commodities exchanges and other companies. It wasn’t long before he got into real estate: buying, renovating and selling brownstones.

Those were the first of a long list of endeavors during his career. Those jobs include running a small luxury hotel on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. It opened around a decade ago in the village of Nosara.

But first, he sold his Chicago companies and moved to Japan to teach English.

“I’ve always had a big wanderlust for travel, and after a four years in Chicago, I was ready to go on an adventure,” he said. “It was an intense start right out of college because before I knew it, I had 80 employees working three shifts. But truth be told, the main reason I went to Japan: because I was interested in a girl from my hometown, who was already teaching there.”

He stayed in Asia for a year and returned in 1991 to Milwaukee, where’d he’d grown up working for his father’s construction, building products and warehouse companies.

“I learned how to drive a semi when I was 15 and was soon parking trailers, operating forklifts and stuff like that,” he said. “Best of all, though, I loved working with the guys in those industries.”

While still in Japan, he and his father discussed starting a warehouse company based on what was then a novel technology called radio frequency barcoding.

“Back then, barcoding was brand new,” he said. “We’d used it in my Chicago financial printing company to track where documents were in our storage. I thought that would be cool to do with a public warehouse. I didn’t see why we couldn’t put a license plate on everything that came in our building and then be able to communicate that in real time back to our customers, no matter where they were.”

His father backed him and the company took off, expanding to include warehouses in California, Georgia and other states. After that, he started another firm that specialized in medical equipment, working closely with GE Healthcare and pharmaceutical companies that had “high-value, high-touch individual parts and pieces that sometimes needed to be Fed-Ex-ed from India.”

That firm grew into an inventory management company with its own warehouses and trucks located in Southern California and throughout the Midwest before he sold in 2004 and moved his family to Costa Rica in 2005.

“I really wasn’t burned out, and I loved starting companies and being an entrepreneur,” he said. “I’ve only really worked for someone else for six months, and then it’s been myself. What I’m not thrilled with, though, is running companies when they become large. Others are better than that than I am.”

But he was tired of being on the road constantly and not seeing his children: three boys who were then ages 6, 7 and 9.

“I wanted to spend time with my kids, explore Latin America, learn Spanish and surf,” he said. “I was a guy from my Milwaukee who wanted to see what it was like to live on a beach in the tropics for a while.”

Business-wise, the time was right, he said.

“I knew I could sell my companies because I was doing work for competitors in markets where they wanted to be. I also had a medical lab furniture company in partnership with a guy in Milan, Italy and I knew I could sell my share to him.”

Jacobus had already been to Belize with his family and knew he liked the rainforest and Central America. But he ended up choosing Costa Rica as a place to put down roots, because expatriates can buy property there, the people are friendly, there is no military and 25 percent of the country is protected in nature preserves.

Nor did it hurt that Norsara — with its Playa Guiones beach break — would one day be ranked as one of the top 20 surfing spots in the world by National Geographic. But it was also four-and-one-half hours from San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, which meant it wouldn’t be crowded.

“Nosara had a population of 2,500 when we arrived and has grown to around 5,000 since then,” he said. “But the last 40 minutes of the road to town is still dirt and it doesn’t have a single stop light, so it’s pretty low-key.”

Jacobus said his motivation was to take a few years off, go on adventures with his boys and then return to the United States. He had no intention of starting a business. But once he arrived, his entrepreneur side kicked in when he saw an opportunity to create a hospitality offering that wasn’t there.

“I was on the beach, looking back at houses on a hill overlooking the ocean and that’s how it started,” he said. “So I got a realtor, bought a place and slowly added on. It’s become an intimate, boutique resort with nine rooms, including a bar, a dining room and a staff of 12.”

He named the hotel Tierra Magnifica and rented out the entire property to one group at a time until this year. He’s now switched his business model to renting to individuals and small groups of travelers, offering spa, yoga and concierge services, plus what he calls “one of the best kitchens in Costa Rica.”

His guests have included Wisconsin surfers who brave the waters of Lake Michigan during the winter to catch waves — something Jacobus says he’s never tried and probably never will.

Today his boys are 19, 20 and 22 and he has a 25-year-old stepdaughter who joined the clan later after he remarried.

His wife runs the operations of their hotel in Costa Rica, and Jacobus now splits his time between Costa Rica and a home in Shorewood. He still has a “mostly passive” hand in some warehouse firms and also runs a company called “Activated Life Experiences,” which produces CEO retreats with an environmental bent.

But when the urge calls, he heads south to Central America to surf, watch waves break on the beach, hike in the rainforest, ride horses and view storms rolling in from the Pacific with his wife Erika.

“It’s an awesome place,” he said. “We get some pretty big-name business leaders who stay with us. But when people get there, they check their egos and public personas at the door and relax. That’s pretty cool.”

More information: See or call 262 442 8523. Rates range from $225 to $550 a night, depending on the season, with a honeymoon suite that rents for $650 a night.

By Brian E. Clark