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Generational Savvy

At 75, family-run Occidental Underwriters shows how a small business can transform an industry

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Founder L.T. Kagawa and son, Siegred40-year anniversary

NEXT GENERATION: Occidental founder L.T. Kagawa and son Siegfred celebrating Sig's graduation from Wharton Business School in 1954. Sig didn’t intend to work at the company. He vowed to sell a single policy to prove he could do it. That took him almost a year and he worked there ever since.

40 AND COUNTING: Siegfred Kagawa and L.T. Kagawa celebrate 40 years of doing business in Hawaii.


The building was a home away from home for L.T. Kagawa, and later became his home. A penthouse, with windows on three sides and panoramic views of Piikoi, was added onto the building to make him more comfortable there after he suffered a stroke in 1963.

“It was more like an apartment, with a bath and a kitchen … He could rest. He could take his meals here. He could go downstairs and look around,” Sig Kagawa says, adding, humorously, “It was to keep him out of the rest of the building.”


FAMILY TREE

L.T. Kagawa's grandchildren and Sig's children, Gordon Kagawa and Kathy Tawata

CARRYING ON: L.T. Kagawa's grandchildren and Sig’s children, Gordon Kagawa and Kathy Tawata, have taken over the family business, bringing it into its third generation. Inset pictured is from Occidental’s 45th Anniversary Party in 1978.

Gordon and Kathy in 1978


Sig Kagawa jokes that he was born into the business. He started selling insurance for his father’s company in 1954. “In those days it was harder than today. You had to visit people,” he says. Often, people came to the door but weren’t particularly welcoming. But “if they opened the door, I made a sale. It was a matter of numbers. If I saw enough people, I made enough sales.”

Gordon Kagawa, Sig’s son and company president, began working at Occidental when he was 16. “I would file and do things that had nothing to do with insurance,” he says. He graduated to making copies of illustrations, which included charts and other kinds of information for the agents. People had to share one computer, and his help with the illustrations meant they didn’t have to wait in line to use it.

Gordon’s sister, executive vice president Kathy Tawata, worked on and off at Occidental before coming on as a temp in 1991, when her father was thinking of retiring. He didn’t retire until 2000, and Tawata has stayed on.

Sig is still around to consult. “If there’s a situation we’re not sure of, we don’t hesitate to call,” Gordon Kagawa says. “Why should we repeat the same mistakes if we don’t have to?” he says. “We probably do use him too often sometimes.”

But Sig adds, “Being retired is not fun. They don’t even buy you lunch.”


ALWAYS CHANGING


Last year, Occidental made a big shift in expanding its life insurance offerings beyond Transamerica Life products. Customers always had choices among different carriers for property and casualty insurance and investments, but there was just one company on the life insurance side. Now Occidental’s customers have choices for life insurance, too. Customers are happy about that, and even the people at Transamerica supported the expansion of offerings, Gordon Kagawa says.

“Now, if customers say, ‘I don’t like that company,’ we can find you another one,” says Sig Kagawa. Life insurance remains Occidental’s bread and butter. “It’s the most complicated part of the business,” he says. “Not everyone can do it.”

But over 75 years, the people at Occidental seem to have figured it out. For its employees that has meant good, steady work. Take Maule Akana, an employee of 41 years and counting and a key member of the team.

“I’ve gone through almost the entire organization,” says Akana, 57. Since starting as a clerk, she has seen big changes in the nature of the business, its employees and perhaps most dramatically, office equipment. Among the things that came and went were telex machines that used rotary-telephone-style pulse dialing for circuit switching and then sent data by code – technology that was current from the 1930s to 1960s. “We used to use old IBM punch cards for billings,” Akana marvels.

Occidental provided Akana her first job while she attended college, and she never left. “It’s not like work, but home,” says Akana, who now works as the company’s in-house specialist for long-term care insurance.

With 75 years under its belt, what’s next for Occidental Underwriters? Sig Kagawa doesn’t even need time to think. “I’m convinced that someday we’ll sell real estate,” he replies. “We don’t sell it yet, but we will someday.”

Hawaii Business magazine invites you to comment on our articles and the issues they raise. Comments are moderated for offensive language, commercial messages and off-topic posts and may be deleted. Some comments may be chosen for inclusion in the magazine on the Feedback page.

Aug 7, 2008 03:51 pm
 Posted by  HonoluluJulie

As a local business owner, this article encourages me to continue striving to succeed -- in spite of economic conditions. Entrepreneurism is part of the American dream. We need more of this type of news.

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