Don Horner: First Hawaiian Bank CEO, Board of Education Chairman, Single Father

Don Horner is just as you expected, only completely different

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On the day I visit Horner's office, rather than shake my hand and spread the germs from his cold, he extends his closed fist and says, "Here, I better give you the knuckles," which is the last thing I expect from the head of Hawaii's largest bank. "Doozo," he says, as he welcomes me into his office.

Later, when Horner shares that his pet peeve is inconsiderate people, I think back to the knuckles. As soon as I enter his office, which boasts breathtaking ocean and city views in three directions, Horner walks me straight to his mini-refrigerator and asks, "Nani o nomimasu ka?" ("What will you have to drink?") in perfect Japanese.

I never would've guessed Don Horner was so Japanese.

Horner was 26 and a lieutenant commander when he got out of the military. "College was a blur and kind of a waste for me," he says. "My college was really the military."

With the help of the G.I. Bill, he got his master's degree in finance from the University of Southern California. Afterward, he thought back to the times he had passed through Hawaii while on duty and realized it was the only place he could see himself raising a family and putting down roots.

"I strongly believe that, if you have confidence, you can be successful anywhere, and Hawaii is where I wanted to be." It was in the Islands that Horner found the woman who "changed everything."

After a short stint as an investment banker for Merrill Lynch in Honolulu, Horner joined FHB in 1978 as a credit analyst. "He came in as a junior guy and he was very smart," says Walter A. Dods Jr., who preceded Horner as chairman and CEO. "He could think outside of the box and could put together very complicated leases."

Horner says he got into banking because it's a stable, rewarding career. He talks about the satisfaction of knowing that many of the small businesses he helped in his early days are now large, thriving companies.

     Horner signed up for the Navy at age 22, near the end of the
     Vietnam War. “Joining the military was one of the best
     decisions I ever made,” he says.

"There's a difference in life between success and significance," he says. "You don't go into banking to get rich, just like a lot of other professions, like teaching or nursing, or even journalism, but the work can be significant."

While on Kauai for business, Horner met Rowena.

"She was an oncology nurse and we literally had two beach mats together on the sand. She was studying and we just started talking."

The two maintained a long-distance relationship for about three years. "I took a lot of last flights out of Lihue before I convinced her to marry me in 1990," he says.

Meanwhile, Horner had been moving up at FHB and earned his stripes when he ran First Hawaiian Credit Corp. and First Hawaiian Leasing, two subsidiaries of the bank.

"He was hard working and success came because, in every job he had, he outperformed and set new standards," Dods says. But, he wasn't always such a straight arrow, he says, grinning.

"Everybody knows Don as a stern, forthright guy, but I fondly remember him as a rascal young bachelor, like we all were in our younger days," Dods says. "He wasn't quite as conservative as he is today. And then Rowena came along and, as every good woman can, she made a tremendous, positive impact on him. She was special."

Rowena became an oncology nurse at Queen's Medical Center and she and Horner shared a deep love. But, with the birth of their second child, Horner says, the doctors found lumps in her breast.

"She had breast cancer and it spread," he says, taking a deep breath and pausing before continuing. "They gave her three years, but by the grace of God, she lived for eight."

When I ask Horner about his biggest mistake, he thinks before answering. "Made a lot of those. But, if I had to pick just one, I would say not spending enough time with my wife. I wish I would've spent more quality time with her. Whenever you talk about someone you love who's passed, you always say 'would've, should've, could've.' "

In some ways, Horner says, it was a blessing that they knew Rowena's time was short because they made every day with their family count.

"We spent a lot of quality time together as a family, but it's never enough."

Horner proposed to Rowena in the fourth pew of their church, they married there, baptized their sons, now 18 and 15, there, and they buried her there when she passed away on April 19, 2004. About one month later, Horner was offered the CEO position at FHB.

He says he had no desire to run the bank and was content being president, which is more than he thought he would ever accomplish. Horner says his only goal at FHB was to have a deserved reputation of integrity and maintain a high level of trust and character. It was a tough time in his life, so he consulted his sons about whether he should accept the job. He could afford to retire and thought about just focusing on the boys, "but, surprisingly, both of them were strongly in favor of me not retiring," Horner says. "I think they were concerned about me."

Throughout his sons' adolescence, Horner attended almost every soccer game and even coached their teams. Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, who sometimes exchanges parenting tips and stories with Horner because her son is about the same age as one of his, says Horner is a firm but fair father, and "it's visible how much he loves them."

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 26, 2013 10:40 pm
 Posted by  Melissa

I've never met Mr. Horner, but I worked with his late wife at Queen's Medical Center. She was a wonderful and beautiful person. She told me about meeting Mr. Horner on the beach. What a wonderful love story. I'm glad to hear that he and his sons are doing well.

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