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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     Photos: Mark Arbeit

Donald Horner has a saying:"When life hands you challenges, you have two choices - you can be bitter, or you can be better."

He's chosen to be better.

The CEO of First Hawaiian Bank is both exactly and not at all like what you'd expect. He's intelligent, conscientious, loyal and personable – everything you'd want in a banker whose job is to protect your money. But this especially private man also came from unexpectedly humble beginnings, didn't aspire to greatness while young, lost his father at age 12 and is now a devoted single father raising two teenage boys.

While there is talk that the 60-year-old Horner is winding down a 33-year career at FHB, he's made no formal retirement announcement. However, he is fully engaged as chairman of the state's new, appointed Board of Education, which could become his greatest professional challenge. Horner was also selected by Mayor Peter Carlisle to serve as one of the 10 members of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit, which will guide the biggest construction project in the state's history. He also sits on six nonprofit boards, teaches Bible study once a week, sent his oldest son off to college in Texas this summer and is building his retirement home on the North Shore. All that, and Horner insists that his life is stress free.

"I may cause stress, but I don't feel stressed," he says, with a chuckle. "I feel privileged to be able to work and serve and do my part, so I choose not to let small things stress me out."

For my second interview with Horner, I visit his gorgeous office on the 29th floor of the First Hawaiian Center late on a Friday afternoon. He has been sick all week – something his assistants say is rare – and is still fighting a nasty cough and the sniffles. Emi Morikawa, who has been Horner's assistant for 22 years, has spent the previous several days canceling his appointments, so I know he has a ton of work to do and the last thing he wants is to share his life with a reporter. But he is a good sport, patient and candid. As we chat, he multitasks and signs condolence cards for FHB employees who have recently lost loved ones, while soft piano music plays in the background.

"This little gesture means more to our employees than anything else," Horner says of the cards. "This is why I'm not stressed – I have a great job and I work with great people. I feel very blessed to have the opportunities that I have and I don't take any of that for granted."

Horner's had this same earnest, practical demeanor since he was a kid growing up in the small, rural town of Lumber Bridge in North Carolina.

"We didn't even have a stop sign," he recalls.

In fact, his senior class at Massey Hills High School only graduated 99 students, "The same 99 kids that I started the first grade with," he says.

Horner says he learned problem solving and the value of hard work at his family's general store, which was half the size of a typical ABC Store and far less shiny.

"One thing I learned by working at the store is that you treat every customer the same," Horner says, a principle that's guided his career. "I grew up appreciating the fact that everyone is special but that no one is more special than the next person."

Horner is the youngest of three children and jokes that he was "the mistake." His family was close because everyone worked together at the store, but his life was turned upside down when his father died suddenly from cirrhosis of the liver when Horner was just 12.

"He was an alcoholic and basically drank himself to death. When he came out of World War II (after serving in the Navy), he, like a lot of other people around him, became dependent on alcohol. He was hard working and a good guy. I loved him very much but, unfortunately, he made some bad decisions and died at 42 years of age."

That taught Horner life isn't always fair, "but it doesn't mean you're a victim," he says. "That's when I chose not to be bitter and instead did my best at becoming better."

Horner, along with his older brother, knew he needed to step up and care for his mother, so he spent the next several years helping to run the store and mastering every job, from cleaning the floors to ordering inventory to watching the margins.

"I probably learned more about business in our small general store than I did in college. When something major like that happens to a kid, you have no other choice but to grow up, so that's what I did."

As a teenager, Horner enjoyed working on cars and began drag racing at 15. "I also had my first accident at 15. ... The car flipped over and was wrecked, but you can't hurt a teenager."

Horner says he was a good student and graduated in the top 10 percent of his class. "But don't forget, there were only 99 seniors total." Of that group, some went to college and some went to jail. He was one of the lucky ones, he says, and planned to attend a small college in North Carolina.

"My whole aspiration was to be a forest ranger – a Smokey Bear, if you will," he says, laughing. "I was the first in my family to go to college. When you're from a small town where just about everyone is poor, college isn't really something a lot of people thought about."

Horner's high school chemistry teacher recognized something special in him and suggested he apply to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the premier public university in that part of the South. He got accepted and eventually graduated with a business degree.

     At age 4, growing up in Lumber Bridge, N.C. – a town
     too small even for a stop sign.

"The '60s were a very interesting time. I went through the long hair and a little bit of the drugs, and then, at some point, I just sobered up, so to speak, and figured out I needed to get a life."

So, Horner joined the ROTC, which, he says, wasn't a popular decision during the Vietnam War, but it got him on the right track.

At age 22, Horner joined the Navy and learned to work under pressure. The war was winding down and, although he says he was never in any real danger, the tempo was that of wartime.

"We were a guided-missile frigate, so we basically tracked Russian jets. Our job was to protect our gun line, so we would fire missiles at the enemy aircraft."

Horner says it was a privilege to be chosen by the captain to pilot the 400-person warship and he remembers the intensity of navigating through the Moroccan Straits in the dead of night.

"When I look back at that, I think about how remarkable it is because of the amount of risk the managers took in young officers, and that's something we don't do enough of today. In fact, I was having a conversation with some of our senior officers (at the bank) the other day about investing responsibility into our younger people more quickly. It's so important."

While enlisted, Horner lived in Kyushu, Japan, for a year and a half. He spent a lot of time cruising the island on his motorcycle and learned some of the language.

"Every time I would talk, people would laugh and I could never figure out why. It was bad enough I was a gaijin (foreigner) in Japan in the '70s and I stuck out like a sore thumb, but then I also spoke like a woman because the person who taught me most of my Japanese was my girlfriend and I didn't realize the language had both feminine and masculine nuances."

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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