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

Don Horner is just as you expected, only completely different

(page 3 of 4)

"My life is balanced," Horner says. "My job is not who I am. I was blessed with a beautiful wife and, in some ways, I was privileged. By losing her, it gave me more incentive to be a good father and invest in that job more than I would've if she was around. In some ways, being a single parent is almost a blessing. It's a challenge, but you end up seeing both sides. When God gives you tragedy, there is blessing in that too. That experience made me a much better boss at work because I don't take the job as seriously. It doesn't mean I don't work hard, because I do, but I don't get stressed out about it."

     Horner was still only 34 when he became president of First
     Hawaiian Credit Corp. in 1984. “He was hard working and
     success came,” says Walter Dods, “because, in every job
     he had, he outperformed and set new standards.” 

By this time, our conversation has turned from light to somber and I hope Horner won't think my next question is insensitive. "How do you recover from losing your wife?" I ask, tears rolling down my face.

To my surprise, he's not insulted and instead gives me an answer that I can tell he's considered many times before.

"You can either get up and move on or just complain and wish it didn't happen, and I don't think God ever gives you more than you can handle," he says.

"And what about your boys?" I ask. "How do you make sense of everything and explain it to them?"

"When you lose a parent, you have to grow up in some ways. It's just a harsh life lesson and you have to deal with it emotionally and it's something that's going to shape your character, hopefully, in a positive way when all is said and done."

In the middle of signing the condolence cards to his FHB employees, Horner reaches under his desk and pulls out an oversize, worn manila envelope filled with letters.

"You know what these are? They're all the cards I got from the staff here at the bank when my wife died. I've got four more just like this and I've read every single one."

He says he and the boys were blessed to have the support of their three families: "I will always be appreciative and indebted to the FHB family that helped us through that challenging time. Then, the Iolani School family (his sons' school) was amazing, very nurturing, genuine and helpful. Then, there was our church family."

Horner says he knows how his boys felt when their mom passed away because he lost his father at about the same age.

"My father wasn't around long enough. I have the opportunity to make things different and better with my boys, and that's exactly what I'm doing."

Executive assistant Marcia Holbron, who helps Horner and other FHB executives, says Horner is a great dad – loving, affectionate, devoted – and never hangs up the phone when he's talking to his sons without saying, "I love you."

One way he's trying to be a better father is by devoting his evenings to his family. A lot of CEOs accept that attending after-hours banquets and fundraisers is part of the job, but not Horner. He says he meets just as many interesting people and potential partners volunteering for nonprofit boards, which hold most of their meetings during the day. "My nonprofit work doesn't take up as much time as people think," Horner says. He currently is "fairly active" on three community boards and plays a lesser role on three other nonprofit boards. The BOE is his most time-consuming role, and he devotes one day a week to it, plus attends related meetings throughout the week.

Morikawa says Horner will occasionally attend night functions – "like if he's being honored by an organization" – but Horner laughs and says, "I do my best never to be honored. I appreciate the invitation, but it's just not who I am. I don't want my friends to have to spend money to come see me."

Horner isn't comfortable in the spotlight. "He'd rather the bank get the credit for things instead of himself," Holbron says.

Kitty Lagareta, chairman and CEO of Communications Pacific, who has advised business leaders on public relations matters for almost 25 years, says Horner's done a good job of creating a strong brand for himself and the bank, even though he's not as prominent in the media as some other CEOs.

"I don't think you have to be in the media every day to develop a brand," she says. "In our small town and culture, the people who gain the most respect aren't the ones who talk about what they've done; it's the people who do it and let their actions speak for themselves. Don doesn't feel the need for a lot of chest beating and I think people really admire that."

Horner starts his day around 6 a.m. and, until his older son recently got his driver's license, took his sons to school every morning. He typically arrives at the office before 8 a.m. and, before he even turns on his computer or sips his coffee, he reads the Bible.

"Devotional sets the tone for the day and keeps me balanced."

Horner says he's read the Bible cover to cover many times but still learns new things. Throughout our interview, he recites long and short passages relevant to the conversation.

When explaining that he has no stress, he says, "Paul wrote the book of Philippians. What he said was, 'be anxious for nothing,' or, in other words, don't let anything bother you."

     Horner is a self-proclaimed “Bishop nut.” In a conference
     room next to his office, he’s created a mini-museum to honor
     Charles Reed Bishop, founder of Bishop and Co., which
     became First Hawaiian Bank.

Horner realizes I am not a religious person, probably from the confused look on my face as he talks about Paul. "Now don't get Philippians mixed up with the Philippines," he jokes, "because that's not what I'm talking about."

Horner is very funny, with a dry sense of humor. When he shows me his Bible, which he keeps under his desk, he opens it to show me that it was signed and given to him by his high school buddy (he calls everyone "buddy") for his 17th birthday, on Sept. 29, 1967.

"Hey, that's my birthday!" I exclaim.

"You're kidding," Horner replies.

"I'm serious," I assure him, but I can tell he doesn't believe me. "Do you want to see my license?"

"Sure," he says, looking directly into my eyes as if he's calling my bluff.

I whip out my driver's license, concealing my weight with my thumb, of course, when he takes it out of my hand and says, "Will you look at that? You weren't kidding." But, before he gives it back, he scrunches his forehead and asks, "What is all that?" pointing to my three-part Chinese-Japanese middle name, which, on my license, is erroneously separated by a series of commas.

"Oh, that's my middle name," I tell him.

"What a mess," he says.

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.

Add your comment:


Don't Miss an Issue!
Hawaii Business,August