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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I learned that Horner is as honest as they come. He's also very particular about things, especially food. No mayo, no gravy, no chips and not even wheat bread – all of which he says is "nasty." I press him to tell me at least one of his guilty pleasures so we can agree on something, but he can't even name one thing. He gives me a disgusted look when I suggest chocolate cake and French fries, so I drop it. That explains why he's so slender.

Horner admits he's disciplined when it comes to eating healthy, which is why he prefers to cook dinner at home with his kids rather than eat out. He also says he likes baking healthier pies, like sweet potato, pumpkin or yam.

Kim says Horner is not a typical CEO who enjoys fancy meals or nights on the town. "For someone with the amount of resources available, he's not one to be flashy or over the top. He's actually pretty frugal."

Ask him and he'll agree that he's frugal. "Especially when it comes to other people's money," he says.

That's good news for taxpayers, since Horner will serve on two of the most important public boards in the state – the statewide BOE and the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit. Longtime friend Mitch D'Olier, CEO of Kaneohe Ranch, says there's no question that Horner is the best man for both jobs. D'Olier describes Horner as focused, energetic and detail oriented.

"He's one of the hardest workers I know, cares deeply about the children of Hawaii and providing them with a quality education, and he's probably one of the best finance guys in Hawaii," he says.

For Gov. Neil Abercrombie, it was a "no-brainer" when it came to appointing Horner to lead the new BOE.

"Don's commitment to education is superior," he explains. "From when I began my campaign to run for governor and learned there was a possibility that there would be a governor-appointed BOE, I told myself that if I ever got the opportunity, I would approach Don."

Abercrombie says the word "sterling" comes to mind when he thinks about Horner's character. "Although we have different personalities and we don't necessarily agree on everything, we share the same values and that's important."

Horner talks a lot about values, but it isn't enough to just have them, he says, "You have to live them." When I ask Horner what that means to him, his answer gives me chicken skin.

"Values are what you do in the dark when nobody is looking. And, if there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that nobody will care what you know until they know you care."

As BOE chair, Horner will work closely with the superintendent of schools, Kathryn Matayoshi, whom he has known for about five years. Matayoshi describes Horner's leadership style as hands on and willing to challenge the status quo.

"He is chairing the BOE at a time of tremendous change, opportunity and challenge," she says. "His focus on supporting public education and willingness to make hard decisions in tough times will have long-lasting effects on Hawaii and our students."

Reform won't be easy. It's acceptable to hand out marching orders when you're running a private business, but, when you run a government agency, you must cultivate different constituencies and follow protocol. Kim says she has full confidence in Horner and his ability to work with others.

"I think Don will have his hands full with the BOE and transit board, but I know how organized he is," she says. "He likes to get to the bottom of the issue and not dwell on minor things and let them bog him down."

D'Olier and Dods also attest to Horner's preparedness. By the way they describe him, I get the feeling he's fastidious, but they're trying to explain it nicely.

"You better know what you're talking about when you get into his office, because he'll have read page 732 and found the mistake on the bottom of the page," Dods says.

D'Olier admits that, if he's going to a meeting and knows Horner will be there, "I make sure I prepare extra hard because I know he will be (well prepared). I have to move my game up a little bit when he's around."

Horner understands the many obstacles he will face in his three-year term as BOE chair, but, as usual, doesn't seem stressed. "I am confident that we will make the necessary changes – because we have to."

Horner says he's still listening and learning, but is aware that some of the major challenges are with human resources.

"In general, the state is not necessarily a great employer. Our teachers haven't had a raise in two years. It's tragic. There's a great deal of administrative burden on our teachers and principals. Our systems are 30 years old and there's very little automation. We're working really hard, but sometimes we're not working smart. The financial systems we have are very antiquated. There's very little data to make good decisions. We tend to debate too much. I personally think there could and should be more rigor in the schools. I think our kids are highly capable and our expectations aren't as high as they should be. I believe people can accomplish a lot if they're given support and encouragement. I think it's true for the kids, teachers and schools. I think we've set our expectations too low, and you normally get what you expect."

Horner will be the first to admit that he has high standards. He makes no secret of his belief that to make improvements in the public school system, personnel changes are necessary. Horner acknowledges he can be demanding, but I sense he's also fair, consistent and willing to work hard, and is always focused on the big picture.

After nearly two hours in Horner's office, prodding him about his life and dreams, I decide it is time to ask the big question. I purposely wait until Horner warms up to me because I know it will be a long shot.

"You know how I said we would need photos to run with this story?" I explain, with my best winning smile.

"Yes," he responds, squinting as if he knows I have something up my sleeve.

"So, I was thinking. … Would it be OK if we came over to your house to …"

He cuts me off. "Not a chance."

"Please, we just want to get some shots of you relaxing on the couch, maybe hanging out with your boys … "

"Absolutely not."

Earlier, I tried to invite myself over for dinner when he told me he likes to cook, but that didn't work either.

"What if we don't even come in – just hang out in front of the house or on the lanai?" I plead.

"I don't know what to tell you, but it ain't happenin', girl."

I give it one last shot. "Can you at least bring in some old photos of little Donny Horner standing in front of your family's store, or from when you had long hair, or lived in Japan? Pleeeease. It'll be so fun!"

"That's the problem," he says, rubbing his temples.

This is the first time Horner actually looks stressed.

"I'll think about it, OK? Can we leave it at that?" he says.

We do. After he gives me "knuckles" one more time, I say, "Domo arigato."

He replies, "Don't mention it, buddy."

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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