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Talk Story with Percy Higashi, Roberts Hawaii

     Photo: David Croxford

At the president of the state's oldest and largest tour and transportation company, Percy Higashi oversees 1,400 employees and 900 vehicles on four islands, the world's largest Polynesian catamaran, and the Magic of Polynesia show. Before joining Roberts last year, he had served for more than a decade as VP and GM for Prince Resorts Hawaii.

Q: You've been president at Roberts Hawaii not yet a year and the rabbit logo has been axed. Tell us that story and what your leadership style is.

A: You understand an organization by first listening to the employees, since they know most about our customers; second, researching to learn about our competitors and asking questions about why we do things this way and why we can't do them another way; and, thirdly, being willing to step out of the box. I did that by going to (CEO) Robert Iwamoto Jr. and asking, "Could we rebrand this company?" because I thought it would be a good idea. He closed his eyes for a few seconds – which felt like an eternity to me – but said, "Let's go ahead and do it."

Q: Where did the rabbit come from and what is the brand changing to?

A: The rabbit has been an iconic symbol for Roberts for 40 years – no one can give it a definitive start date, but, at that time, we were competing against Greyhound. He (Robert Jr.) and his dad went to races on the Mainland and noticed the greyhounds never caught the "rabbit," and that's how it all started.

But it seems very dated. So we created an all-employee committee to develop a mission statement and core values to take us into the future. From those meetings came the sense that employees wanted a quality, safe and service-oriented company, but also one perpetuating the unique culture of Hawaii. So we started to look for a brand with a new look. The graphics company Metrik, out of San Francisco, came up with the rebranded logo: a hibiscus with waves under it. Our focus is to have all of them (vehicles) changed by the end of the year. Nowadays, you can just wrap them totally with this vinyl. There's a lot of glue and heat.

Q: What other changes are under way?

A: We've expanded the fleet with 20 new Prevost touring motor coaches equipped with three-point seatbelts, electronic stability control, GPS tracking capabilities and a front-kneeling suspension system for easier entry and exit. The seats are ergonomically designed, there are larger viewing windows, new DVD players, flat-screen TVs and better sound systems, on-board lavatories, and larger overhead luggage spaces. The engines are among the most environmentally advanced, with near-zero emissions, even beyond the EPA's 2010 standards.

We'll continue to invest in our fleet with even more motor coaches and more smaller vehicles. We're still researching the best minibuses and we're looking for ADA-compliant vehicles as well.

Q: What changes do you want to make at Roberts to enhance the visitor experience?

A: I want to ensure all hotel general managers that we will provide their guests with a seamless Hawaii experience – to make their experience from the time they land to when they leave, one of aloha. We're rolling out an internal program creating standards of service that will include training. This is something we would do in a hotel and it's going to be required of every employee. It starts with three little things: a smiling greeting in the spirit of aloha; secondly, anticipating and filling our guests' needs; and, finally, saying mahalo with a smile.

The training will probably go through the end of the year. We're even extending this to our school-bus drivers.

Q: What are the most popular visitor tours?

A: Still the most popular tour for the first-time visitor is the circle island tour or Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial. But a sales and marketing team is working on creating new tours throughout the state. New tours on Kauai and in the Hilo area will be ready shortly. Our drivers are the ones providing some of the ideas.

Q: How have rising gas prices affected Roberts?

A: We're part of the Western Motor Tariff Bureau, which includes almost all the tour and transportation providers in Hawaii, and, a few months back, we were contemplating raising rates because of (higher) fuel costs. But then the crisis in Japan happened and we pulled back because it would send the wrong message. We're hoping to reconvene this summer to discuss this.

Q: How did Roberts get started?

A: In 1941, on Kauai, Robert Iwamoto Sr. borrowed money to buy a cab to start a taxi service. By 1950, after the number of taxis had increased, he started a rental car business. (His son, now CEO, was responsible for washing and maintaining the rental cars.) In 1957, he bought his first motor coaches – both with over a million miles on them. They weren't that expensive, but it cost $25,000 apiece to ship them to Kauai. By 1964, he was ready for his first expansion to another island – Oahu. It's been upwards ever since.

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