Hawaii Business CEO of the Year: Eric Yeaman

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Photos: Mark Arbeit

In the 4 a.m. darkness each workday, Eric Yeaman slips out of his house and into the garage. Closing the door, he flips on a large-screen TV for the latest news  and sports, and runs three to six miles on his treadmill as a stress-reducing prep for another 12-hour day at Hawaiian Telcom.

“I set things up in my garage because I don’t want to wake up my family or the neighbors,” says the 44-year-old CEO.

After his 45-minute workout, Yeaman showers and then leaves home while his wife, son and daughter are still sleeping. After stopping at a Starbucks for a calorie-free, iced decaf Americano, he’s in his 17th-floor Bishop Street office by 6 a.m., munching on oatmeal while planning another day of sea change at the iconic Hawaii company founded 129 years ago with a charter from King David Kalakaua.

Yeaman’s stamina and discipline have served him well over the past three years, as he carried Hawaiian Telcom from bankruptcy and malaise back to profitability, reliability and employee engagement. The company went from losing $150 million in 2008, to earning a profit three years later. When he took over, the company’s top line revenue was eroding by $10 million a quarter, says Yeaman. “We needed to stabilize that.” That has occurred, and now revenues have been holding steady at $100 million a quarter for the last eight quarters.

There are other encouraging numbers: Since it emerged from bankruptcy on Oct. 28, 2010, the company has generated $15 million in profit and now has a net worth of $300 million. It even placed in the 2010 and 2011 Hawaii Business list of the state's Best Places to Work, a ranking based primarily on anonymous employee surveys.

His patience in dealing with a restive union – the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 1357, authorized a strike, then walked out for a day and a half during APEC week – reinforced his reputation as a leader able to handle challenges inside and outside the company.

His success in one of Hawaii’s biggest and most difficult corporate situations is why Hawaii Business chose him as CEO of the Year for 2011.

Those who’ve known Yeaman since his college days recognize the past few years as just the latest manifestation of his inner strength.

“It’s a fine line he has to walk, and it’s going to be a pretty tough situation to get through. But if anyone’s going to get through it, he can,” says Daren Katayama, who heads his own accounting firm in Kailua-Kona, and has known Yeaman since they were both accounting students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Business.

Yeaman’s life has been shaped by personal tragedy. His parents divorced when he was 9, and then his father, stepmother and young sister died in an automobile accident when he was 19. That moment is seared in his memory: He was called off an airplane as he was leaving for a Colorado vacation with college friends. The plane pulled back to the gate and Yeaman was handed a piece of paper with a Big Island phone number and told to call.

“I was my father’s oldest child and here I was in the middle of Honolulu airport with this news. What helped me through was remembering what my father wanted for me. The reason I felt I could go on was asking myself, ‘What would my dad want me to do?’ He wouldn’t want me to give up. That’s what gave me the motivation to keep going.”

His ability to move forward despite adversity was one reason the Arthur Andersen CPA firm singled him out in 1998 to be project leader in the probate court’s management audit of Bishop Estate, now called Kamahemeha Schools. For nine months, Yeaman worked 16-hour days, seven days a week, unraveling the books for court master Colbert Matsumoto amid the trust’s financial and moral crisis.

“Initially, I was wary of whether he was up to the task,” says Matsumoto, recalling that Yeaman was barely 30 then. “I quickly learned my apprehension was unfounded. It didn’t take long for him to win my confidence and become a critical partner in developing my investigative strategy. Eric was smart, hardworking and tenacious. I placed him in some tough situations for a young professional, but he took on the challenges with courage and aplomb. He quickly identified the key issues and helped me marshal the right resources. Always prepared, I could count on him being one step ahead of whatever issue we faced.”

Even at that young age, Matsumoto says, “It was quite apparent he was bound to become a successful leader.”

Yeaman was recruited by Kamehameha Schools as its COO and CFO, moved to Hawaiian Electric Industries as financial VP, treasurer and CFO, and then was asked to lead Hawaiian Telcom by its former chairman, Walter Dods.

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Comments, page 1 of 2 1 2 Next »
Jan 4, 2012 12:20 am
 Posted by  nobu

"the company has generated $15 million in profit and now has a net worth of $300 million." Can this be because the systems still don't work, jobs out-sourced, reduction in force, etc? Since the company turned a profit, why couldn't part of that profit go toward keeping jobs local, or just keeping jobs period? Maybe fixing the systems the front line employees need to work with? Instead, half of that profit went to the CEO and management bonuses? Par for the course perhaps? Thanks

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Jan 4, 2012 07:06 am
 Posted by  JA4579

@NOBU What jobs were outsourced? I keep hearing this but I've never spoken or interacted with any rep that wasn't based locally.

Jan 4, 2012 01:37 pm
 Posted by  nobu

@JA479-The 411, "0" operators, and company directory operators are now based in SAIPAN. When a pay phone is used (what is that anyway?) your calls to "0" are also routed elsewhere. Thankfully, the customer service reps you speak to are all LOCAL.

Jan 4, 2012 02:58 pm
 Posted by  Janice Okubo

A great person to honor. Eric is a wonderfully humble and gracious man of integrity. As always, great writing by Beverly Creamer.

Jan 4, 2012 07:23 pm
 Posted by  AlohafromMinneapolis!

I am so proud of Eric Yeaman. We were roommates in college while attending University of Hawaii. I knew that Eric would be very successful in his chosen career based on his determination, drive, skills, intelligence, personality, and more importantly, dedication to his work and family. I salute you Mr. Yeaman!

Jan 4, 2012 07:50 pm
 Posted by  john doe

"One of the things I look for, too, was he started at the bottom, picking coffee in the Kona mountains..."

What a horrible thing to say! That is really insulting to farmers. Some people take pride in doing a good job - regardless of the nature of their business. So walter dods thinks picking coffee in kona is the lowliest of jobs? Or did he mean to say something like "...he started at a humble job, picking coffee..."?

Tough one, that. Walter is not usually this careless with words...

Jan 6, 2012 06:13 pm
 Posted by  Dan Canete

He needs to look at his internet business. Hawaii Telcom just lost mine because they do not stock modems locally. They have to ship them from the mainland and it takes 3-5 days. So, I have a business that depends on the internet and cannot afford a 3-5 day downtime. I called Oceanic and was told I could get a replacement the same day. Maybe the light will go on in Eric's head that these things are small enough, he can keep them in his garage. Duh!

Jan 6, 2012 06:42 pm
 Posted by  WeGo

Actually, the modems are stocked locally, shipped to neighbor islands from Oahu, not the mainland. It takes 1-2 business days. If you are on Oahu, you can pick one up at one of the Hawaiian Telcom TV Depots.

Jan 7, 2012 02:38 am
 Posted by  nobu

@Dan Canete-as you can see communication isn't the strong point at Hawaiian Telcom any longer. According to WEGO, obviously HT mgt, modems ARE shipped locally, perhaps you can pick them up at the former HT stores, but where are they? Reps are so busy selling, CUSTOMER SERVICE is a thing of the past (FOR SOME). Front line folks have so much stress placed on them, and such little resources to help, VALUABLE customers like yourself are lost.Believe me there are reps who really CARE.

Jan 7, 2012 02:56 am
 Posted by  nobu

cont@Dan Canete-I can say "keep the faith" but I too have lost faith in this "Local Company". There is no mention in the article about how hard the rank and file worked together to turn this company around. It seems like all the credit was given to yeaman, and he gave no credit to the workers. Oh, he did cut their benefits. LIGHT BULB time, where would you and your management team be if not for the workers doing the work? I so agree with you Dan..DUH on more than 1 count. Thank you

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