Managing Partner, Watanabe Ing Kawashima & Komeiji LLP
“I’m in the geisha business,” jokes Jeffrey Watanabe, managing partner of Watanabe Ing Kawashima & Komeiji LLP. By that, Watanabe means he is the geisha. “I have to be accessible, a conduit for companies to contact the firm,” he explains.
What clients are keeping this high-powered corporate attorney on his toes? Only the state’s leading banks, hotels, airlines and construction companies.
“I would be surprised if Jeff wasn’t named a powerbroker; I consider him one of a handful of very powerful people in Hawaii,” says Walter Dods, chairman and chief executive officer of BancWest Corp. “He’s done some work with First Hawaiian, and his business advice is sought after and followed very strongly. He’s very strategic – he can think three steps ahead of most people. And he has integrity.”
Despite the endorsement of Hawaii’s No.1 powerbroker, Watanabe demurs his status among the power elite. “I’m not a powerful person who can impose my will on other people,” he insists. “If I have any power, it comes from my relationships with other people and how people perceive that.”
An example of Watanabe’s relationship-building skills: In the late 1980s, he represented Maui Land & Pine Co., which unearthed an ancient Hawaiian burial ground while developing the Ritz Carlton, Kapalua. That required Watanabe to work with a number of groups – the Native Hawaiian community, the state Legislature and the hotel unions – to craft a solution that would satisfy all parties.
Given this talent, it’s no surprise that Mainland corporations recognize Watanabe as Hawaii’s go-to guy, capable of acquainting them with the state’s complex business community. Even Watanabe doesn’t dispute that kudo.
“Today, I was talking to Norwegian Cruise Lines, which is going to have a major presence in Hawaii,” he says. “They’re based in Florida, and they know that they don’t understand this environment, but they want to learn. Part of what I do is give them a sense of the community and the things they should be sensitive to, how they can be good corporate citizens and, at the same time, serve their economic purposes.”
Watanabe himself is just as respected for his community work as he is for his business savvy. He devotes about one-third of his time to nonprofit activities, serving as chairman of three nonprofit boards: the Sesame Workshop in New York, which produces Sesame Street and other educational children’s programs; the Consuelo Zobel Alger Foundation, which benefits women, children and families throughout the Philippines and Hawaii; and The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii.
It’s a wonder Watanabe has time to do so, considering he also sits on a number of for-profits’ boards, including Alexander & Baldwin Inc., American Savings Bank, First Insurance Co. of Hawaii and Oceanic Time Warner Cable.
“These are the kinds of challenges I like,” Watanabe says. “Here in Hawaii, because we’re so small and such a tight community, there’s a lot of overlap because of social, political and community issues. That’s what my job is: I need to understand where people are coming from.”