Talk Story – Barry Taniguchi
President and CEO of KTA Super Stores
Barry Taniguchi, president and CEO of KTA Super Stores, is the informal mayor of the Big Island’s business community. Throughout his career, he’s devoted hundreds of thousands of dollars and almost as many hours to make Hawaii a better place. Although he’s a self-proclaimed “average guy,” many credit him with being a major catalyst for the Big Island’s economic development.
Q: What makes a good leader?
A: I think you lead people but you manage affairs and situations. To be a good leader, you have to be a good people person. You need to understand others and have empathy. You need to be patient and you need to have vision so others will follow you. There are people who can get the job done and, administratively, they’re great, but they’re not good leaders. Then you have other people who are good leaders who may not be so strong at the administrative things, but they’re good with people. There’s a big distinction between the two. People who possess both skill sets are really unique and special. If you have managers who don’t genuinely care about the people in the organization, it can have major negative impacts on the business. That’s not local style.
Q: How do you define local-style leadership?
A: It’s empathy, compassion, understanding, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. I don’t think you have to be born and raised here to demonstrate local-style leadership, but I think it’s a plus because you’ve grown up in the society that nurtures and appreciates these values. Another thing is, you can’t fake local-style leadership. It has to come from within. The desire to want to help others and really nurture and take care of them has to come from the heart, or people will know you’re shibai.
Q: What will the Thirty-Meter Telescope mean for the Big Island and the state?
A: No. 1, we will become a leader in astronomy. Hawaii is ideal for astronomy research. No. 2 is that it’ll provide some economic base, with the project’s $25 million operating budget. And don’t forget, there’s also a multiplier effect. We’re hoping that this will raise the level of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education on the Big Island so that our kids will be better prepared to get jobs in the science and technology areas. We could create niche engineering programs at UH-Hilo. We could try to develop an instrumentation and manufacturing area so that we’re able to fix machines and create tools and instruments, not only for this observatory, but all over the world.
Q: The Big Island has been hit hard by the downturn. What needs to be done to turn things around?
A: Our tourism revenue comes predominantly from the west side but the vog is hurting us. On the east side, we have the volcano, but once the tourists see it, they don’t stick around. I think Hilo has the potential to become a very small college town like Bellingham, Wash., for example. UH-Hilo is an economic engine that we can develop. But the problem with that is we can bring the students in but we cannot provide jobs for them locally. So I think we need to sell the university on the basis that, No. 1, you come, spend four years with us and we’ll give you a good education; No. 2 is we’ll help you find a good job on the Mainland where you came from so you can go back home. We realize it would be nice if they stayed and could find jobs, but, right now, we’re not able to provide that. We should be exporting education.
Q: You’re a product of the public school system. How do you think today’s education system compares to when you were a student?
A: The problem with public schools is they did away with corporal punishment. Today, a lot of parents think their kids are right no matter what. I’ll tell you what I told my kids: “If the school ever calls, I don’t care what it’s for, you’re wrong, so you better behave.” But a lot of the parents aren’t like that anymore. So many times, the parents grumble with the teachers or grumble with the principal. Eventually, the teachers give up because the principal has to side with the parent. I remember the first day of school, my shop teacher had this nice paddle and he would say, “This is my board of education.” To me, the discipline is gone. The thing that makes me sad is that there are good teachers who want to do good, but sometimes they’re afraid to because they’re not supported.
Q: There’s been a lot of debate about moving to an appointed school board. What’s your take?
A: We’re in a chaotic state and we have to take charge. We cannot allow elected officials to keep fighting each other and pointing the finger. To me, the accountability should be with the governor. The governor either shapes it up, or the governor gets out. We elect the governor to make sure the DOE runs properly. It doesn’t make sense for us to elect a whole group of people to do that. You have no focus; you have guys with their own agenda. And how many people out there even know who the board members are? I really believe that to get things under control, we have to streamline. The other thing is, we have to get rid of teachers who are no longer effective. One of the biggest gripes I have is that I don’t mind supporting the HSTA or other unions if they help us get rid of the dead wood because we’re only wasting money on them. I would rather take an ineffective teacher’s salary and give the effective teachers raises.
KTA Super Stores
50 East Puainako Street Hilo, Hawaii 96720