Talk Story with John Komeij

September, 2007

John Komeiji has only had one job interview. It was 28 years ago, for an entry-level position at the powerhouse law firm he’s now a partner and namesake of, Watanabe Ing & Komeiji. With nearly three decades of Hawaii business experience under his belt, John’s got a lot to share about doing business local style, being successful and not letting it get to your head.

On relating

You always gotta appreciate who your listener is. I’ll give a good example. I argued a motion recently. And I talk pidgin a lot. Regularly. So after the hearing, my associate goes, “Ho, you was using big words, eh, yesterday? Like nefarious’ and ‘belies the point.’” So I asked her, “What school did the judge go to?” Well, he went to [an Ivy League school]. I was trying to understand where he was coming from and adjusting my language for him. The idea is you’re always communicating with people on their level, so you’re not talking beneath them or being condescending.

On sacrifice

To expect to be excellent at something and have a balanced life, to me, is unrealistic. Because to be good, you have to put in a little bit more effort than everybody else, and that means time. But you only have a finite amount of time, so something’s going to be off balance. There’s a lot of smart people around who don’t put in extra effort and they’re not going to be excellent. If you want to be that good, you’ve got to be willing to make the commitment and sacrifice.

On working in Hawaii

One of my pet peeves is when you deal with people from the Mainland, whatever profession you’re in, somehow they think they’re better than you. A lot of times you get the feeling they’re looking down on you because [they think] you live in grass shacks or have a laidback lifestyle or whatever. And it’s not true. People in Hawaii work as hard or harder than people on the Mainland. So I did a trial once against some lawyers from the Mainland and I used that as my motivating factor. I said to myself, “I’m going to prove to these guys that I’m as good as, or better than them.” They ended up settling with me after I gave my opening statement.

On staying grounded

I socialize with all different kinds of people. Some of my best friends are stevedores and beachboys. I’ve got a lot of moke friends. And that keeps me grounded. Because the concerns people downtown may have, may be nothing like the concerns of other people. And if you just have a selection of friends that are very narrow, you get a skewed view of the world. Part of my job as a trial lawyer is to relate to people and communicate with people and if you can’t do that, you’re not going be as successful as you could be. And that applies to all kinds of careers.

On changing demographics

I think the leadership of the business community is more diffused than it was even 10 years ago. The demographics are changing so that there are different relationship groups now being established. We’re getting new businesses coming in and their leaders are not necessarily from Hawaii or don’t have that much of a Hawaii base. And not all the offices are downtown—or even in Hawaii—anymore, so we’re getting all these different groups relating differently. I don’t know what the outcome of all that is yet. I know I’m very committed and passionate about Hawaii and its future. What I don’t know is whether all the groups are committed to Hawaii.

On politics

I think it’s pretty important for local businesspeople to get involved in politics. Mainly because legislators try to make the best decisions they can, but if they only hear one side of a story, the laws are going to be shaped that way. So the idea is that businesspeople get involved to say, “Eh, this is my side of the story.” At the end of the day, they might not agree, but you’ve given them a better framework for making their decision.

On community commitment

I don’t think businesses and businesspeople in Hawaii get enough recognition for the amount that they give back to the community. People don’t truly appreciate that businesses can choose to help or not help. And I think their reputations are not enhanced enough by the fact that they do help. Instead, a lot of the companies are labeled as “big, bad companies.” But 90 percent of the nonprofits in Hawaii would go belly up if these same companies did not support them at the level they do. Especially now, because we have a lot more businesses in Hawaii whose decisions about community giving are being made someplace on the Mainland. For some reason, though, the general public doesn’t really appreciate the involvement of the business community in keeping these nonprofits afloat.

On strengths and weaknesses

What I’ve found out as I’ve gotten older is that your strengths can also be your weaknesses. I’m very decisive. And that can be an effective leadership trait. But people have said my decisiveness and perseverance is just me being hard head, that I just make decisions and don’t listen to other people. So I don’t think you necessarily gear down, or stop being decisive. You just change and adapt. For example, if the situation calls for it, you try to be more collaborative than decisive.

On risk

I see a lot of people, especially lawyers, who become super risk adverse because they don’t know how to deal with failure. I always tell these people, “You guys have been successful all of your life. You did well in school. You got into law school. You got a good job. But at some point, you became risk adverse because you’ve built up a reputation and have a self-image of being successful.” And once you get into that mode, you stagnate. You always have to put yourself a little bit out there. You shouldn’t take unreasonable risks, but you should definitely be taking calculated risks. That’s how you better yourself.

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