The Silent Partner

Robin K. Campaniano shares some of his thoughts on local-style business and what he tells the next generation of leaders

January, 2007

“It started out with a ‘Let’s do lunch,’” recounts Robin K. Campaniano, the 55-year-old president and CEO of AIG Hawaii Insurance Co. The remark was made by a young professional in Hawaii looking for guidance. That was 15 years ago, and more than a few people have since asked for some counsel time over a meal. Today, Robin has more than a dozen people he says he is “watching over in some fashion.” Robin sat down with us and shared some of his thoughts on local-style business and what he tells the next generation of leaders.

HB: Can you describe some differences between businesspeople in Hawaii and on the Mainland?

RC: When I hang around with some of the guys, and they could be the president of this company and the CEO of that, and these are captains-of-industry type jobs, and we stand around BSing like kids in a locker room.

I think one of the reasons we do that is there are very few pretenses with a lot of local executives. And I think of when I have been involved with some mainland CEOs, Mainland captains of industry, it tends to be a lot more formal. It’s like “I am the chairman of the board of this and that, therefore, by virtue of that alone, I demand respect.” You don’t see a lot of that here.

HB: What’s the source of that difference?

RC: People here aren’t as eager to blow their own horns, and very typically are understated about their accomplishments. There are maxims in the many cultures that make up Hawaii that say the nail that stands up gets pounded down. So there is a great desire to not stand up and draw attention to oneself.

HB: Do we need a program that teaches newcomers the differences or do you learn the hard way, by trial?

RC: It would not be the most important issue for an executive coming down here. It is not like when they get off the plane you have to send off a warning shot: “Learn how to speak like a Hawaiian, learn how to dress like a Hawaiian.” It’s just part of the overall package of fitting in.

HB: There are some who are saying we are losing our local style of doing business with the increasing loss of kamaaina businesses. Is that a concern of yours?

RC: I don’t care where you are and where you grew up, everyone likes to look back on the good old days. And I think that is something we all would like, but as you get older things do change. The big issue is whether you can capture the essence of what was so important, and I think that is why you have a lot of people who want open skies and open beaches and no more development.

From my perspective, it is the values, the easy-going way, the live-and-let-live attitude, that certain kind of friendliness and open way we deal with people, that are important to me and I hope that these will continue. I am optimistic that a lot of people that I meet and engage adjust quickly to that, and I would hope that we see more and more of that.

HB: What have you learned from watching local and Mainland businesspeople interact?

RC: We had dinner with some very close friends. One of them is from the Midwest and says that everything is very closed here and because he is a haole from the Mainland, he can’t get ahead. And it has gotten to the point that he believes it and it will become true for him.

The same week we heard this diatribe from this guy we had a dinner with a couple new executives, not in insurance, just guys we knew. They had moved here relatively recently, and they have adapted to life here really well. They have brought their own sensitivities to others; yeah, they speak with a different accent, but they are delightful. And they have quickly gotten into the scheme of things and their spouses have done extremely well in their own professions. It was their frame of mind.

HB: What is the most important thing a young professional should know about doing business in Hawaii?

RC: The only thing you’ve got going for you in this town at the end of the day is your name, your reputation, and that depends on whether you are a person of integrity and honesty. That is one thing I try to stress to anybody that is willing to listen to me.

HB: Does the right business decision extend past your bottom line?

RC: In this town, extending past your bottom line is very important. If you look at business leadership Hawaii, what stands out? Often, before a person’s success as a business executive, you look at what they are doing, how they are acting and where they have contributed in the community. I don’t think you can get very far in this town if you don’t take it upon yourself to try to build the community in ways other than trying to be the best business person you can be.

HB: Why is that?

RC: This is a small town and no matter how much it has changed over the years it is still a community that is very supportive of everyone else. And I think this is something that goes to the fabric of our people.

HB: Would you have any advice to people starting out?

RC: The advice I give most consistently is to make sure you like what you are doing. And if you don’t have a passion for what you are doing, then there is no point in coming to work. Then it’s toil.

HB: Considering the cost of living in Hawaii, is that something you can afford to do?

RC: It comes back to values again. If you are in it for the money, Hawaii is certainly not the best place to be. I think that, hands down, there are better-paying jobs in the same occupation class all over the Mainland. The paradise tax is considerable. For many it is promotions. For many more, it is financial compensation.

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Scott Radway