Turning Red Dirt Into Pay Dirt

August, 2003

In 1837, two lay missionaries from Boston, Samuel Northrup Castle and Amos Starr Cooke, arrived in what were then called the Sandwich Islands and quickly became influential people. In 1839, the Cooke family helped to start the Royal School, a Christian institution charged with educating children of the alii. Hawaii’s sovereign, King Kamehameha III, named Castle an adviser to the throne in 1843. Eight years later, the two men opened a wholesale business in Honolulu. The sign they hung outside their depository read Kakela Me Kuke, or Castle & Cooke in Hawaiian. By 1853, the company had become the fourth largest in the Islands.

For the century and a half since, Castle & Cooke Inc. has maintained a place in the firmament of top Hawaii companies. A longtime member of the Big Five conglomerates that dominated Hawaii’s economy for much of the past century, Castle & Cooke’s business lines at various times included tuna fishing and packing, steamship operations, farming and distribution of sugar and pineapple, and railroads. Today, the Big Five are only a memory and the company under that old kamaaina banner is, in fact, a subsidiary of Dole Foods that oversees most of the fresh fruit giant’s nonagricultural operations. For the most part, that means real estate development and real estate management in Hawaii and on the Mainland. “It’s quite a bit different than what we were doing 20 years ago,” says Harry Saunders, president of Castle & Cooke Homes Hawaii and the highest-ranking company executive currently based in the Islands.

Though its scope of operations might be diminished, that doesn’t mean Castle & Cooke is thinking small in the Aloha State. The company has developed big planned communities such as Mililani, with its thousands of homes and apartments and its office park and retail town center. Castle & Cooke also developed the revived Dole Cannery in Iwilei, now a retail and entertainment destination. Then there are the two Lanai resorts and real estate operations on the Pineapple Isle, a pet project of Dole Chief Executive Officer David Murdock. Castle & Cooke remains one of Hawaii’s 10 largest landowners and maintains offices on Oahu and Lanai. The company stands poised to embark on the next phase of its Mililani Master Plan, a development of 3,000 to 4,500 residences on 763 acres to be called Koa Ridge. The plan should take 20 years to completely build out and promises a steady revenue stream for many years to come. “Our base is in the land and the land we own here. It’s a long-term commitment and it has been for over 100 years,” says Saunders.

With the Neighbor Islands now growing far faster than Oahu, Saunders figures Castle & Cooke will look to Maui and the Big Island for future growth. The company is currently not a major landholder in those areas, but Saunders doesn’t see this as an impediment. “We see an obvious need for development and planned communities over there,” he says. While the old days of Big Five domination might seem rose-tinted, Castle & Cooke hardly pines for the volatility of agriculture and the stress of managing far-flung operations. “In some ways, development has become more stable than agriculture.” That’s the irony of the new reality in Hawaii – the view is worth a lot more than fruits of the soil. Leave it to an old kamaaina hand to turn red dirt into even more pay dirt than the sweet fruits of the past.

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Alex Salkever