Two Hawaii executives – one from Generation X and another from The Greatest Generation – share a common vision.
As we plan for our own future, we must listen to our past. This is a conversation between two executives, Kenneth Brown, chairman of Mauna Lani Resort, and Corine Hayashi, president and chief executive officer of HTH Corp. Both hail from two different generations, but both share a common vision for Hawaii’s business community. Brown, the older executive, was born in 1919. He received his degree from Princeton University in 1941 and returned to Hawaii to launch his career. Hayashi, born in 1966, attended Iolani High School and graduated from Mills College in 1987. Five years ago, she became president of the family-run company that her father, H.T. Hayashi, founded more than 50 years ago.
Mr. Brown, describe Hawaii’s business environment, after you returned home from Princeton University in 1941.
Brown: Back then, it was like a pyramid, where the haoles were at the top and the Hawaiians were borderline. There was a hierarchy, racially. All the other races were below them.
When did that hierarchy begin to change?
Brown: During the time of Jack Burns and his group. He became governor, and that whole Democratic Party took over the Hawaiian party. There was a huge change.
Part of that was a result of World War II. The Japanese local AJAs, the heroes of World War II came back, and people like Dan Inouye said, “Hey, we just won the war.” Strangely enough, they wanted to get into the political hierarchy. But the damn Republicans wouldn’t accept them. Racial prejudice. The Republican Party eventually died, and the Democrats came up.
There was definitely a hierarchy of racism. That was a given, like the law of gravity.
What challenges did you, as a young businessperson in his 20s and 30s, face then?
Brown: If you didn’t belong to a work corp or a Big Five company, you couldn’t get anywhere. You were just sort of borderline. The hard-earning companies back then were the Big Five, missionary-dominated companies. A lot of people of my type, who were part Hawaiian, in a sense, had to cooperate with those old missionary people in order to get ahead.
We were an unspoken hierarchy, racially. People who were Hawaiian were accepted but not co-equal. They were sort of like an exotic game bird. You fed them, plucked their feathers, but they were not making decisions.
Corine, you’re part of the new crop of young, Hawaii executives. Non-Caucasian and female. You represent what generation of Japanese Americans?
Hayashi: I’m a three-and-a-half generation. My father was born here in Hawaii. His parents were immigrants, and my mother was born here.
Describe what it was like, growing up in the family business.
Hayashi: From the very beginning, the expectation was, “You’re going to work in the business.” We grew up running around the Pacific Beach Hotel and visited wonderful properties like the Mauna Lani.
Let’s backtrack. You said you were expected to join the family business?
Hayashi: We were definitely raised by my father with the expectation that we’d all go into the family business. You have to understand where he came from. He had no shoes when he was a child. He had nothing and then he created all of this, from sheer force of will and smarts. He’s the American success story, and so, in his mind there was never a question. “My kids are so lucky. They can go into business,” was his attitude.
My first summer job at age 14 was in housekeeping. If you want to work in the hotel industry, you have to start where everyone else starts with no experience, which is in housekeeping and from there, busboy, a waitress, cashier, front desk, advertising.
What is the No. 1 challenge in running a family business?
Hayashi: It’s very hard to separate yourself from the family. At Christmas, when you’re supposed to be enjoying family and having a good time, you’re arguing about what needs to be done. It’s very easy to cross that line, and I don’t know if that is always so healthy. You get very emotional about stuff because it is family members. It’s hard to say, “Hey, this is business, and this is family.” It’s intertwined and very hard to separate.
What personal challenges do you face, as president of your company?
Hayashi: When your father was such an incredible force, you’re constantly being compared, and that’s an uncomfortable feeling. I just try to focus on me and try my best and hope that in the end, it’s OK.
Do you want your future kids to inherit your father’s legacy?
Hayashi: I’m not even married, but if I ever do have a family and have kids, I would never ever want them to feel like they were forced into a destiny that they have no control over. If they wanted to come into the business, that’s fine. If they want to. I would want my kids to go out and do something on their own first.
I recommend this to anybody. If you’re in a family business, and if you intend to work for your family business, go outside and work as a ‘regular’ person. Get a hard labor type of job. Don’t just go get something that’s simple or easy. For you it may be a summer job, but for others, that’s their job for the next 20 years of their life. It gives you respect and appreciation that you don’t have otherwise.
If you don’t make plans for succession early on, it could really create problems later. If Dad didn’t have the stroke five years ago, I don’t know if we would have ever had that issue of succession. He remains wheelchair-bound even after therapy. My sister is a psychologist on the Mainland. She’s a good study of what happens when you force your kids to go into business. My brother is also here in Hawaii taking care of our father. It’s a full-time job.
Mr. Brown, describe your generation and our (Corine’s and my) generation, and their attitude toward business.
Brown: Your generation is not so overwhelmed by the importance of business. My generation, you spend the whole life marching to the drum. Nowadays, they’re not that worried about it. You do your own thing and do it right. You don’t have to bow down to somebody.
What has that done?
Brown: What it does is it celebrates the individual’s ability to govern on his own. We live in a world where you get on the Internet and find out everything about anything. In the old days, there was a hierarchy of knowledge.
Back then, business was the heart pumping the soul of Hawaii. Today, we have culture; we have music. In those days, we had the plantations. Sugar workers and the price of sugar all over the world governed the thoughts and marked the quality of our life. We were dependent on the world’s sugar market.
Hayashi: My dad grew up on the plantation. My father’s generation suffered deprivation. They didn’t have the luxuries of today, like the Internet for instance. Coca-Cola was a big deal. I remember him telling me stories where some of the other kids on holidays would spend their 5 cents on Coke. He had to save his money, because he was so poor. It’s a little hard for someone from our generation to relate, to understand that. I think I’m pretty young. My father is older. I vividly remember stories he told me about growing up and how hard it was, how difficult it was.
Corine, let me ask you the same question. Describe our generation, and Mr. Brown’s generation.
Hayashi: I’m a big believer in learning from the person before you. In his generation, when he was in his 20s and 30s, business was thought about a lot. Our generation, we have a broader perspective.
There is a different work ethic. An example is after Sept. 11. Even I was working around the clock, trying to figure out the next strategy to overcome our situation. But we still saw the younger generation going home at 5 o’clock.
Dad worked 80 to 100 hours a week. I’ve done that. Looking back, I don’t know how much good that did, either. Did that really make that much money and how important is it, versus quality of life? You need to reach some point of life where there’s a balance.
Define Hawaii’s position and its relationship with the global economy.
Brown: Hawaii no longer has the luxury of being a nice little jewel all by itself, taking the sunshine from the east and west. Now, it’s part of a huge village of people, cultures, dollars. It’s an entirely different world. Sadly enough, some of my generation resents that, that the world changed so rapidly. Hawaii is now one little marvelous part of a mosaic. In the olden days, this was a melting pot, where everyone came together. Now we’re part of a mosaic – that’s Hawaii, that’s the Philippines. If you accept that, you can say, wow we’re lucky. We were lucky in Hawaii. The hospitality business settled here and became a dominant business. We harvested that goodwill.
Hayashi: That’s so true. That aloha spirit, what Mr. Brown is talking about, is inherent and part of Hawaii and how the people are. It’s exactly what he said—it’s not a fake sort of thing. It’s a natural extension of the aloha spirit that we have.
We, in Hawaii, try to position ourselves to compete with other states and countries. The question is, do others take us seriously?
Brown: They don’t take us seriously yet. And I guess we’re just waiting for that to happen. Even if we blow our own horns, that doesn’t do any good. Just let people wake up. The world has a way of getting to know itself, and the way I see it, the world is one shared information. Little pockets of culture.
Hayashi: We’re beginning to show our own. One thing about Hawaii – in New York, when you mention a place like that, they make a very big deal about telling everybody how wonderful they are. And I don’t think we’re so good at doing that ourselves, and I don’t know if it’s because culturally, we’re more humble. I also believe you can go out there and say anything you want. But you have to walk the walk. I belong to an organization called the Young Presidents Organization. I can go to an international gathering of other CEOs from other countries, not just America, and see that what we do is definitely competitive with what they do, if not, better in some ways. And that is a wonderful feeling when I come back here.
Sometimes, I think we get a little hung up on how dismal the economy is and how we’re not really progressing. But I’ll tell you some of that is really self-perpetuating. Do you know that Hawaii still remains the No. 1 destination for Americans in their dream destination? There are a lot of good things that we have here in Hawaii. We have to focus on those that make them stronger, rather than always focusing on what’s perceived as what’s negative.
What about the local population, the young people who leave Hawaii for better opportunities elsewhere? How do we make Hawaii attractive to our own people?
Hayashi: It starts with our children’s education. We need to communicate to our children that Hawaii is a wonderful place to work. It starts with schools. We need to communicate with them better about what expectations there are in the business community.
Did many of your classmates leave Hawaii for better opportunities?
Hayashi: Most of my friends I know are out here. They’ve gone to the Mainland, but they’ve come back. I see that happening. That’s a plus for Hawaii. I love to see the workforce educated like that because they see the good and the bad of the Mainland, and they take the experiences and implement them here.
But what if these workers don’t return to Hawaii? That becomes a problem, doesn’t it?
Brown: They’ll come back eventually. They’re like little viruses. They’re bringing Hawaii all over the world.
Imagine Hawaii 20, 30, 40 years from now. What do you see?
Brown: I see Hawaii as a place with all kinds of new variety and forces. There is not much we, in Hawaii ourselves, can do to alter our destiny. The main thing to do is to be aware of those forces. Get to know Asia, Japan, Silicon Valley. We would now need to know how other people think. They are the ones who determine our future. We can tell them what we want to do. Find out what they are thinking about us and put ourselves in a position of influence in a benign way. I’ve been reading a book about theory of generation, thousands of years. God runs the world and God is benign. What we’re finding out is it’s not God, but there are other human forces that run the world. Some of us have to figure out where those forces are. It’s like surfing. Find out where the waves are, which way they’re going, and learn how to ride them.
What should we continue to do?
Brown: I don’t think we should be self-conscious about ourselves. Go do your own thing. Do what you think is right. It’s sort of like a beautiful woman making herself all miserable with make-up. She’s born attractive. She’s a nice person. If you’re attractive already, like Hawaii is already, you don’t have to be self-conscious about it. Just do your thing. Generate self-confidence. Tell yourself, “I’m a good person, so I don’t have to put on all that make-up.” I think Hawaii is, and we’re finding that out over the years. Hawaii is an attraction to people from all over the world. Not that there’s anything super-small. We’re lucky.
More and more, we’re part of a universal huge community. Find out where the waves are and predict them. I keep going back to the metaphor of surfing. You figure out where the patterns are. Surfing is Hawaii’s gift to the world. A metaphor.
The main thing to do is watch the world and see where it’s going. In the old days, we were an isolated island, separated from Asia and the U.S. Mainland. They would come here. Now, the secret to Hawaii is to find out and listen to what’s going on all over the world. Don’t try to change it, just know about it. Our real catch is to watch all of the world. Not just putting the bells up like in the old days and saying, “I’m in Hawaii.” Find out what’s happening all over the world, and respond to that.
Hayashi: What Mr. Brown says is very true. One of the ways to stay competitive is to go out there and see what the new developments are and what’s happening, because again, the world is shrinking, and we’re competing not just with Oahu vs. Maui. It’s Hawaii vs. Australia, huge countries, not just states. I can’t agree with him more. It’s so important to keep up with the new developments out there. In Hawaii, we meet that challenge every day. And I think we’ll continue to.