Sages Over 70: Robbie Alm
The former senior VP at Hawaiian Electric says that when businesses put the community first, they’re more likely to earn respect and support.
Robbie Alm has stepped down from his official positions but still shares his experiences with young people through speeches and training sessions four or five times a year.
He tells young leaders to “become great storytellers,” because, he says, “storytelling is the way to teach.”
But he also advises each young person to become the “world’s greatest listener.” And he doesn’t envy the challenges that await them.
“The next generations face monumental challenges with climate change, wealth disparity, the growing levels of violence and social dysfunction, and a political system that struggles to find consensus and answers,” he says.
“I believe they will find ways through these that make sense and work for them, and us, and those of us with age and experience (i.e. elders) need to stand with them and behind them, and help them on their terms.”
Mentored a Team
Alm, who turns 71 on Oct. 16, stepped down from his volunteer positions on the boards of Boys & Girls Clubs of Hawaii and the Hawaii Justice Foundation a few years ago. Earlier, in August 2013, he retired as executive VP at Hawaiian Electric Co.
In the early 2000s Alm created a clean energy team at Hawaiian Electric and asked Scott Seu and several other mid-level managers to be a part of it. Seu says Alm became an unofficial mentor for him and others on the team.
While the group searched for ways to produce 40% of the utility’s electricity from renewable energy by 2030, Seu says, he learned from Alm “the power of bringing together a diverse group of folks and to take them a little bit out of their day, their normal thinking or their day jobs, and be able to free them up to really think about solutions.”
As an engineer, Seu says he thought about the “technical solutions” before the “human issues.” Alm taught him to flip that mindset and to understand that “technology is there to solve human needs.”
Listening to the Community
Alm joined Hawaiian Electric in 2001 as Senior VP of Public Affairs. For his first 60 days, he focused exclusively on engaging with community members to find out how the company was viewed in the community.
“I met with PUC commissioners, retired commissioners, legislators, employees, retired employees, people who hated our guts, the environmental community, just everyone, and just said: ‘Tell me about Hawaiian Electric, tell me about your experiences with Hawaiian Electric. Have we ever done anything right? What have we done wrong?’ ”
Alm says he came back with stacks of notes about Hawaiian Electric’s past arrogance and poor treatment of community members, and that those notes “guided the next 10 years of my working life.”
He led his team with the mindset of treating everybody “with respect and dignity.” As he set Hawaiian Electric on that course, he says, the community began to treat the company with that same respect.
This change in direction paved the way for Hawaiian Electric to build the Campbell Industrial Park Generating Station with community support, Alm says.
“It was just such a great lesson that if you sit down and work with the community … you’re going to get a very different kind of treatment because you went respectfully and you asked them, ‘How do you want me to treat you?’ ”
Empowering Young People
Alm says that before he left Hawaiian Electric, he focused on training “bright, young” employees like Seu – people who grew up in the community and were connected to it – to be the company’s next leaders. Seu was named president and CEO of Hawaiian Electric Co. in February 2020 and became CEO of the parent company, Hawaiian Electric Industries, on Jan. 1, 2022.
Seu says Alm’s mentoring gave that group a deeper sense of connection and duty to the land and the people.
As more and more like-minded people assume leadership of the company, Seu says, Hawaiian Electric “becomes more than just being a really good, well-run business. … It also becomes, ‘How do we see ourselves as a company serving and executing on that duty to this community?’ ”
Sensitivity and Respect
Early in his career, Alm worked as an assistant to U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye. He learned from him the importance of understanding a culture and respecting its traditions before meeting its people.
“It was that leadership of sensitivity to other cultures. I thought, ‘that’s a Hawai‘i thing,’ ” that sensitivity and desire to be respectful to others, Alm says.
Seu says Alm lived out those beliefs. “It’s easy to say, well, I’m just so busy. I don’t have time to do anything but my work and my family,” Seu says. “But what I saw in Robbie, I know it wasn’t easy, but he was always able to also spend time really focusing on service via nonprofits or community activities.”
What’s the biggest lesson Seu learned from Alm? “It’s the strength of the team. It’s the strength of the community. If you do that well, then the company will succeed. But it’s in that order. You focus on the human need and the community’s need first and then from that, businesses will succeed.”