Buyers Missing From Leaders List

John W.A. ‘Doc’ Buyers '. Honolulu Star-Advertiser’ photo

Last week a wonderful tribute was paid to 50 of the best business leaders and companies in our community who have made major contributions to our state’s economy over the past half century. Obviously some of them are still very much alive and active – like my dear friend, 83-year-old John Henry Felix, one of the honorees. Others have passed on but their legacies live on, as in the case of Sen. Dan Inouye, who was honored posthumously for his exemplary work as a public official.

In the case of the top 25 businesses cited, Alexander & Baldwin was singled out for its wise stewardship and use of its land for agriculture and real estate development, and for operating Matson, Hawaii’s largest shipping company. McKinley High School alum Bobby Pfeiffer, one of the best CEOs Hawaii has ever had, was credited for developing a culture within A&B for being extremely generous and supportive of many charitable causes in the community – a tradition that stands to the present day.

Outrigger Hotels founders Roy and Estelle Kelley won the award as the outstanding business leaders. Perhaps their biggest contribution to our tourism economy is their philosophy and practice to keep room rates moderate and affordable. As a result, many a middle-class American has been able to vacation in the 808. They also have done more than their fair share to revitalize Waikiki. Remember how the makai portion of Lewers Street used to look? Beachwalk, as it is now called, would not have undergone this transformation were it not for Outrigger’s vision and investment. Doc Kelley and David Carey have followed in Roy Kelley’s footsteps as they cast their own imprimatur on the ever-expanding Outrigger hotel chain, which now oversees and manages properties throughout the Pacific Basin.

Nevertheless, whenever you go through a “best of” exercise, there always is going to be someone who maybe should have been on the list. That’s just the nature of the beast. I don’t envy the panel of judges, who most certainly faced a formidable challenge. To their credit, they did a commendable job of narrowing the list to the 50 chosen. But from this corner and from some others who opined on this matter, maybe a special recognition should have been made to the late JWA “Doc” Buyers, CEO of C. Brewer & Co., which at one time was America’s oldest company west of the Rockies. Very few understood the importance of the need for a strong relationship between business and government than Doc. One of the most chronic complaints from business is that government is always looking to gouge the private sector, and the folks in the public sector “monku” that the private guys are only motivated to make money. Doc worked assiduously to bridge this chasm. He was the most active Big 5 executive personally working the halls of Congress.

Doc’s infectious personality and charm were put to good use in helping our Hawaii delegation pass the Farm Bill time and time again. This enabled Hawaii’s sugar industry to remain alive for many years to ensure an orderly transition to diversified agriculture and other uses. He had a close working relationship with every governor and mayor of each county, and partnered with former first lady Jean Ariyoshi to launch a “Million Trees of Aloha” to stress the importance of keeping Hawaii green. By embarking on this endeavor, he raised the profile of diversified agricultural companies doing a good deed for the betterment of our Islands. As a businessman, he recognized the potential of the macadamia nut industry and marketed it big time, transforming Mauna Loa, a C. Brewer subsidiary, into a brand name nationally. He did the same with guava in the partnership he instigated with Ocean Spray and Guava Kai on Kauai.

He understood the synergistic role that business had with tourism by opening visitor centers at Mauna Loa, Guava Kai, Maui Tropical Plantation and even in Ka’u with the Punalu’u Bake Shop. He put together the largest leveraged buyout in Hawaii by purchasing C. Brewer from IU International, a Mainland company. The highly complex LBO was covered in Forbes magazine, and Doc was praised for bringing “Brewer back home to Hawaii.” To raise the money for this acquisition, he put together an impressive hui of prominent local investors coupled with some of his Princeton University connections.

He fostered mentoring by bringing some talented businessmen to Hawaii who meshed very well with the local community, such as Marvin Tilker, Allen Doane, who went on to become CEO of A&B, and James Andrasick, who later became the head of Matson Navigation. Ever the optimist, Doc was a visionary who was ahead of his time in recognizing that Hawaii possessed latent potential in developing a space industry on Hawaii Island, and although his particular initiative fell short, he helped raise the saliency of the importance of space in our community. Finally, he always championed the importance of the Neighbor Islands. He was one of the first downtown Bishop Street leaders to warn against the dangers of a Honolulu-centric mentality, and he proved it with his business activities on Kauai, Maui and Hawaii Island. With respect to the latter, he moved C. Brewer’s headquarters and operations there.

It might be easy to dismiss my nomination for Doc as coming from a biased point of view because, like several thousands of people, I worked at Brewer, or that the company is no longer around and, therefore, does not deserve to be recognized.

The “proof in the poi” is that he made a huge impact for nearly 30 years, and many of the companies he led, such as Mauna Loa, Brewer Environmental Industries, HT&T Trucking, Maui Tropical Plantation and Punalu’u Bakeshop, are still around providing critical jobs in our community.