firm mixes high-
tech, high finance
Kamakura Corp. has gainedBy Rob Perez
more of a global footing since
moving here from Tokyo
DON'T let the rubber slippers and shorts fool you.
These people are professionals, experts in corporate finance, engineering or a host of other specialized topics. They have advanced degrees from top universities and deal in the rarefied, high-finance world of risk management.
Their software products help companies make investment and lending decisions with millions of dollars at stake.
But you would never know it from their work attire.
Step into their plain-looking office at the Manoa Innovation Center and you'd think they were heading to the beach.
Slippers and shorts seem to be the uniform of choice. Or blue jeans and sneakers -- for those more inclined to dress up.
This isn't Wall Street. Not even Bishop Street.
But the folks at Kamakura Corp., a software development and financial advisory firm, like it that way.
The company moved its small headquarters from Tokyo to Honolulu in December 1997 partly because of Hawaii's casualness and its natural beauty. Such a combination, company officials believed, would help attract and retain top talent in a high-tech world notorious for rapid turnover.
When company founder and President Donald van Deventer began considering places for possible relocation, he looked at Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, Seattle and Honolulu.
Van Deventer wanted to relocate to give his company, which he founded in 1990, more of an international footing.
When Kamakura was based in Tokyo, most of its clients and 90 percent of revenue came from Japan. Today its customer base is more diverse, helped by Hawaii's proximity between Asia and the U.S. mainland. Only 20 percent to 30 percent of revenue now comes from Japan, according to van Deventer.
He wouldn't disclose the company's total revenue, except to say it is in the mid-seven figures. Its offices stretch from New York to Kuala Lumpur, employing close to 30 people.
Van Deventer, a Los Angeles native with a doctorate in business economics from Harvard University, also was looking to relocate because he was having trouble hiring software developers in Tokyo.
In Honolulu, Kamakura can attract top applicants and pay substantially less than what software developers earn in big-money markets like San Francisco, New York City and Tokyo, van Deventer said. Many would-be employees are willing to earn less in exchange for working in Hawaii, he said. "It's one of the cost advantages of being here."
But because Kamakura competes with companies in the big-money markets and derives virtually all its revenue from outside Hawaii, it can pay higher wages than what would be considered typical for the local high-tech market, he said.
Van Deventer dismissed a recent Forbes magazine survey that indicated Hawaii is a terrible place for high-tech businesses. "I think what Forbes missed is they didn't collect the most relevant information about the cost of doing software business in places where they do it."
Jon Salmon, senior vice president for California-based Wells Fargo Bank, which recently became a Kamakura client, said the company's Hawaii location shouldn't hurt in attracting new business, especially in today's high-tech, global market. "Generally, it's kind of irrelevant where a company has its headquarters," Salmon said.
In the risk management business, he said, Kamakura is considered a formidable competitor. "They're really one of the innovators," Salmon said.
The main complaint van Deventer has about doing business in Hawaii has nothing to do with finding qualified workers or paying high taxes -- typical shortcomings cited by high-tech types.
His main beef: foreign residents have too much trouble getting Hawaii driver's licenses, even if they're competent drivers. Van Deventer knows several who had to take the driving test several times before passing. That factor can make recruiting foreigners more difficult, he said.
Kamakura has only seven people in its Manoa office, including Kenji Imai, who has a master's degree in management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Imai was among those who relocated from Tokyo.
"I was very happy to move here," Imai said. He said his wife, who was reluctant to leave her home country of Japan, now doesn't want to go back.
The move has helped more than just the employees' psyche. Business has grown dramatically.
From Hawaii, van Deventer said, Kamakura can more easily deal with clients in Asia and the U.S. mainland on the same business day. "It's an extremely efficient place to cover the whole Pacific region. Hawaii is more than just palm trees, clear skies and blue water, although that helps," van Deventer said.
He expects revenue to jump roughly 150 percent this year. At that rate, van Deventer said, the company will have to hire 10 to 20 people locally a year.