FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
The Lau family eats at Makiki Taco Bell/Pizza Hut on Beretania Street during their weekly family trip. From left, Eric, Connie, Russell and Greg Lau enjoy a meal there. Eric likes lots of taco sauce and he pours it on. The Laus' oldest child, Jennifer, attends Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
High powered but humble, well paid but frugal, busy but focused, chief executives Russell and Connie haven't forgotten their roots
Russell and Connie Lau are an absolute power-couple, from absolutely humble roots -- and as acorns, they have not fallen far from their family trees.
Russell is vice chairman and chief executive of Finance Factors, Ltd.
, started by his father and five other local patriarchs. He was recently named to the board of directors of the Federal Home Loan Bank in Seattle.
In less than three months, Connie will become the first woman president and chief executive of Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc., one of only 20 female honchos leading a Fortune 1,000 company. The promotion also will make her chairwoman of two HEI subsidiaries, electric utility Hawaiian Electric Co. Inc. and American Savings Bank.
She has been ranked No. 11 among the 25 Most Powerful Women in Banking by U.S. Banker magazine.
Were this a mainland newspaper, it also would be a big deal that she is Chinese, or of any ethnicity other than Caucasian, for that matter.
Neither was born into the privilege they now enjoy.
"I would say, quite the opposite," Connie said. "But I was really privileged in that I had a wonderful family. They were always incredibly supportive and I guess I would call that privilege worth a whole lot more than money. To a large extent, it permeates the philosophy with which we raise our own kids."
Connie's mother was one of eight children raised by their mother after their father's untimely death. Her father ran away from the mainland military school Territorial Gov. Sanford Dole sent him to -- and joined Vaudeville. After returning to Hawaii, he married her mother and worked in real estate.
Finance Factors was incorporated 18 days after Russell was born.
"When you start a company, nobody's rich and nobody has any money," he laughed. Daniel Lau and his partners believed in retaining the company's earnings for further growth, "to make the organization get bigger and stronger to better serve the community," he said.
His father worked long hours. "I learned from him that if you want to get anywhere you have really got to work hard."
His mother was a strong woman who taught her children to be humble. She grew up working in her mother's Chinese laundry in Pennsylvania -- and came from a very frugal background. "It doesn't get any more stereotypical," he said.
"We talk to (the children) about the value of working hard, struggling to be successful," Russell said. "We don't spoil them. We make them work hard and try to instill values," he said. "As a result, our kids are very fiscally prudent."
Russell clips and uses coupons, notably for the weekly family trip to Taco Bell.
"People kid me all the time, but cheap is good."
Leading by example
Hard work by Connie and Russell Lau's parents enabled them to attend Punahou, but excelling was up to them.
Connie received financial aid and worked while in college.
"When you grow up the way that I did, you're very practical and pragmatic. You do what you can with what you have. You make the best advantage of the opportunities that are given you and you don't complain about opportunities that people don't give you."
It makes everything "precious," she said.
Connie's upbringing drives her philosophy for running the bank.
Her parents saved rubber bands from the newspaper and twist-ties and paper bags from the grocery store. "You never throw anything away," she said.
"Everything has value and I very much feel that way about our work force. I absolutely refuse to give up on anybody ... as long as they're willing to work hard, we can find a place for them."
From the top
Russell and Connie are Punahou Class of 1970 alumni but they did not date there, though they both played in the band. He played clarinet. She started out on violin and viola, but the orchestra director switched her to the timpani, a drum that can be tuned, because of her strong sense of pitch.
It wasn't until Connie was on the mainland attending law school with Russell's older brother, Jeff, that they started dating. Jeff and his wife arranged a ski trip to Lake Tahoe for the four of them, even though Connie viewed skiing as an expensive way to get a broken leg.
Russell had worked at a ski resort in Vermont, "and he actually was pretty good and I guess that just kind of did it," she said.
"I was so proud of this new relationship, I wanted to introduce him to all my friends in law school," but many already knew him from Kaimuki Intermediate School. "He had known them longer than I had," she laughed.
Paved with sandwiches
They were married a week after Connie finished law school, in 1977. They squeezed in a honeymoon before she started business school, and bought a house in San Francisco with a down payment borrowed from Russell's dad.
Russell doesn't eat sandwiches anymore because that was his home-packed lunch during their early newlywed days. They lived paycheck to paycheck.
"Oh, I could tell you stories!" he said.
He was working at Security Pacific Bank in San Francisco, Connie was attending business school. She had some savings from a summer job, but his paycheck was basically it.
Russell's take-home pay was $1,050 a month and their mortgage was $507.49, but there were also utility bills, gasoline expenses, commuter rail passes and food, "so we were on fumes for two years that she was in business school."
"If we had $20 in our checking account, that was a lot of money," he laughed. He still has the expense journal they kept "to monitor every penny we spent."
Those pennies went further buying whole chickens than pre-cut parts. "I learned how to cut up a whole chicken," he said.
The duck the Laus served for the Super Bowl was purchased whole and the bones were used to make jook (rice soup).
"People who know us, know we try to find the cheapest, most effective way to get things done," he said.
They don't have a personal chef. Both Laus cook and do a lot of it over weekends to stock the refrigerator for the week.
They have housecleaning help, but "the guy who scrubs the bathroom is Russell," Connie laughed.
Russell emphatically attributes their long and flourishing marriage to one factor, "My wife. My wife
"She has been a great influence on me. She has not only modeled companies and nonprofit organizations, she's modeled me! (laughs) I'm a better person because of her."
Communication is their secret, Connie said. "We always just talk a lot, and we're very honest with each other, including sharing our feelings."
It's important in marriage and at work.
"We have a strong policy of everybody getting along and everybody pulling together," Connie said. "We don't let people harbor differences, and it is the same way Russell and I run our marriage."
It helps that both are CEOs and understand the pressures and responsibilities that come with the gig. "When you are a CEO, you don't just belong to your family, you belong to your employees. I'm very cognizant that I'm their bread-ticket. If I don't run the companies well and the companies aren't profitable, my employees are at risk and their families are at risk."
The Laus don't talk much about work, though.
"We're so busy just trying to run the home, from who's going to pick up which kid, do laundry and grocery shop," she said.
Russell would "rather spend time schlepping kids" to their activities than playing golf.
The Laus identify their children as their top priority and make free time to spend with them.
"I always said that when you're balancing your life, the kids are not part of that balance ... once you bring kids into this world, you have to make sure you're there for them," Connie said.
She admits to being the "overachieving type" that made baby food from scratch when her children were infants. She still has the food grinder.
Beyond home and office
Like other business leaders, the Laus are constantly asked to serve on this board or donate to that cause, making it easy to get spread too thin.
Aside from motherhood, Connie's life is "integrated," she said. "Some people work a 9 to 5 and go home and that'll be family time. I've never had the luxury of having a life like that." She has a 24-hour-7-day-a-week time frame to fit everything in.
Senior officers at Finance Factors are required to serve a nonprofit organization. "You can't get promoted unless you're involved in a nonprofit," Russell said.
He chooses organizations that have touched his family's life in some way, and to which he can give back. "I would rather do more for fewer, than a little for a lot," he said.
He recently stepped down from the board at his daughter's alma mater, St. Andrew's Priory, because of his obligation to the Federal Home Loan Bank.
Connie is awaiting the appointment of a successor for her trusteeship at Kamehameha Schools, a position she hates to leave, but must because of the demands of her impending new titles.
If you give heart and soul to help people and burn out, "you can't help anybody," she said. It was a perspective she learned from Patti Lyons, recently retired president and chief executive of the Consuelo Foun- dation.
It is important not to overcommit and "make sure that you can make good on your commitments and balance your life so you don't burn out," she said.
In other words, for these bankers, sometimes the only right answer, is "no."
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FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Connie and Russell Lau make a point to spend time with their kids, including, Eric, left, and Greg.
Vice chairman and chief executive officer, Finance Factors Ltd.; director, Federal Home Loan Bank of Seattle
» Community involvement:
Treasurer, Assets School; secretary, Catholic Charities; assistant treasurer, American Judicature Society.
Pacific Coast Bank School; University of Oregon, MBA in Finance; University of Puget Sound, B.A. in Finance
» High school:
Incoming president and chief executive officer, Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc. and chairwoman of subsidiary Hawaiian Electric Co. Inc. and chairwoman of American Savings Bank.
President and chief executive officer, American Savings Bank
President of the Hawaii Bankers Association
Outgoing trustee Kamehameha Schools
» Community involvement:
Director, Alexander & Baldwin Inc.; Punahou School; the Consuelo Zobel Alger Foundation and the Maunalani Foundation.
Undergraduate degree from Yale College, law degree from the University of California Hastings College of the Law and MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
» High school:
Jennifer, 19, Wellesley College, Mass.; Greg, 17, Punahou; Eric, 14, Punahou