J.W.A. "DOC" BUYERS / 1928-2006
C. Brewer chief saw beyond sugar
He spearheaded the move toward diversified agriculture
John W.A. "Doc" Buyers, who led C. Brewer & Co. Ltd. for more than 25 years and diversified the "Big Five" company from sugar to other businesses and crops, died on the East Coast yesterday, his wife said. He was 77.
Buyers was diagnosed with cancer in March, said his wife, Elizabeth Buyers.
"Clearly, he was one of the giants of Hawaii for many, many years," said Andy Levin, executive director for Big Island Mayor Harry Kim. "We were certainly blessed to have him on the Big Island in trying to keep sugar going and keep our economy going as sugar was going down."
Buyers came to Hawaii in 1975 to run C. Brewer, and led the transformation of the company from a sugar grower into diversified agriculture with brand names such as Mauna Loa Macadamia Nuts, Royal Kona Coffee, Hawaii's Own tropical juices, Punalu'u Sweetbread and Kukui jams and jellies.
In 1986, Buyers led a group of investors in a $200 million leveraged buyout of C. Brewer. He ran the new company as chairman and chief executive officer. The investors agreed to cash out in 2001 and began selling off its assets, including 70,000 acres of land.
Buyers formed a new company called D. Buyers Enterprises LLC, specializing in tropical juices, diversified agriculture and real estate, and purchased some C. Brewer assets for himself.
Buyers got C. Brewer out of sugar in 1996 and looked for new uses for the former sugar lands, pushing the development of the macadamia nut and guava industries.
At one point, he backed a plan to build a spaceport in Kau.
"He was the eternal optimist," said Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who worked for C. Brewer from 1984 to 1991, leaving the company as its vice president for marketing and corporate development. "With Doc, there was always a silver lining out there. He approached this job with tremendous energy and enthusiasm."
Hannemann, who considered Buyers his mentor, said the businessman was one of the first among the leaders at Hawaii "Big Five" companies to diversify out of sugar.
"Doc thought very strongly about diversified ag," Hannemann said last night. "We've lost a great, great leader, someone who I think made a long-lasting contribution to Hawaii."
In the 1990s, Buyers envisioned a market for Hawaii products internationally, and friends said he was well ahead of his time in foreseeing a bright future for organically grown crops and exotic fruits.
"I'm going to try to make the Big Island the wellness center of the world. If you grow natural foods there with the Hawaii name on them, boy, are you going to get a premium for it," Buyers told the Star-Bulletin in 1997.
Buyer believed so much in highlighting the Big Island's farms that he moved C. Brewer's headquarters to Hilo in 1998.
Levin, a former Big Island state senator, said yesterday that Buyers was instrumental in keeping the Big Island's economy afloat and shifting sugar workers into growers of coffee, macadamia nuts and other diversified crops.
The company leased former sugar lands to small farmers growing a wide variety of products on the Hamakua Coast and elsewhere.
Buyers married Elizabeth Lindsey, an actress, documentary filmmaker and former Miss Hawaii, in 1999.
"I'm so deeply touched by the breadth and scope of his life," Elizabeth Buyers said last night. "I was incredibly fortunate to be married to him.
The two would often sit under the stars and dream together, she said. "Doc was childlike in many ways. He was in awe with everything," his wife said. "It was infectious. I think that's why he was successful -- he saw everything as possible. It permeated everything."
Buyers, a former Marine, graduated cum laude from Princeton University in 1952 and got his master's in business administration from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In 2003 Buyers was selected by the National Republican Congressional Committee's Business Advisory Council as Hawaii's Businessman of the Year, and in 2004 received the Robert J. Pfeiffer medal of honor. He was inducted into the Hawaii Business Hall of Fame in 1994.
Buyers served on numerous business and charity boards, including the Chamber of Commerce in Hawaii, the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association and the Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii.
He was also honorary chairman of the Hawaii Island Food Bank and Hospice of Hilo.
Besides his wife, Buyers is survived by daughters Elsie Viehman, Rebecca Buyers-Basso, Jane Buyers Russo, and six grandchildren. He will be buried in Lancaster, Penn. Memorial services will also be held in Honolulu and on the Big Island, but details are pending.
Star-Bulletin reporters Craig Gima, Mary Vorsino and Helen Altonn contributed to this story.