Friday, January 22, 1999

Call centers called
boost for economy

By Mike Yuen


Establishing the state as the Asia-Pacific hub for "call centers," which would provide mainland companies' technical and product information, may simply require marketing Hawaii.

That's the conclusion Gov. Ben Cayetano expressed yesterday as he joined Campbell Estate in welcoming Southco Inc., a Pennsylvania-headquartered manufacturer of latches and hardware, for opening a call center in Kapolei.

The state Senate is considering tax breaks for such high-tech centers, which take inquiries about a company's products or service.

Cayetano and key senators believe that the state's anemic economy will receive a major boost if Hawaii develops a niche industry for call centers.

The state, they said, has competitive advantages. They include:

bullet A multilingual work force that gives the state an edge in luring firms interested in doing business in Asia.

bullet A time zone that allows companies to do businesses in Asia and on the mainland in the same working day.

bullet A high quality telecommunications infrastructure.

Stephen Kelly, Southco president and chief executive officer, said the most significant problem he had in convincing fellow company executives that a call center should be opened in Hawaii was that the isles are known mainly for sun and surf.

Cayetano said since Southco, which has 1,600 full-time employees in 14 countries, decided on its own to come to Hawaii, the state may make a better investment by telling mainland businesses that Hawaii has an environment geared to high technology that's strategically positioned to reach Asia, Cayetano said.

"Every other place that we will be competing with can offer tax breaks, too," he said.

Senate President Norman Mizuguchi (D, Aiea) said: "My whole goal or vision is to have a success story. It's really a matter of doing a little more in this area," Mizuguchi said.

It could start with the establishment of a position for a high-tech czar or director of high technology programs who would be the state's point man in connecting with firms interested in establishing call centers in Hawaii and who would help the companies cut through red tape, Mizuguchi said.

High-tech experts have told senators that given the financial crisis affecting Asia, the state has a lead time of about 18 months to become highly competitive in pursuing call centers serving Asia and the Pacific, Mizuguchi said.

In addition to tax breaks, the experts also suggested that office or land partnerships might be considered to lure call centers.

Campbell Estate officials, seeking call centers and telemarketing sites for its Kapolei development, which has state-of-the-art telecommunications, say salaries at isle call centers could range from $8 an hour to $18 an hour, depending on a worker's skills.

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