Saturday, September 11, 1999

100 Who Made A Difference

StarHenry J. Kaiser Star

Star-Bulletin file photo
Industrialist Henry Kaiser rose above those who scoffed at his
ideas for Oahu between the 1930s and '60s. His projects include
the Hilton Hawaiian Village, Kaiser Permanente and Hawaii Kai.

Developer leaves lasting marks

By Rob Perez


THE naysayers told Henry Kaiser to get real. Don't build a hotel on what was then the blighted fringe of Waikiki, they advised him.

Don't build a hospital that relied on the untested concept of prepaid health insurance.

Don't develop a residential community in undeveloped East Oahu.

The projects, Kaiser was told, were too risky and ill-conceived.

But the world-renowned industrialist of the 1930s, '40s, '50s and '60s paid little heed to the skeptics. He built the hotel, built the hospital, developed the housing.

Today those projects -- or what they evolved into -- are major parts of Hawaii's landscape. The Hilton Hawaiian Village is Waikiki's largest hotel complex. Kaiser Permanente is a major provider of health care statewide. And Hawaii Kai, what Kaiser is best known for locally, is home to thousands of Oahu residents.

Kaiser's ability not only to see success where others saw failure but to make that success happen -- sometimes circumventing established procedures and raising the ire of detractors -- was a key factor in Hawaii's post-war development, people who knew him say.

"He was a great visionary," said Tim Yee, 73, a retired executive who worked with Kaiser. "The way he thought was that nothing was impossible."

Kaiser's legacy in Hawaii goes well beyond those three projects. He started a concrete plant here, founded a radio and television station, and was involved in numerous other ventures, many launched despite misgivings from critics.

"He always said to 'his boys,' as he called us, 'Don't tell me why I can't do it. What I need is someone to tell me how to do it,' " his son, Edgar, once said of his father.

Kaiser, who had a rags-to-riches background, made a name for himself nationally during World War II when his shipbuilding empire churned out 1,500 vessels. To many, he became a symbol of the home front industrial power that helped the Allies to victory.

Kaiser first came to Hawaii in the 1930s on vacation and spoke of the potential for the islands to become a world-class tourist destination. He built the Waikiki hotel, starting a wave of hotel developments, after another overbooked hotel couldn't honor his reservations.

"Kaiser is a man who is compelled to move faster than other people," a Honolulu planning director, Leighton Louis, said in a 1960s interview. "He wants everything done yesterday."

Yee said Kaiser was always looking for new challenges. Once he got a project off the ground, he quickly set his sights on his next venture.

"His greatest ability was to get things done," Yee said.

But Kaiser's focus wasn't just on the business side of the ledger. He was once honored by the AFL-CIO for his support of labor, and was recipient of a father of the year award in Hawaii in 1962.

President Johnson called him "a pioneer of the new breed of the responsible businessman."

But Kaiser's fame came mostly from his corporate dealings. Fortune magazine once described him as the boldest industrialist since Henry Ford.

Kaiser died in 1967 at his Portlock home. He was 85.

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