Saturday, September 18, 1999

100 Who Made A Difference

Star Harry Weinberg Star

Star-Bulletin file photo
Harry Weinberg was best known for his ownership of the
Honolulu Rapid Transit Ltd. He was tough and smart but also
compassionate: The Weinberg foundation has
donated millions to charity.

Property owner was
loved, hated

By Russ Lynch


NOBODY questions the contribution that Harry Weinberg made to Hawaii's people after his death in 1990. The Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, started with his entire $900 million fortune, has since given some $40 million a year to charities, about a third of it to organizations in Hawaii.

In the corporate world, however, Weinberg is not always remembered fondly. Top executives who experienced his wrath when he thought they weren't doing all they could to enhance the value of their shares have called him obnoxious, a boor, heartless, surly and overbearing.

But Weinberg has his champions nevertheless who say that he did make a positive difference in Hawaii business, delivering a wake-up call to boards of directors with forceful reminders of their responsibility to shareholders.

Above all, his supporters say, Weinberg had a remarkable ability to understand what a company's real assets were. "He certainly did that with us," said Henry A. Walker Jr., retired chairman and chief executive of Amfac Inc. "He lambasted us, telling us we had lots of hidden assets we weren't paying attention to. He was really the first guy to suggest restructuring," which Amfac later did with some success.

Still, Weinberg's approach to Amfac was typical of the way he went after other local companies and Walker acknowledged that it took a lot of patience and time from top executives to deal with it.

"Harry was the guy who really beat on people, beat on us," Walker said.

Weinberg had a passion for land and a way of finding underutilized pieces that were valued much lower than their real worth. He often ended up owning those pieces himself -- bought off with the land by a company just so he'd turn in his shares and get out of the way. He did that with Amfac.

He pushed Maui Land & Pineapple Inc. so hard that the top executives cut the size of its board of directors to only two members so he couldn't get himself elected to the board.

Several times in his three decades of doing business in Hawaii, Weinberg would buy into a company, push its executives hard, accept a buyout offer to go away and then, as soon as the agreement not to buy shares ran out, he'd quietly buy more and reappear later as a shareholder.

Those who saw his influence as positive say he changed forever the "old boy network" structure of Hawaii's old public companies.

None doubted his shrewdness and critics of his personal style also point to other prominent strains in his character; he could be helpful, compassionate and generous to those he liked and respected.

Weinberg got his combative style from a background of poverty. The mannerisms and speech that so annoyed many business people resulted from his lack of formal education.

But in the end, when he was dying of bone cancer, what showed most was his generosity to people who were poor like he had been.

Leaving his money in a foundation to help the poor, he dictated specifically that none of it should go to universities or to support the arts, places he felt could successfully dig up their own money.

Born in Austria in 1908, Weinberg came to America as a poor immigrant and lived in Baltimore. He dropped out of school in the sixth grade and worked for his father's auto repair business.

He had an instinct for real estate deals, buying downtown Baltimore properties during the Great Depression.

He maneuvered his way into control of a bus company in Pennsylvania and turned his eyes to Hawaii, quietly accumulating shares in the old Honolulu Rapid Transit Ltd. and then, in 1959, seizing control through a proxy fight.

He fought with the Public Utilities Commission, the Teamsters Union and public officials until the city bought the business in 1971. Meanwhile he was using money from HRT to buy into a bus business in Texas and then used its assets to pursue Fifth Avenue Coach Line in New York. New York also bought him out after a string of public disputes.

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