Entrepreneur led market
for Hawaii souvenirs

From seashell jewelry to hula-girl
key chains, his novelties aimed
to please isle visitors

Lester Rouse Baird Jr. started making and marketing shell jewelry in Waikiki 57 years ago, when there was only a trickle of visitors and a handful of hotels and shops.

The entrepreneur recognized Hawaii's potential as a mass-market tourist destination and travelers' insatiable desire for souvenirs. His one-man costume jewelry business expanded to a multimillion-dollar business that now distributes about 1,000 items to most island stores serving tourists.

Baird died April 6 at the Queen's Medical Center at the age of 90.

"He talked about making cat's-eye shell jewelry, earrings and brooches, and he would go store to store himself to sell them," said daughter Ginger Baird, vice president of R. Baird & Co. "He was a born salesman."

Her father came to Hawaii in 1944 as a civil service employee at Pearl Harbor. He borrowed money from a friend to start the business in 1948.

Baird found East Coast sources for other affordable souvenirs, with jewelry a continuing favorite through the Vietnam War years, when soldiers met their wives and sweethearts here for R&R leave, his daughter said.

One of the first mass-marketed souvenirs in his repertoire was a hula-girl key chain with links providing hip movement, an item discontinued about 10 years ago.

"From the very beginning, he believed in taking the lowest markup possible but bringing in a wide variety of products in large quantities," said his granddaughter Leegayle Denton, manager of the company. Nothing is manufactured locally these days; most items are made in Asia.

The Sand Island company employs 40 people. "He always gave credit to the people in the business for making it a success," Ginger Baird said.

Baird left the business operations to the second and third generations of the family in recent years, but he was up early daily to keep involved with the stock market, she said.

He was born in Kentucky. He is survived by daughters Ginger Baird and Shirley Hammel, companion Agnes Caitano, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Funeral services will be at 6 p.m. tomorrow at Borthwick Mortuary. Friends may call from 5 to 8 p.m.

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