Monday, November 30, 2015         


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Peter Ho

The APEC Host Committee chairman has spent two years helping Hawaii prepare for this week's Leaders' Week summit, and is confident the state's efforts will pay off


The past week — the past two years, really — the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, more officially called Leaders' Week, has consumed Peter Ho's attention, given his post as chairman of the APEC Host Committee.

But he's a banker, too, and as chairman and chief executive officer of Bank of Hawaii, he's always taking stock of Hawaii's economic pulse.

The patient has been through a rough patch, Ho said, but recovery has been a bit easier than elsewhere. Development was frenetic before the crash in other states, where it's easier to get land entitled with zoning and permits and such.

Not so here, he said, and that may have been a blessing in disguise.

"Part of the reason why we didn't fall as far is we didn't develop as much on the up side," Ho said. "So what Hawaii's famous for, which is difficult entitling, in some ways kind of helped us through the housing downturn. So we don't have the same real estate hangover."

Ho, 46 and the married father of two, is carrying the banner for his family, part of Hawaii's business elite. He's often regaled with stories of what his grandfather, Chinn Ho, meant to this person, what his father, Stuart Ho, did for that one.

"Yeah, there is pressure, in a different way than you anticipate," he said. "And actually having APEC, and being exposed to whole different segments of the community, it was really gratifying to me.

"And it puts a fair amount of pressure on me," he added with a laugh, "because I'm not nearly as nice as my grandfather and father."

QUESTION: Have you picked up any early signs that APEC has been the game-changer for Hawaii that was hoped?

ANSWER: I think we need to be cautious over pinning our hopes and dreams on any event or programming project. But I do believe that the magnitude of APEC Leaders’ Week and the sheer fact (that it’s) on the global stage, and the fact that we’ve been living with it for 22 months now … I think that gives us the opportunity to turn preparation for Leaders’ Week into a lot of good thoughts, ideas and lessons for the future.

Q: What has been the benefit of all this planning, even if APEC’s not a silver bullet?

A: What I think Leaders’ Week has helped us practice is determining: Where are our strengths, and where can we really demonstrate our strengths, and where do we have weaknesses, and what can we do to shore things up, to make sure that Leaders’ Week is a great event for the country and for the world? … I think that anyone who comes to Hawaii this week will come away thinking … “This could be an interesting place to come back and conduct business meetings.” … And even more importantly, I think that the visitor industry, the business community — even labor, to a certain extent — what Leaders’ Week has done is whet its appetite toward the potential for things.

Q: So, what was the takeaway from the planning process?

A: One thing that I think our programming and marketing around Leaders’ Week has helped in is coming up with a better definition around what it is we think Hawaii has to offer on the global stage.

So I think that there’s a recognition that we can certainly do better in positioning and branding Hawaii as a place to conduct business. And we can certainly do better in how do you make Hawaii indeed a better place to do business.

I also think what Leaders Week has helped us do is point in the direction of the Asia-Pacific region. … When you think about what’s happening in the Asia-Pacific region, and really Asia being the region for the next generation, for us not to place our focus into Asia, it doesn’t make any sense at all. And I think that Leaders’ Week is really helping us shift in that direction, where we were a little more scattered previously.

Q: How would you define our strengths?

A: What is abundantly clear is that Hawaii and the aloha spirit, and the notion of Hawaii as a beautiful place and a good place to come to visit, has global appeal. It’s a global brand. …

The University of Hawaii plays prominently in our marketing collateral because UH is one of the top 50 research universities in the country. UH is a leader in oceanographic and astronomy sciences. University of Hawaii system has so many great things going on that I would challenge the community — most of the community has no sense of that. …

When we pull out the whole vernacular, “the Geneva of the Pacific,” “the crossroads of the Pacific” and all of that, far too much emphasis is placed on the physical locality of that notion. … But when you layer in the notion that you do have a geographic advantage, No. 1, and No. 2, you happen to be a wonderful place that people enjoy coming to, and No. 3, you happen to be the most Asian-diverse state in the country, and No. 4, you happen to have visitor infrastructure better than most of the world … “Hawaii as a gathering place” — a meeting place for business and governments and important things being done in the region — really begins to have some teeth to it.

Q: What would help us capitalize on this?

A: I think it begins with an understanding of how important branding and positioning and marketing is. And what I think what is important for folks in our community to recognize is everything that happens in Hawaii in many ways happened due to external forces.

So most construction jobs come as a result of external capital coming into this market. The visitor industry by definition comes as a result of people outside of Hawaii wanting to come to Hawaii.

The opportunity for new industries in Hawaii will only happen when people believe Hawaii is an interesting, viable place to go do that. I think that we need to recognize the value of our image in the global marketplace is exceptionally important, and in many ways we have a head start over most places in the world.

But we need to maintain that. We need to have a very clear notion of what ,we want to do strategically. We’re a small state. We don’t have the resources of California. California can screw up left and right, and they’re still ,California, ninth-largest economy in the world, right? We’re a $65 billion economy in the middle of the Pacific, so we’ve got to be very strategic about what it is we’re going to go after. We have to make decisions, stick to those decisions and head in that direction.

One of those decisions very squarely ought to be a greater emphasis and focus from a business standpoint, from a governmental standpoint, into the Asia-Pacific region, and how do we make Hawaii a better participant into what’s happening in that part of the world.

Q: Is it partially lack of confidence that we have this potential? A chip on our shoulder?

A: You hear that all the time. “We’re so small, we get our TV two weeks after the rest of the mainland.” (Laughs.)

Q: We don’t anymore.

A: But we used to, remember that?

Q: So, it’s a matter of owning our brand and picking our targets?

A: Yeah, absolutely. When you think about it, we’re a community of 1.3 million people. That’s the population of West Los Angeles, would be my guess. It’s not that large a community. I like to think about it this way:

1.3 million people, then you take all the resources that Hawaii has — the history, culture, beauty, location, weather, just on and on and on. Home of the Pacific Command: Most communities would kill for that, right? Diamond Head, Waikiki, aloha spirit, 74,000 international-quality hotel rooms, I mean all of those things. You think about that and put that in the numerator, against a denominator of 1.3 million people, the per-capital resource of Hawaii is enormous.

Do I think it’s got to be thought through intelligently, and there’s all sorts of room for peril along the way through bad decisionmaking? Absolutely. … But if you just kind of look at it from a big-picture standpoint, there’s so much that can be done. …

I think at one time this community was much more able to operate as a community in things that were important to it. Development of state, right? We did that. One of the great growth stories of the 50 states. We’ve gotten away from that. And what’s at stake is Hawaii has to think through what’s the next big thing for Hawaii.

My view, the next big thing certainly has to include the Asia-Pacific region, if for no other reason than it is THE economic story of the next generation. And we have too much affiliation not to attempt to try to be a participant in that growth.

Q: What specific industries might have the best potential?

A: When you look at what's happening in industry, things like digital industries, social media or anything along that vein can really be anywhere. You don't need to have thousands and thousands and thousands of engineers to manufacture chips for that business. It's pretty much an intellectual business, right? Those are the types of things that I think could translate quite nicely to Hawaii, if people just wanted to be here. … You don't have to be hooked up to Caltech to do that. And that's the sweet spot with what's happening in technology. That could very well be centered in Hawaii, if people want to be here.

The other thing I’d say — and I think this is important to grasp — and that is, nothing happens overnight. So there's a big segment in town that says, “Gee, we need to migrate to alternative industry.” Fair enough. I agree with that. That's the history of Hawaii, from sandalwood to whaling to sugar and pine, it  just happened, right? But you can’t just jettison the engines that got you where you got, and expect to have anything reasonable happening in the economy.

So the visitor industry, the defense industry, the military in Hawaii, they're still terribly vital and important to our community. If we could somehow pull together this notion of, we've got to preserve these wonderful industries we're fortunate to have, and at the same time we need to figure out how to expand our economic base, that's the realistic approach. 

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