The humble coal town beginnings of Michael S. Wasacz, the former president and chief executive officer of Matson Navigation Co., chiseled his fair-minded character throughout a career that spanned 31 years with Hawaii’s largest ocean carrier.
Wasacz, who died Sunday of bladder cancer at age 73 in San Francisco, was the youngest of 10 children raised in a small coal-mining town in Olyphant, Pa. He was orphaned by the time he was 19 and worked his way up the corporate ladder starting in 1959 as a Matson freight clerk in a small office at Rockefeller Center in New York.
By 1978 he completed a professional development program that exposed him to Matson’s ports and all aspects of the business — knowledge of which he passed on to colleagues.
"He was a very good mentor to me," said Ray Donohue, 74, Matson’s former chief financial officer for 21 years who was hired by Wasacz in 1980. "He was probably one of the fairest persons that I have met in my lifetime. You always knew where Mike stood. He was very clear in his feelings and very clear in what he was expecting people to do."
His tenure with Matson included eight years as its president and two years as head of parent company, Alexander & Baldwin Inc. After holding various managerial positions he was named president of subsidiary, Matson Terminals Inc. in 1979, before becoming Matson’s 12th president in 1981.
During the 1980s, he steered Matson through major initiatives, including an ambitious 12-year ship modernization program and the return of the S.S. Lurline to the fleet. He also led the relocation of the company’s hub terminal to a larger site at Sand Island from Pier 2 at Honolulu Harbor, as well as the building of container barges for service to the Neighbor Islands. He is also credited with pioneering Matson’s significant investments in information technology, including a central customer service center.
"He certainly was a man of integrity — he tried extremely hard to be fair in all his dealings whether it was in business or within the family," said daughter Martha Wasacz, 47, who lives in San Francisco. "Being equitable and being fair was one of his primary focuses."
Even in his last days surrounded by his family, Wasacz made sure to tell all three of his children what individual characteristics in each he valued the most.
"He tried very hard to make sure we all understood the special place that each of us occupied in his heart," Martha said. "He was very good at picking out individual talents and cultivating those talents with the people he worked with (as well)."
Wasacz is survived by his wife of 50 years, Vera, three children and three grandchildren, who will hold a private family service.