Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox
Original air date: Tues., Feb. 19, 2008
Banker and Community Leader
Walter Dods, Jr. is a local boy who made good. Retired now as CEO of First Hawaiian and BancWest, Dods remains a business and political insider and an active community leader.
Aloha and welcome to LSS. I’m Leslie Wilcox. We’re about to sit down to talk with Walter Dods, Jr. – a local boy who made good. Retired now as CEO of First Hawaiian and BancWest, Dods remains a business and political insider and an active community leader. In this first of a two-part conversation, Dods begins at the beginning.
Well, I literally started at the bottom out of high school. I was too smart for college, so I started at First Insurance Company as a dead files clerk. That was lower than office boy. My job was to file all of the expired insurance policies; so I used to climb up in an attic every day, file all of the policies, and then take a nap up there ‘cause nobody could see me napping. But I’d do that after I got all my work done. So I got promoted to mail boy. I tell everybody I started as a mail boy, but I really started as a dead files clerk. Doesn’t get any lower than that.
How did it start even before that? Where did you grow up?
I grew up, well, mostly in Kuliouou and Aina Haina. I grew up in a quonset hut in Kuliouou. Elelupe and Kuliouou Road forms a horseshoe, and in the back the Reeves clan—everybody knows the Reeves family back there had a big compound, and they had an old metal quonset hut with the old canec ceilings and canec walls. The room walls only went up about six feet—didn’t go up to the ceiling. So the four boys lived in one room, three girls—three sisters in the next room, my mom and dad in the third. One of the funny stories I remember as a kid; my mother was quite a pistol. She used to come around and whack us with wooden hangers, you know. And she’d tell us, you know, I’m doing this now to get it out of the way, ‘cause I know you guys are gonna do something wrong today.
Was she right?
She was always right. She was a great inspiration for all of us. She taught us all about work ethic, working hard, and taking care of each other, which we still do many, many years later.
And what about your dad?
My father was an orphan. My father’s father was a bookkeeper at Kohala Sugar, and died when he was young. So all of the boys grew up in one orphanage, and all the girls in another. So my father grew up in Father Lewis’ Boys Home in Hilo, right close to Hilo High School. So he got out of the orphanage to play basketball and football at Hilo High, and came to Honolulu and became a policeman – was a police officer for forty years. He was a sergeant on the police force for most of his career.
And your mother; her background?
My mother graduated from the seventh grade, and then worked as a waitress most of her life and ended up as the cashier at the Minute Chef in Waikiki. She ran the coffee shop as the cashier there.
And somehow they got you into St. Louis, a private school.
Well, because my father was an orphan, he really believed in family, and wanted to give his kids the love and the education that he didn’t have. And so he worked very hard, and we were a close family; we were poor, but never, ever felt poor. He’d come every day and bring home a pack of gum and give us each our stick as our reward for the day. And we thought we were really wealthy and rich as a result of that. But he wanted to give us a good education, and he couldn’t afford the Punahous and the Iolanis at the time, but the parochial schools were a pretty good value. He wasn’t a Catholic, but he sent us to that school ‘cause he thought we could get the best education there.
All seven kids?
All seven kids. The boys went to St. Louis, except for one brother, who went to Kalani – your school.
Did he not make the grade at St. Louis? Don’t tell me.
No, no; he was the smartest, so he put him in Kalani.
Oh, okay. I like that.
He didn’t need the help, like the rest of us. And the sisters went to Sacred Hearts. And so my dad would borrow from every credit union, every finance company in town. In fact, in many ways, that was my first introduction to financing and banking. Because I remember my father, at night, would take all the bills from all of the credit unions and finance companies and put them in his police hat. You know, the big police hat; turn it upside down, and put the bill in there. When the bill collector would call, he would say, Listen, you call me one more time, and I’m not gonna put your name in the hat this month. And that’s how he financed all of us through schools. We never forgot that; the sacrifice. My parents sacrificed quite a bit to get us through – give us a decent education.
I’ve spoken to an attorney in town who was your classmate at St. Louis; and he says, you know, Walter was always in the middle of the class. You weren’t the greatest student, and you certainly weren’t the worst. You were always sort of in the middle. I was surprised to hear that.
Maybe he didn’t know me earlier on. From the first grade through the eighth grade, I was a straight A student. Only A’s. And then I discovered hotrods and girls. But it wasn’t so much that I couldn’t handle the academics, as I was far more interested in seeing if I could add an extra carburetor to my hotrod or chase some of the Sacred Hearts girls down the street. So his recollection might be a little different than mine.
So were you a rascal?
I was a rascal; yes. And my father was a policeman, and one of the—the fun stories that I tell—when my kids were younger, I tried not to tell in front of them. But we were drag racing down Kalanianaole Highway one night, another policeman’s son and myself. And I had a beat up old Ford, but we were pulled over by a motorcycle cop. And he looked at the driver’s license and he said, Are you Sergeant Dods’ son? I said, Yes, sir, I am. And he went over to his bike, and they had the two-way radio on it. And I was just praying he’d take me and lock me up.
And not call your dad.
So he says—and I could hear him saying on the phone, Could you patch me through to Sergeant Dods. And he says, Sergeant Dods, shall I lock him up, or bring him home? And all I heard were the words, Bring him home. That was one of the scarier days of my life. And my father was very quiet, a gentle person; but every once in a while, he got a little angry and that was one of the few time he grabbed me and put me up against the wall, and told me what I was doing wasn’t such a good thing. Yeah; I was a rascal. Never got into any really serious trouble, but I was a rascal and pretty independent from an early age.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Did you think about that?
When I was growing up, especially as a teenager. I never had any great dreams or ambitions about making anything of myself in the business community. I had none of those desires. When I finally graduated from high school, I thought from a financial standpoint, if I could make a thousand dollars a month at some point in my lifetime, that would be the ultimate.
Walter Dods would go on to earn millions annually. But his legacy is not what he made. It’s what he gave. And continues to give. Dods is known for his community service and philanthropy.
I started you know, going to school because I realized I wanted to do a little more than just push a mail cart around. But as I started getting up the ranks a little bit in the insurance company, one of the old-time insurance agents said, You know, you need to understand what community service is all about and why the community is so important. So he forced me to a Jaycee meeting. This was the Junior Chamber of Commerce, and they were very involved in community service. And I went kicking and screaming; I didn’t want to go, that meant time away from my hotrod. But I went. And I think that was probably the single most thing that turned my life around. I saw other people involved who wanted to make something of themselves, while at the same time helping the community. And I really got turned on by the community aspect of it, the community service. And it’s been a lifelong bent ever since for me.
So At what point did you get serious about business, and maybe even leave the hotrod behind?
Well, when I was at First Insurance, somebody recommended me to Dillingham Corporation at the time, to go into their marketing department. And I liked the challenge. I was able to get the job and I ended up—I don’t know if you remember Norman Reyes.
Norman Reyes was my boss, and had a great influence on me early on in my career, and was a wonderful man. He was thevoice of Bataan, the voice of the Philippines when Bataan had fallen. He was captured and was a prisoner of war during the war, and then actually became a voice for Tokyo Rose as a prisoner of war during the war. So he was my first boss at Dillingham, and he taught me a lot. And my community service, at that point, I had become president of the organization and had been involved in many boards and commissions as a young person. And that allowed me to get that marketing job at Dillingham. And I worked there five years—
Through the community service.
Yes; the community service allowed me to get exposed to broader segments of the community, which I never would have done otherwise. So you know, you can help your community and also benefit richly from that experience. That’s the beautiful part about community service. As long as you don’t go in looking to benefit from it, the benefits come just naturally. So as a result of that, I got the job and really enjoyed it, and spent five wonderful years there when they were building the major part of Ala Moana Center, 1350 Ala Moana; many of the buildings around town. And the advertising person left, and all of a sudden they asked me to be in charge of advertising. I knew nothing about it, but I learned quickly, and ended up running the advertising campaigns for many of the developments in Waikiki and around town that you see today.
Have you ever backed down from a challenge?
Not any kind of a business challenge. I get challenged by my kids all the time, but that’s about it. No, I don’t.
What do your kids say to you? What kind of challenge—
Well, first of all, I have to start off with my kids, four kids. They are still convinced that I’m Homer Simpson. And I sit at home with the TV button and I just change channel. One time, we were driving somewhere and I had a call, and I was working on a particular large merger. So I started talking to the investment bankers, talking to them about you know, certain ratios and what we needed to do. And when I hung up, my son looked at me and said, I’m shocked. I’m absolutely shocked, Dad; I had absolutely no idea you knew anything about that.
So you kept your business life out of your home.
Yes; kept it out of my home, and my wife is really great about that. As a matter of fact, she’s so tough; I had a bunch of awards and plaques and trophies, she’d throw ‘em all in the garbage can. So most of them are gone, because—
That didn’t hurt your feelings? Because that’s all your achievements.
Of course it did; it hurt my feelings, and I complained every time. And she just smiled, but she took ‘em out and got rid of ‘em. She says, We don’t need that kinda baggage at home. And of course, she’s right. We really don’t. To any parent who’s had some notoriety or success of some sort, it’s very hard on the family and the children. And so my wife fiercely tried to protect that side, and as a result, we have you know, great kids. And she gets hundred percent of the credit for that.
So you never talked business at home?
No; very little. Now, I talk more. One of my sons is the owner of Easy Music Company. And he’ll come home, and we’ll sit out in the back and we’ll talk. And he’s the CEO and he’s the janitor, and he’s HR, and he’s accounting, and he’s the window washer. And we’ll talk about things. Another son of mine, coincidentally, just started with the bank. Don Horner, the fellow who replaced me, recruited him. He was working for another company, and so we’ll talk sometimes. And my oldest son is in the video production business and we talk marketing and advertising. And our princess, my daughter, just graduated and she’s working. She got a degree in social work at USC, and she’s working on a research project UCLA and USC are doing on the inner city youth problems in Los Angeles. And so the social work part of me comes out and the community service comes out when we talk. So we do a lot of that now.
Well, while your kids were growing up, you were being called the most powerful man in Hawaii, you were being called the most influential, the highest paid businessman. I mean, all of these superlatives; and your kids didn’t know?
They didn’t know, or if they knew, we tried to really suppress that. I mean, we read these stories about the most powerful person in Hawaii. To me, it’s a big joke. I always thought that they were, you know, hilarious. I was active, I did get involved in political campaigns, and I did run a large company. But most of the stories are hilarious.
But isn’t it the nature of Hawaii that if you are the most powerful person in Hawaii, you don’t say you are?
It’s—you should be humble. So?
Yeah. That’s a good shot. A good shot. But I really, honestly don’t believe it.
What are some of the community service milestones that you’re happy you were part of?
Well, I’m proud to have been a part of—I chaired the committee that built the Blood Bank building. And that was a unique one, ‘cause we raised the funds, designed the building, built the building, and moved in all in about fourteen months. Right by the prison; you know, right across from the prison. So I was involved in that. I was heavily involved in the newer building at Palama Settlement. These go back quite a few years now. Kawaiahao Church, Mamiya Theater. I felt that the St. Louis campus, that it was all athletics, all the athletics. There’s nothing wrong with athletics. I love it and I’m a big supporter. But I felt it’d be nice if the school had a little bit of, more of a well rounding than that. So we—the school had never raised a hundred thousand, ever; but we raised five million dollars and built the Mamiya Theater. And the whole goal when we built it was that — communities would use it for their productions. But one of the requirements would be that the students could go free to all the rehearsals. So all of a sudden, they could see a West Side Story or whatever else, and even the athletes. And if you’ve been up there recently, some of the school productions that St. Louis puts on – musicals, bringing in students from other schools as well; it’s just—it’s fantastic. So, but, United Way, I’ve been very, very involved in United Way over the years, and that’s a special, special cause that I’ve, I like. Because you know, raising big bucks—you can’t really do great social work if you don’t raise the money. I mean, people—you know, you talk about helping the community; but in the end, it may sound crass, but you’ve got to raise money. Whether it’s to repair the university, whether it’s to hire a football coach, whatever else; at some points, economic’s gonna come into the equation. And I was able to help a lot of different groups on the economic side, which I’m pretty proud of.
I asked you about something you did recently and you said, Oh, that, that was just a small thing. And you essentially raised $100,000 for June Jones in what, a couple of days? By email?
Yeah. We actually ended up with about $150,000. It was a friend of mine’s idea, Warren Haruki. And Warren asked me to co- chair it with him, and we sent an email out and in 48 hours, we had raised about $150,000. We were proud of that. And that worked because people said, If it’s a good cause, and if Walter and Warren do it, we’re in. Yeah; if you’ve worked in the community unselfishly, and you ask, people will give what they can give. I always said my whole career, whenever I help charities, don’t give ‘til it hurts, just give ‘til it feels good.
Walter Dods must feel exceedingly good, because he and his wife Diane have given a tremendous number of hours and dollars to charitable causes throughout Hawaii. Including–a million dollars to fund a University of Hawaii scholarship program for immigrants.
Well, tell me a little bit about why you were able to have the successes you had. Because you often say, Oh, you know, that’s nothing I tried for, or that was not my doing. But you always seem to rise, no matter what the circumstance. So how did you do that?
That’s a very hard question to answer. I just know that I always wanted to work hard. And I guess I was ambitious.
Ambitious for what?
Ambitious in trying to succeed. I think, really, you know, part of it comes from your background. When there’s seven kids, and you are poor, you feel like you have to try harder, I think.
Did you want to make money?
No; money was never— money came.
Or just make your bills?
No; well, you know, of course, I wanted to pay bills for my car and my hotrod when I got started. But my entire career was never about money. The money came, but it was never, ever about money. But I really had a desire to accomplish things in the public service arena, which you know, I worked on through all the years. That was far more important to me than money, and still is.
What about the importance of a sense of humor?
I think it’s critical; I really do. I’ve always believed in a great sense of humor. Little bit on the irreverent side, for sure.
And you’ve kind of pulled some stunts in business too, right?
Yeah; we used to pull a lot of stunts. When I was the national ABA president, I was trying to humanize the banking industry. So I showed up in a great, big speech of well, two speeches. One, I came out on roller skates and skated across the stage, prayed that I wouldn’t fall and make a total fool of myself. And that worked out well. But my best was when I got off as the national president after a really tough year of going to Washington, DC every other week for a year from Hawaii; it was a brutal year. And it was about thirty degrees, and we were in an auditorium and I had a three-piece suit on. And as I was finishing my speech I took off my jacket and I threw it into the crowd and took off my tie and I took off my shirt and cufflinks and everything. And I had the loudest Hawaiian shirt you could ever see. I waved and walked off the stage. It was fun.
Along the way, you must have learned to deal with lots of different people, and maybe that’s an advertising thing— knowing your market. But you’re a global banker. You deal with everybody, and you seem to have good relationships.
Yeah; I’m lucky. Because I started at the bottom, I really appreciate people at the bottom. I really do, to this day. Because I’ve been there, you know. I’ve gone into the kitchen and I’ve washed the dishes and everything. And so yes, I do see people of all levels. But having started at the bottom, I’m very comfortable with working class people. Also through my political involvement, but also through the bank and through the ABA and others—and I’ve served on the Federal Reserve Board Advisory, so, and with presidents of the United States and treasury secretaries and Federal Reserve officials. So I’ve had a great mix of experiences, and I feel comfortable—I’m not comfortable in formal settings. The classic story is, once many, many years ago, the Ariyoshis invited us to a formal dinner with the King of Jordan. And it was hilarious, because we were all locals, except for the guest. And there were thousands of forks and knives and plates, and none of us had a clue what to do. And so we watched Jean Ariyoshi the whole night; whatever she picked up, we picked up; whatever she ate, we ate. So the whole night, if she didn’t like the meat, we didn’t touch the meat. So that’s how it was. And so I never have learned the nicer skills in life. But other than that, I feel comfortable in almost any group.
You know, you say that money was not what you were after in terms of achieving. Do you think you lose, along the way, your ability to relate to people who can’t pay their bills, and don’t know how they’re gonna survive Hawaii because they can’t possibly afford more than the rent to pay a mortgage?
I ask myself that a lot of time; do you lose that ability. I would like to think that I’ve held onto it, but I think others in my family would say maybe I’ve lost it. I don’t know. I still like to turn the air conditioning when I’m hot. But having really been at the bottom and have worked a lot of years down there, I still respect it and I know what struggles there are, and I try to give back to those communities. And staying involved in community service, I think, helps me stay grounded. But I agree with you; it’s very, very hard to maintain and really understand what the struggles are you know. So you try to do it through your, your public service activities. My wife and I have funded scholarships at the university for immigrants. ‘Cause they, I admire them the most. They come here with nothing, and education becomes the most important thing. And you know, if our local people could believe in that a little more, I think it would help us all.
Looking to the future, with Walter Dods, means looking back as a point of reference. What does he see in our State’s economic future?
My big fear, and a big fear for all of us is, our economy is too dependent on one industry, tourism. We all know that. Even people in the visitor industry know that. But don’t knock it down and destroy it, unless you’ve got something better to talk about.
Well, now they’re saying real estate is a huge industry here. And where is that gonna take us?
Yeah. Well, again, you know, surprise, surprise. Real estate is gonna not be a huge industry over the next few years. We’re part of the world economic cycle. It’s coming already. A recession is starting in the U.S. It will end up in Hawaii. Real estate is gonna go into the tank. You know, and again, I’m retired; I can say those things. It’s gonna go into a tank for a few years. And in a few years—let me tell you, ‘cause I’ve been through four or five; as you get older, you learn about economic cycles. A lot of people think it’ll never happen again. This’ll never happen. Well, let me tell you what’s gonna happen. Unemployment’s gonna go up, construction jobs are gonna go down, and in three or four years people are gonna be saying we need more real estate projects, we need more jobs. This is what happens in an economic cycle. I’ve been through them many times before. Now, do we need you know, pell-mell real estate development? No, we don’t. We need quality developments, we need it done right; we don’t need to pave over Hawaii. It all has to be done in balance, so I’m not saying we shouldn’t. But we need to create other kind of industries in Hawaii. But until we do, we shouldn’t you know, kick tourism in the teeth, like we tend to use as a whipping boy. Tourism is critical to us. I’ve been in other communities where tourism has gone down in other parts of the world. The communities have been in terrible shape. We do provide a lot of jobs. Would we like higher paying jobs, would we like higher pay—tech pay jobs? Absolutely. Can we encourage them? Yes, we do. Do we have tax credits to encourage them? Yes, we do. But they are not at any point in any kind of critical mass yet, where they’re gonna replace the basic source of all of our incomes, whether you’re a painter, a plumber, a laborer, a banker or what. You’re touched somehow by tourism. It’s a dominant industry. We don’t want government to become our dominant industries.
Are we doing the right thing though, to have a better future here?
Are we doing the right thing? We could do a lot more and a lot better, but you know, there’s always ways to improve, for sure. Have we hit everything right? No, I don’t think so at all.
Is there something we need to do right now?
Well, again, it starts, to me, with education. It really starts with education. We have to do a better job. Are we doing a great job in education? No, we’re not, at any level. No, we’re not. Do we have a pretty good university? Yes, I think we do. Could be better, could be a lot better; facilities, faculty, everything else. But you know, there are a lot of constraints. But again, when we talk about all these things, it all boils down to economics. You want to fix that campus; big bucks. Where’s the big bucks come from? Taxes. Where’s the taxes come from? Tourism, basically. And all the lawyers, all the dentists, all the doctors and everybody else who are peripheral to that. So would we like to balance it. I think what I’d like to see is three or four prongs to our economy. Not government, military and tourism. We need to do better than that. There are small efforts, you know, in aquaculture and astronomy and technology, but we haven’t yet found—will we find something else over time? I think so. If you take a look at Hawaii’s economic history, we had sandalwood, we had whaling.
Now you’re going back.
We had sugar, we had pineapple, we had tourism. We need, you know, to find the next big thing.
And you don’t know what it is?
I don’t know what it is. I wish I did.
And I wish we could talk longer with retired banker and community leader Walter Dods. But we have to keep this LSS. Please join me next week for Part 2 of this two-part conversation…when Walter Dods has this advice for Islanders who feel we’re losing control over quality-of-life issues: Get over it! He’ll explain. Mahalo for joining me for another LSS. I’m Leslie Wilcox with PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou!
I worked during high school, I worked service station. And how life comes out; Aina Haina Service Station is where I pumped gas for many years. And just recently, a few friends and I retired and went into another business; we bought all the 76 stations in Hawaii. That’s now a 76 station. So it’s kind of fun for me to go back to that service station where I used to fill tires and pump gas. And then I did Aina Haina Foodland next door; I was a bag boy. And then every Sunday night, I washed all the dishes at Aina Haina Chop Suey. So I’d get my hands greasy all weekend in the tires and the hubcaps in the service station, and then get ‘em clean by washing dishes for hours and hours and hours. And when I got finished, my hands were all just crinkly.