The Bank Where Legends Lead

The view of Honolulu, and the bank’s future, is bright and big from Harrison’s 29th-floor office

As the Executive Heir of Charles Reed Bishop, John Bellinger, Walter Dods and most recently Don Horner, new First Hawaiian Bank CEO Bob Harrison has some giant shoes to fill and a tradition of community engagement to uphold.

Much as the founder of his bank was buffeted by enormous storms on his way to the Hawaiian Islands, Bob Harrison comes to the helm of First Hawaiian Bank as the economy continues reeling from the financial maelstrom of 2008.

But unlike Charles Reed Bishop, whose ship sustained so much damage that it was enough to make him realize he never wanted to leave these Islands, Harrison takes over a vessel that weathered the storms better than almost any other bank in the country.

“It is really interesting when ’08 came around there were a huge number of people pulling back nationally,” says Harrison, who was promoted from COO to CEO Jan. 1. “Yet we had our biggest year percentage-wise and dollar-wise with loan growth because we didn’t change what we were doing. There were a lot of people who needed help, and no one else was doing it and we were there.

“We didn’t change anything, and that is what is important. That is what people look to us for as an institution, that stability. They know at First Hawaiian they can come talk to us, tell us what they need, and if it makes sense we are going to help them. That is what it all comes down to.”

Harrison confers with personal banker Christine Galoia Nathalie Walker photos

But how did FHB come out ahead when so many others got caught with their pants around their ankles? According to Harrison, it is the central tenets of the bank that have not changed, allowing fluctuations of the market to not tear at the institution’s strength.

“We did it because we are generally conservative,” he says, a moniker that some businesspeople would consider derisive, but Harrison wears as a badge of honor.

“The other thing is what caught people in this cycle was overexpansion in mostly residential development, and that just didn’t happen here for a number of different reasons land-use policies, etc. and we had been through it in the late ’80s with the commercial expansion, Japanese real estate bubble, so we kind of knew that.”

This is the advantage of a bank that has spent the past century and a half doing business in the Islands. It’s seen the peaks and valleys and knows when not to overreact. The bank’s history is so wrapped up in Hawaii’s own emergence from sovereign nation to 50th state that one would not be possible without the other. What started out as Bishop & Company Bank in 1858 with $4,000 worth of deposits has grown into a company whose assets now top $15 billion.

It built the business on its relationships within the community, by allowing common sense and the look in the other’s eyes dictate whether a loan should be made or not. It has maintained this approach, and while others may argue against the bank saying that its reticence to speculate is stifling business, its track record is hard to argue against.

“They don’t like you because you are too conservative, and they do like you because you are a little loose with your lending standards,” says Harrison, who moved to the Islands for good in 1990.

Beneath a painting of Charles Reed Bishop, Harrison looks at handwritten records from 1858, the bank’s founding year. The first Kaua‘i branch opened at Waimea in 1911 Nathalie Walker photo.

“For us, we never change. We look at people we know who have a good job and good ability to pay us back, and what do they need the money for? If all that works, you will get the loan. It doesn’t matter what is going on out there in the economic environment. It’s a one-to-one relationship.”

The position of CEO for First Hawaiian Bank has been held by many of Hawaii’s biggest business luminaries. John Bellinger co-founded the Hawaiian/Sony Open and spearheaded the renovations of Kawaiaha’o Church and Palama Settlement; Walter Dods, who turned the second biggest bank in the Islands into one of the 25 largest in the nation; and, of course, the original Charles Bishop, whose work can be seen from Bishop Museum to Kamehameha Schools.

These are no small shoes Harrison is filling, and he understands the gravity of the job at hand but also recognizes that while he is the man at the head of the class, the vast majority of people who do business with FHB will never deal with him.

“I think we have a great image, and it is built on how we do business and our people and that’s not gonna change,” says Harrison, who joined FHB in 1996 as vice president at the Main Banking Center. “Me, sitting in this chair as opposed to another chair, is not going to change that.”

While people may be the image for the bank, Harrison is most decidedly the voice. In his new position, he is having to learn his way around the Capitol not just as lobbyist for FHB, but as voice of the people.

“The position is important as a part of the community. It is important to become an advocate for businesses within the community, for the customers,” says Harrison. “One of the things I am very much learning is the legislative process, how that works, letting them know they can call us and talk to us when they have questions to work through issues so everyone can do that with the best information.

With wife Lori on vacation in Bangkok Photo courtesy Bob Harrison

“Traditionally we and all the other banks have had a role over there. It is not lobbying to get your bill passed, it is lobbying to educate people so they make better decisions. It is not just us in this building trying to make a bank work, it is bigger than that. Our community outreach is huge for us.”

Harrison’s path to the corner office on the 29th floor of the First Hawaiian Center was a meandering one. He graduated high school in Arizona and came to Hawaii for three months to stay with his older brother, which would have been fine except that his brother lived in a studio and Harrison had decided to bring two buddies along with him for the trip. He quickly found himself and his pals in their own little apartment and even more quickly found himself in love with these Islands.

After the summer he returned home and worked odd jobs varying from construction to scuba diving instruction. He decided his life path would be in commercial diving, so he signed up for the Navy to learn the trade, and it shipped him right back here to the Islands.

But upon emerging from the Navy in 1983, life under the sea was not what it was cracked up to be, so he entered school at UCLA and there finally found his calling.

“I got interested in banking in college,” says Harrison, who received a B.S. from UCLA and a MBA with distinction from Cornell. “I had already done a number of other things before college, so I got into college and didn’t know what I wanted to do, but knew what I didn’t want to do.

“In that process, one of my first classes was a chemistry class. I knew I didn’t want to do chemistry or medicine that’s what my father and sister did. I just enjoyed the numbers, math and the people. People are an important part of the job. It is clearly not just the numbers.”

This may be the primary reason why Harrison is so well-suited for the job, for caring for the well-being of the people of Hawaii is at the heart and roots of FHB. Bishop amassed quite a personal fortune and married one of the wealthiest landholders in the state in Princess Bernice Pauahi, yet both had no desire to keep their money for themselves. Instead they created Kamehameha Schools and Bishop Museum.

Today FHB remains the largest corporate giver to charities and community causes in Hawaii, and that comes not just from the big wigs, but from all the employees.

They have established Kokua Mai, an internal employee giving program that FHB underwrites, allowing all of the donations to go to the charities for which they were intended. The program is entirely run by the employees, and since its inception in 2007 they’ve donated $2.9 million to charities here and in the South Pacific. Perhaps most exciting about the program is that despite many of the bank’s 2,100 employees not making a tremendous amount of money, 96 percent of them contributed to the fund.

“I have never heard of another organization getting close to that (percentage),” says Harrison. “It makes me very proud to work at a place where people feel that is important. They have a committee to select the nonprofits, so it is employee-driven, not management-driven, and we take care of the overhead, so 100 percent of the money goes to the charities.”

Somewhere the famously stoic Charles Bishop is cracking a smile, enjoying the good that has been wrought by his misfortune at sea.