Mitch D’Olier’s career has helped shape the future of Ward Centers and Kailua
July 19, 2013
By Duane Shimogawa
Mitch D’Olier thought he would practice law his entire professional life.
And, for almost two decades, he did just that, eventually becoming a partner in the prestigious Honolulu law firm Goodsill Anderson Quinn & Stifel LLP.
But then, at age 45, the Chicago native changed course, and eventually he went on to lead such well-known entities as Hawaiian Airlines, Victoria Ward Ltd. and, currently, Kaneohe Ranch Co. LLC and the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation.
In an exclusive and wide-ranging interview, the 67-year-old D’Olier told PBN that he plans to retire within the next year. He also reflected on his stints at the helm of some of Hawaii’s most influential companies and talked about whether he thinks public education is making any progress in Hawaii and how his love for the environment and the ocean led him to be the co-founder of Malama Maunalua.
And, as he nears the end of his run as president and CEO of Kaneohe Ranch and the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, D’Olier acknowledged that the Castle family’s decision to consider selling its commercial real estate portfolio could have a huge impact on the future of one of Oahu’s best-known beach towns, not to mention commercial land values throughout the state. But one thing people don’t have to worry about is the future of the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation. With or without a land sale, D’Olier said the foundation will continue on, and if he thought selling the family’s commercial real estate holdings would put its philanthropic arm in jeopardy neither he nor other members of the family’s foundation would consider it.
Getting to know the people in Kailua
For D’Olier, leading Kaneohe Ranch and the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation almost never happened. In his 50s and toward the end of his stint at Victoria Ward Ltd. — the largest developer of Kakaako retail space — he thought about retiring. But while serving on the Castle foundation’s board, the family approached him about leading Kaneohe Ranch and the foundation, which he ultimately decided to do, becoming the first nonfamily member to be president of the foundation.
D’Olier says he learned a lot about giving back to the community from his mentor and one of his early bosses, the late Marshall Goodsill. So, as he thought about Goodsill’s influence and considered the Kaneohe Ranch’s potential, he decided to pursue the opportunity.
The year was 2002, and D’Olier started by getting to know Kailua, which included many residents who had strong views about things such as development.
One of the first things D’Olier did was call on Honolulu’s Ward Research to conduct a survey of those living in Kailua.
Kaneohe Ranch, which owns about 45 acres of downtown Kailua, was in a dilemma during D’Olier’s early years in charge. It had pressing needs for additional parking, and many buildings needed a facelift.
After the survey, Kaneohe Ranch started an 18-month planning process headed up by architect Francis Oda, chairman of Honolulu’s Group 70 International Inc., who also had worked with D’Olier on the transformation of Ward Centers.
“We have become very close friends, and our families did, too,” Oda told PBN. “Mitch is a very dynamic visionary and, together, we envisioned the Victoria Ward properties going from light industrial to a place for local families and local people.”
When it came to the potential transformation of Kailua, D’Olier orchestrated a series of public meetings and found, among other things, that people in Kailua didn’t want to have to go into urban Honolulu to do their shopping.
But there wasn’t enough retail in Kailua to allow that to happen.
“We had a problem from the business standpoint in that this was a great place to incubate business, but they would move on and we would start to lose them,” he said. “We believed that we didn’t build a good enough mousetrap for them to stay, [and] the community said ‘keep it Hawaii and make it pedestrian friendly.’ ”
D’Olier then helped put together a 67-page pedestrian plan, and also set about to find anchor tenants to help lure traffic for the hundred or so retailers with a presence in Kailua. He got Whole Foods Market and Target to commit.
Next will be filling up Hekili Street with lots of small shops and restaurants, he said.
Along the way, there has been increased interest from Japanese tourists, which D’Olier thinks has happened, at least in part, from the international attention Kailua has received as the vacation destination for President Barack Obama and his family.
“I didn’t have the president at Ward, but I have him here, and the impact has been staggering,” he said. “Lucky is better than smart.”
His dual passions: Education and the environment
At the foundation, meanwhile, he started to focus even more on how to help Hawaii’s public schools close their achievement gap. During D’Olier’s tenure, the foundation has provided millions of dollars for teacher training designed to help schools transition to new curriculums.
“We did training in the Kailua-Kalaheo school complex, and the school would get together with the instructional leaders and teachers would set goals,” D’Olier said. “After we ran the program at the Kailua-Kalaheo complex, we watched data come in and most schools made Adequate Yearly Progress,” which is used to define student performance.
He also says that as a result of this success the foundation has strengthened its partnership with the state Department of Education and is now helping several other complexes in the state do the same thing.
In 2011, the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation committed to providing $10 million in funding to the Department of Education over a four-year period in support of its Race to the Top initiatives. That money is in addition to the $75 million in federal funding that the board of education was awarded, and is being used to, among other things, to recruit, train and place 36 new “turnaround principals” in schools by 2014.
Whether it has been with the foundation or at Kaneohe Ranch, D’Olier is easy to work with and always has a fountain of ideas, says Randy Moore, the previous president and CEO of Kaneohe Ranch and a current member of the Castle family foundation.
“He’s open to new ideas, and if something turns out not to be a good idea, he doesn’t hang on it,” he said. “Since Mitch has come to the foundation, it has gotten a lot more focused on what it’s going to do, as opposed to pretty much responding to requests for grants.”
In addition to education, the foundation also focuses on marine conservation and helped fund the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s efforts, the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument’s World Heritage listing and restoration projects such as the one being done on a 67-acre site in Kailua known as the Hamakua Marsh, which Kaneohe Ranch bought in February and deeded to the state in an effort to protect it and the surrounding hillside.
Ultimately, Kaneohe Ranch would like to do the same thing at Kawai Nui Marsh in Kailua, said D’Olier, who also is a director and co-founder of a nonprofit called Malama Maunalua, which is designed to help care for the Maunalua region of southeast Oahu.
“East Honolulu needed to be managed on a sustainable basis, and when I moved to Niu Valley I got a call from Laura Thompson and we then started Malama Maunalua,” he said. Last year, D’Olier and Thompson coordinated the efforts of a thousand volunteers and received funding from a $3.5 million federal grant, awarded jointly with the Nature Conservancy, to clean stream beds and rain gardens in an effort, among other things, to remove alien species and sedimentation.
“You take a look at the list of organizations he is involved with and has been involved with over the years — his involvement in the community is ongoing, productive and helpful,” Thompson said. “He’s always willing to help.”
She also pointed out that D’Olier does not push himself in front of everybody, but at the same time, never lets the occasion pass when he can contribute something to a cause.
“I just think he is a very fine, wonderful community person who does a lot,” she said.
Desire to help stems from D’Olier’s faith
The development challenges that D’Olier faces in Kailua today are similar to the ones he faced in Kakaako while leading Victoria Ward Ltd. through most of the 1990s.
“Ward was in the middle of the city, and we spent a lot of time looking at marketing opportunities,” D’Olier said. “We chose to grow it, and had a lot of interaction with small businesses.”
He said Victoria Ward was trying to create what he called a “real place” for people to be entertained and have a good night out. Among the retailers added were Nordstrom Rack and Dave & Busters.
Oda, with Group 70 International, met with D’Olier once a week for seven years during the transformation of this area.
“The three centers were totally disconnected, and you’d never thought of walking from one to the other,” Oda said. “There were certain parts of the property that no one would ever think of walking through.”
He pointed out that their vision of attracting local families to the property struck a chord with both of them on a personal level, as both had young families at that time.
“We kept asking ourselves, ‘Where would you take your families at night?,’ ” Oda said. “[Now, at Ward], you could go to a fun thing like a movie and in addition go to a place to eat and you could also go to a bookstore [until Borders closed two years ago, so] each member of the family could find interesting things to do in a safe and walkable environment.”
Besides working together in the development world, the two also developed a friendship around the common bond of a shared faith.
Oda, who also is the senior pastor at New Life Church in Nuuanu, says that most of his and D’Olier’s passion and vision to help Hawaii flows out of their belief system.
“Faith plays a role in everyday living, and a little bit of my optimism comes from my faith,” said D’Olier, who attends First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu at Koolau in Windward Oahu. “[Faith] teaches humility, which is important in Hawaii, and faith teaches you not to worry about a lot of things. Faith helps carry you through tough times.”
Looking back, D’Olier said his greatest accomplishments at Ward Centers were helping to start the now-defunct farmer’s market and developing a collaborative relationship with the Hawaii Community Development Authority, the state agency charged with developing areas such as Kakaako.
Jan Yokota, vice president of the Pacific Region for REIT Management & Research and HCDA executive director from 1997 to 2003, told PBN that she had an extremely collaborative relationship with D’Olier.
“They talk about public-private partnerships, and that was truly a great partnership between Victoria Ward and the HCDA,” she said. “He had a great vision for Kakaako, and we both shared that — a commitment to the area.”
Before D’Olier left Victoria Ward in 2002, he headed up the sale of the company to General Growth Properties Inc., the owner of Ala Moana Center, for $250 million.
“It was the right time for them to be liquid,” D’Olier said. “The majority shareholder, Maude Woods Wodehouse, I was lucky enough to know her, and her estate went to a number of charities, [so] I knew that the income we produced for the sale would benefit [charities].” Woods Wodehouse, who was the wife of Cenric Wodehouse, the grandson of Victoria Ward, left an endowment of more than $120 million to benefit several community organizations and schools, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
Making an exit from his law practice
D’Olier took what was perhaps the biggest risk of his career in 1991, when he left a successful law practice to be named president and chief operating officer of what was then a very troubled Hawaiian Airlines.
During his stint, which lasted less than two years, he and his management team tried to restore the airline’s financial health. But D’Olier ended up leaving the airline in May 1993, and in September of that year HAL Inc., then the parent company of Hawaiian Airlines, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
That was 20 years ago, and as D’Olier looks back on the experience he says he learned a lot and made some good friends.
At the time, D’Olier thought if things didn’t work out he would just go back to practicing law. Instead, he went on to help shape the futures of Ward Centers and Kailua.
That ended up being quite a departure from his original plans, just as ending up in Hawaii was quite a departure from his upbringing on the South Side of Chicago, where he graduated from Morgan Park High School before going to the University of Iowa. D’Olier visited Hawaii in 1971 and instantly fell in love with its natural beauty and welcoming people.
After getting married that same year in Puerto Rico to his college sweetheart, Bambi, they moved to Hawaii and he started out as a summer law clerk at the Honolulu law firm Cades Schutte LLP.
He began working at Goodsill Anderson Quinn & Stifel as an associate in 1972, where he practiced tax and business law.
David Reber, a senior partner for Goodsill Anderson who actually taught D’Olier as a first-year law student at the University of Iowa and worked with him at the Honolulu firm, is convinced that D’Olier would have been highly successful if he had chosen to stay with his law practice. But, as Reber put it, D’Olier couldn’t overcome the “appeal” of these other opportunities.
Even in the midst of what has been a full professional life, D’Olier has never been too busy to grow his appreciation for Hawaii’s delicate beauty and make attempts to satisfy the ocean’s seemingly relentless call.
As recently as last November, he and Bambi went scuba diving off the Galapagos Islands, where they swam with a school of hammerheads and whale sharks.
“When I am in the water, I am a looker. And all of that fun has led me to greatly appreciate the oceans and the creatures in it,” D’Olier said.
If all goes according to his current plans, it won’t be long before he’ll have even more time to enjoy his favorite pastime. Of course, his track record indicates that he just might be lured into yet another opportunity that delays his retirement. It’s happened to him before.
At a glance
Mitch’s title: President and CEO of Kaneohe Ranch Co. LLC and Harold K.L. Castle Foundation Company address: 1199 Auloa Road Kailua, HI 96734 Company phone: (808) 263-8911 Website: www.kaneoheranch.com Wife: Bambi Sons: Jason, 36; Justin, 32; Jordan, 27 Granddaughters: 3 MILESTONES 1972: Joined Goodsill Anderson Quinn & Stifel, eventually working his way up
to partner and management committee member 1991: Named president and COO of Hawaiian Airlines Inc. and its related companies 1993: Named president and CEO of Victoria Ward Ltd. 2002: Named president and CEO of Kaneohe Ranch Co. Ltd. and the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation
Duane Shimogawa covers energy, real estate and economic development for Pacific Business News.
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