Mahi Pono’s first hires seem long on charm and short on farm
Mahi Pono, the island’s newest and largest landowner, has acquired a few employees from Maui. Former Hawaiian Lieutenant Governor Shan Tsutsui and longtime Island activist Sean Lester signed with California-based subsidiary of Pomona Farming, which acquired more than 41,000 acres of former cane land at Alexander & Baldwin sugar last month.
Currently vice president of the Honolulu office of Strategies 360, “a strategic positioning company” (as a press release describes it), Tsutsui has helped bring Pomona Farming and A&B together. At Mahi Pono, he will hold the position of Vice President of Operations and will also continue to work at Strategies 360, only now as a Managing Partner. He was asked how he was going to handle the two during an interview on Sunday. “My new role will drastically reduce my time commitments for 360 and that will bring me back to Maui.”
Shan’s longtime friend Lester was hired as a consultant. Lester, a former nuclear engineer, has been a political activist for years and has been affiliated at one point or another with Maui Tomorrow and the Pono Network. He made news in the last county council election cycle when he unsuccessfully contested the candidacies of council members Riki Hokama, Mike Molina and Alice Lee with the county clerk’s office, alleging they had passed the limit of their mandate.
In addition, community activist Tiare Lawrence, who came close to defeating state representative Kyle Yamashita in last year’s primary elections, confirmed on Sunday that she was also offered a job, “but nothing was wrong. ‘is still in writing’.
In the weeks following the December 20 sale announcement, Lester was on the phone with many progressives in Maui extolling the virtues of the new owners. Lawrence posted many positive Mahi Pono stories on Facebook and urged others to keep an open mind about the new owners. This is a far cry from his work fighting the continental group TEACH when he wanted to take over Old Maui High School for an agricultural project and ran into a community wall of opposition. When asked about this apparent discrepancy, Lawrence’s response was succinct: “I trust Shan”.
A cynic might note that Lester and Lawrence’s jobs seem more about keeping calm in that same Maui community than addressing the farm logistics that the massive land sale will involve.
Tsutsui said Mahi Pono had “made no firm decision on additional staff at this point” and called Lester “part of the transition team”. He said Lawrence would be helpful with “government relations and the legislative process.”
Tsutsui and Lester escorted officials from Mahi Pono and its parent organization through a series of meetings Thursday and Friday with various movers and shakers from Maui. In town were Ann Chin, president of Mahi Pono, Ryon Paton – one of the directors of Pomona Farming and Trinitas Partners – and Allison Hoiberg, vice president of sales and marketing and wife of Paton’s business partner Kirk Hoiberg.
Albert Perez, executive director of Maui Tomorrow, spent an hour and a half with the group over lunch on Thursday. “My main goal was to establish a positive working relationship, and I think we achieved that.”
Tsutsui described the two days of meetings as “productive. I want them to learn the history and the different issues and concerns from different points of view. We met a wide variety of people, ”from farmers to developers. He said the developers had asked if Mahi Pono had any plans for affordable housing. “The answer was no.”
Maui County Council President Kelly King has been honest with her visitors as to the reasons behind some of the suspicions that have been expressed about the purchase and the new owners. “The mistake some developers make when entering our community is to think they know more than we do.”
She advised them to meet and associate with different members of the community. “Then you build a collaboration. You don’t come in and do something at us or for us, you do something with we.”
She said she encouraged them to “go out and meet the community”, not just the “stakeholders”.
“I told them to talk to the local people and do it publicly, where the conversation can be overheard by a lot of people. I want them to think more holistically and be more proactive in talking to people instead of waiting for the “Facebook fury” to break out. “
King also advised them to tell the community about the crops they wanted to see planted. “If we want to grow our own food, don’t just make coffee, it’s not food. Find out what we want you to grow and what we would like to eat. “
Mahi Pono mentioned coffee as one of the crops he intends to cultivate. But King said she told them, “If you plant 20,000 acres of it, you don’t grow it for Maui, you grow it for export.”
King praised Tsutsui’s hiring. “I know Shan and I know he won’t go into the business unless he’s sure they’re going to do the right thing. He won’t do anything that damages his reputation, so that’s where a lot of my faith in the people of Mahi Pono comes from.
Revered community activist and former Maui College professor Dick Mayer was also thrilled with the announcement. “Of all the people on Maui they could have chosen, Shan is probably the best person to do it in terms of contacts. He is not a farmer, but he is very familiar with the socio-economic environment. Coming from the mainland, this group should choose someone who is not just a technician, but actually a leader, and the former state lieutenant governor and a former state senator meet all of these criteria.
Newly formed consultant Sean Lester praised the leaders of his new business. “These are strong Christians who believe they are the stewards of the earth,” Lester said on Saturday. “There is real humility in them and honest sincerity.”
Lester said that prior to accepting the position he devoted himself to “trying to keep the structure of the business in a place where Maui was not totally overwhelmed.” So after such a long period of struggle for our basic existence as an island, seeing the opportunity for everyone to come together was enough to make me put my reputation on the line with these people and move on.
When it comes to the plans, Lester has come up with plenty of superlatives, but said people will have to wait for details. “They open a blank book with a pen and say, ‘What do you want your future to look like?’ No one has done this before.
“When that starts to unfold over a period of time, you’ll see the vision that’s going to happen and it’s going to totally blow your mind. For those who have been involved in agriculture and animal husbandry, it is simply a matter of allowing them to pay their mana’o in the system. Our job is to skillfully integrate this into what will unfold for the next hundred years on Maui.
Lester described his job as “making sure all of these overlaps come together efficiently and checking things out to make sure they’re rationally viable.” [His job] will turn into other things if necessary. We all have a deep and extraordinary responsibility here to be ethical, honest and transparent. “
Lester said Mahi Pono wanted “everyone’s best ideas”. But not yet. The “directors” will be back at the end of January for other meetings, but not for the whole community. “Right now the key players are all being listened to and from there it will all go to community meetings and more.
“Just be patient with us.”