Well out of Africa, Sean Hehir remains worldly right here in Honolulu.
Sean Hehir, 39, grew up surrounded by the Turbulence of Apartheid, a system of racial segregation enforced by the national party, which governed south Africa from before he was born into his young adulthood.
Hehir, now the President and CEO of Trinity Investments LLC, is the son of a self-made immigrant Michael Hehir and Mary smuts Mincher Hehir, the granddaughter of Jan smuts, whose second term as prime minister to south Africa ended right before apartheid began. Though he was born in Zimbabwe and his family had firm roots in democratic Botswana, Hehir spent some of his childhood in boarding schools in south Africa and then in Australia, where his family moved to escape the political chaos of their homeland.
“I arrived in south Africa, where i went to private school, in the midst of apartheid, it was really shocking. The private catholic schools could be multiracial, but the public schools were segregated. i couldn’t get my 11-year-old head wrapped around it,” Hehir says from his office, which overlooks Honolulu Harbor and the downtown financial district.
“I finished high school in 1989 the year before (nelson) Mandela was released. i remember visiting Switzerland in 1992 and feeling embarrassed to be from that part of the world,” he adds.
It wasn’t until 1995 when Hehir was in college that Mandela was democratically elected president of the republic and in the aftermath that followed could say that he was “proud of how far south Africa had come.”
In many ways, Hehir has left south Africa behind. However, his accent and his office décor still bear traces of his home-land. and, you only have to talk with Hehir for a few moments to understand that the range of experiences that he encountered during his youth left an indelible impression on him, shaping many of his personal preferences and business ethics.
“It’s always good to stop and check yourself and realize where you came from and where you want to go. my great-grandfather [prime minister smuts] died before my mother was born. but his daughter, my mother’s mother, was very influential,” Hehir says. “she always said when you are faced with a decision make the courageous decision. I try and follow that advice as best that I can.”
Hehir’s father, who came to south Africa from Ireland as a humble tradesman and built a successful construction business, also inspired him by serving as a model of persistence.
Hehir’s father pushed him and his three siblings to travel and to get an education, he said.
“I wasn’t a very good student,” Hehir explains. “It was at his insistence that I went to hotel school at (Hotel institute montreux, switzerland) and then cornell.” while to some, it might seem as though Hehir was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, the political unrest of his youth meant that his family was often riding the tide of fortune.
“Botswana was really the Switzerland of southern Africa, but we had all of the conflict passing through,” he said. “i can understand why my parents made the tough decision to immigrate to Australia and then go back.”
At 21, Hehir also learned that it takes more than wishing to make dreams come true. Cornell denied his admission due to his poor high school marks.
“I was in complete shock. it was a real wake-up call,” Hehir says.
Not to be deterred, he applied to the university of Nevada at Las Vegas and spent a semester there proving that he had the right stuff for an Ivy League education. He reapplied and upon his acceptance was opened up to a broad world of opportunities, including the finance and real estate side of the hotel industry.
As an adult, Hehir’s success at trinity and his wall street connections have afforded him the opportunity to choose nearly anywhere to live. most business people, like Hehir, who are among the few who can claim that they have executed more than $3 billion in global real estate transactions, make their home base in big cosmopolitan cities like new york, Tokyo, London, Beijing and shanghai. but given his past, perhaps, its not that surprising that when it came time to pick a place for his own children to grow up, Hehir and his wife Kim choose Oahu, a gathering place of diversity.
“I’ve realized how fluid the world has become. doing business in multiple jurisdictions is the norm of the day. i cherish the diversity in Hawai’i,” says Hehir, who permanently relocated his family to Hawai’i in 2010. “i want my children (6-year-old Michael and 5-year-old Andrew) to grow up with the right sensitivities.”
“New York’s loss is definitely Hawai’i’s gain,” says marc sole of Hudson bay capital management lp and Hehir’s friend for over a decade.
“Sean is a great guy in every respect. His investors are in great hands because he’s the kind of guy who does details,” sole says.
Hehir will get on the phone when an email will do and he will get on a plane when a call will do because he wants to know everything going on with his projects and make sure everything is right, he says. “There is a rumor that his iPhone is surgically attached to his head and he is generally obsessed with his toys and gadgets,” Sole says. “I think he has probably accumulated enough frequent flyer miles to go to Jupiter and back.”
Peter Ho, chairman, president and CEO of Bank of Hawaii, called Hehir a true global citizen, who travels between NYC and Asia and is home-based out of Honolulu. Ho, who has become Hehir’s good friend and business associate over the last few years, said he is fascinated by Hehir’s cultural dexterity.
“Grew up in Africa, schooled in the Ivy League, does business in all of the major money centers in the world and is home by Friday to take his son to soccer practice in Honolulu,” Ho says. “He and his family could live anywhere, but they find Hawai’i the perfect spot to raise a family.”
“My children go to a school where they don’t know that they are any different than any other student and that’s the way that it should be,” says Hehir.
“South Africa was about pointing out the differences and that was wrong. Hawai’i really is a model for the future.”
Like Ho, Hehir is also bullish on Hawai’i’s potential to realize its long-held ambition of becoming the gateway of the Asia-Pacific.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, which brought President Barack Obama and other heads of state to Hawai’i last November, bolstered Hawai’i’s profile as a safe-haven for investors, he shares.
“We saw a similar impact in Cabo (Mexico) after they held APEC there,” Hehir says. “The growth that occurred there really looks like a parallel.”
Business leaders are calling on Hawai’i and savvy delegations from places like China, Korea and Australia are looking for investment opportunities,” he says. “Prices and cap rates are starting to really improve.”
To be sure, Trinity, which unloaded quite a lot of its Hawai’i inventory before the last down cycle, is among the investors that are shopping for more Hawai’i holdings.
“Hawai’i is very high priority. We think the fundamentals are tremendous right now,” Hehir says, adding that Trinity has been refocusing on Hawai’i, where they have about $750 million in investments, since the 2005 acquisition of the Kahala Hotel & Resort.
Over the next few years, Trinity plans to put more renovation capital into the Kahala. It also could start construction in the next 18 months on expansion of the Makena Beach and Golf Resort, which it acquired in 2010.
In about two years, Trinity and its partner Stanford Carr also could start construction on its Maui Kaloko Makai housing project.
“These are exciting times for Hawai’i,” Hehir says. “There’s more to come.”