Higa poses with a few company “toys.”

On the Move

TheCab’s Howard Higa sets his sights beyond his fleet of taxis.

In the first part of his life, Howard Higa, President and CEO of TheCab, said making money and earning a good living for his family were his driving force. now, at nearly 70, Higa thinks the chance to give back by creating opportunities for his largely immigrant workforce provides the prime motivation for continuing to run Hawai’i’s largest taxi company long after many of his peers have retired.

“TheCab has over 800 immigrant americans and my desire is to pay forward by giving them the opportunity to support their families and become independent and successful americans and not rely on the social security system or welfare,” says higa, whose own grandfather was an okinawan contract laborer who founded a small business that paved the way for his late father, Yetsuo “Yets” Higa, to build a multi-million dollar trucking company. reflecting on his illustrious track record running companies in hawai’i and Japan, higa says his priorities and passions have changed over time. for starters, he’s loving running a company that is part of an industry that, as a younger man, he never saw himself embracing.

“When i acquired the company, it was defunct,” Higa says. “Basically, i had loaned someone money and he couldn’t pay the debt so he threw the keys on my desk. i said, ‘you are kidding me,’ and for a year, i didn’t do anything, i just let the company get worse and worse.”

However, eventually genetics kicked in and Higa, who comes from a long line of men who couldn’t walk away from a business challenge, came out of semi-retirement to turn TheCab around. To be sure, Higa’s father, who died in 2000, is often remembered in Hawai’i as the man who turned Y. Higa Enterprises into O’ahu’s largest trucking, storage and packing and hauling business, while bringing Pepsi Cola and Domino’s Pizza to Japan. An avid sportsman and athlete who didn’t let his lack of shoes stop him from setting track records, the elder Higa also brought the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Yankees to Hawai’i and Japan to play ball. The younger Higa is equally passionate about the things that he loves, said his youngest daughter Shannon Higa, who as director of marketing and advertising for TheCab is responsible for the company’s well-known frank delima campaign.

“I hate to say it, but my father will die at his desk and he’ll have a smile on his face,” Shannon says. “He loves it. He’s happy so i would never want him to slow down.” While Shannon said Higa takes an occasional golf day, most often he’s the first person to arrive at the company and the last to leave.

“This company was once the bastard child-he had other companies and he was fighting the notion of being a cab owner,” she says. “When he realized that this was just about running another company, he put his heart and soul into it.”

Higa says he used the same kind of dedication and creativity that he once put into reviving his dad’s failing Pepsi Cola operation in Japan to turn his latest endeavor around.

“I didn’t have a silver spoon. The perception was that my father was really doing well, but the Pepsi operation was really struggling. It was hard to feed my family,” Higa says. “I made a deal with my father. I told him I’d continue to work at the company, which was in the red, until I put it into profit. It took me five years, then I left.”

After Higa left his father’s company, he was too poor to move his family back to Hawai’i so out of necessity he founded a trading company in Japan and built a distribution system throughout Southeast Asia. The company became so successful that Beatrice Foods Company bought it and Higa and family were able to return to Hawai’i. Back home, he founded Ram Paging Hawaii, now know as Arch Wireless-Hawaii, and also was one of the founders of AT&T Wireless Hawaii, formerly known as Honolulu Cellular Telephone Company. Likewise, Higa invested in Hawai’i’s visitor industry through his ownership and operation of North Pak Hawaii and Jetset Tours Japan and part ownership of Waikiki hotels, including the Aloha Surf Hotel and the Outrigger Royal Islander Hotel.

Drawing on his experience at these companies as well as his enviable education at Punahou High School, the University of Geneva in Switzerland, Keio University in Tokyo, Japan and Dury University in Missouri, Higa transformed his struggling 56-car cab company into a successful operation in just three years.

“I’m not surprised by his success,” says longtime friend Andy Anderson. “He’s had several businesses over his life and I don’t recall any of them doing badly.”

Anderson says Higa’s love of business stands out even among a circle of friends, who aren’t anxious to retire.

“Most of us play golf and play together, but retiring is not on our agenda,” Anderson says. “We’re not looking forward to sitting home or pulling weeds.”

While Anderson defines Higa’s golf game as only “pretty good,” he’s more enthusiastic about his friend’s business acumen. Indeed, some two decades after taking over TheCab, Higa has grown the 56-car company into a fleet of nearly 900 vehicles, that have cornered 85 percent of Honolulu’s market and give more than two million rides a year.

The company continues to evolve as Higa gears up to put $1 million in backseat credit card readers into his fleet and works on expanding the captive insurance company, called Hawaii Insurance Group Association, that he got approved to start in June.

“We only had 20 days to sell the insurance, but we sold enough to hit our target numbers,” Higa says. “I may or may not make money off of it, but the objective is to stabilize these costs for my drivers.”

Higa, whose company is heavily involved in handling TheHandi-Van overflow for Oahu Transit Services, also is exploring launching a fleet of planes, called CabAir, to provide ambulance service between the islands. He recently had chicken-skin moment when he learned through a mainland service provider that his once beleaguered company had grown into not only the largest taxi service in Hawai’i, but also one of the largest in North America.

“He said we have to make this deal work because you are the second or third largest taxi company in North America,” Higa says. “It was enlightening.”

Another of Higa’s recent epiphanies is that making money is not what brings him to the office every day. As he glances at the portrait of his late father centered on his credenza, he said that he is reminded that the most important aspect of running TheCab is the chance to implement the “pay forward” philosophy.

“I come from a family of immigrants,” Higa says. “My grandfather came from Okinawa. He was really poor and worked in the fields where he hauled manure in a truck. That was all he could do because he couldn’t speak the language. If someone hadn’t given him the opportunity to work in the cane fields, where would my father and I have been?”

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