John Komeiji, the newly appointed President and General Manager of Hawaiian Telcom, says the secret to his success is that he understands big rewards require big risks and he’s not afraid to fail.
Like most successful trial lawyers, Komeiji has good people skills and great timing. But some of his contemporaries might have questioned that when he announced that he was leaving a 30-year legal career and his job as senior partner at Watanabe, Ing & Komeiji LLP to join a flailing company.
“I still remember someone asking me, ‘you are at the top of your game as a name partner and trial lawyer. Why sacrifice that to go at this unknown place,’” Komeiji says.
Komeiji’s short answer is that life “sometimes requires big risks,” albeit calculated ones.
It was precisely that confidence that inspired Walter Dods, retired CEO of First Hawaiian Bank and past chairman of Hawaiian Telcom, to recruit Komeiji in 2008 to join Hawaiian Telcom as its chief administrative officer and general counsel. The company was about to head into bankruptcy and it needed a problem solver who could figure out a path forward for one of Hawai‘i’s most dramatically changing companies. Over the last decade, the company has moved from a phone company to a communications company to an entertainment company and is now staking its claim as a technology company.
In 2010, Hawaiian Telcom came out of bankruptcy. Komeiji says the company became healthy after restructuring its balance sheet so that it could use its profits to reinvest rather than simply pay down massive debts.
Since 2010, Hawaiian Telcom has invested almost $750 million in fiber optics so that it can grow bandwidth. The company also launched Hawaiian Telcom TV on O‘ahu in July 2011, bringing viable competition to a market that had been dominated by a monopoly cable company for more than 40 years.
Working for a rapidly evolving technology company is not for the faint of heart. But Komeiji says he developed the stomach for risk as a youth, who was living below his potential. A rebellious teen, Komeiji did poorly in high school. He intended to become an auto mechanic. Going to college to pursue a white-collar career wasn’t even on his radar.
“During that period of my life, I failed a lot. But there’s a life lesson that a lot of people who are successful all the time don’t have. Having gone though that toughens you up and gives you the confidence to come back from failure,” he says. “Most of the people who have always been at the top of their class have never experienced failure and have to be careful not to become too risk adverse.”
Komeiji says he’s still grateful to his early mentor Keiji Kawakami, founder and owner of ‘Iolani Sportswear, who convinced him to take a chance on college.
“I got more focused at the University of Hawai‘i and I got to law school, where I did fairly well,” he says. “I knew I wasn’t as smart as some of the other students but I discovered that I’m a grinder. I established schedules to provide a structure for myself and I stuck to it.”
Komeiji used similar strategies to be- come a successful trial lawyer. Over his school years and legal career, he learned not to be intimidated by challenges, which he views simply as goals to be met.
Hanabata days aside, Komeiji comes by this work ethic naturally. His father, Toshio Komeiji, ran the Asahi Furniture store in ‘A’ala. His mom Jane was raised by a single-mother who managed Hawaii Importing Co. a dry goods store in a North King Street block of shops known as ‘A‘ala Rengo. They and their families were among the Japanese immigrants and their descendants who made ‘A‘ala a commercial center, especially in the pre-World War II years.
“Both of my parents worked really, really hard. They were very focused on what they did,” says Komeiji, who began working in the family furniture store when he was about 14.
Haunani Apoliona, former Office of Hawaiian Affairs Trustee, says Komeiji takes after his parents who came from a generation that worked for a just cause beacause they were Japanese Americans during and after WWII.
“His grounding is that his parents were compassionate and fair. He comes from generations of doing the right thing for the right reasons in the right time in the right way,” Apoliona says. “He’s not Native Hawaiian, but he also has ties to long-time friends in Papakolea (a Native Hawaiian homestead).”
To be sure, Komeiji says that he modeled some of Hawaiian Telcom’s company values after the lessons he learned at home and in the community. He has the values printed on a card for easy reference—“fierce resolve, aloha spirit, superior service and trust worthy.”
The company, which is just a little over a mile away from where Komeiji’s family operated their ‘A‘ala businesses, includes these values in its quarterly performance measures.
Though Hawaiian Telcom merged with Cincinnati Bell on July 2, Komeiji says it is still locally managed. His appointment as Hawaiian Telcom’s CEO and general manager coincided with the merger, which was a key step in its ability to diversify by expanding its high-speed, high-bandwidth fiber optic network and build an IT solutions and cloud services business.
As Hawaiian Telcom gets more technologically sophisticated, Komeiji says he’s also focused on making sure that the “people side” of the company is healthy and happy and engaged with each other and the community.
“We have to make this a cooler place to work. We’re creating social networks that help employees get to know other employees,” he says. “My definition of employee engagement is that I want you to feel that you belong.”
Komeiji says Hawaiian Telcom kicked off 2019 by adopting a Cincinnati Bell program that allows each employee to take up to 40 hours of paid time off a year to volunteer.
“We want to show our commitment and our employees commitment to this community,” Komeiji says. “We’re a locally managed company and we have aloha.”