By Lee Cataluna
When Jane Mori speaks of the man who was her boss for 47 years, there are tears in her eyes. "He's one of the most important people in my life," she says softly.
Alister Wilson Macdonald was important in just about everyone's life in Hawai'i for decades, though he managed to keep himself out of the limelight. He brought Hinode rice to families' tables, he introduced Exchange Orange Ade to a generation of Island keiki, and during wartime he was the man in charge of making sure Hawai'i civilians would have enough food.
Along with his illustrious business career, Macdonald also owned a freighter, a Waikiki hotel and a radio station. But for those who were closest to the visionary businessman, what was more impressive than his business acumen was his unwavering code of ethics and his belief in hard work.
Alister Macdonald, known as "Al" or "A.W." in business circles and called "Mac" by his friends, was born in Seattle in 1911 to a prominent family in the grain business. The family lost their fortune in the stock market crash of 1929, and went from nightly formal dinners with fancy china and silver on the table to one loaf of bread to feed seven children. Macdonald learned at an early age what it was like to not have enough food.
Photo courtesy of Macdonald family
Alister Wilson Macdonald was the man who brought Hinode rice to Hawai'i.
Photo courtesy of Macdonald family
There was one part of his war-time assignment that just didn't sit right with Macdonald. He didn't agree with the priorities of martial law. For example, he was instructed not to stockpile any food for the Neighbor Islands because, he was told, they were considered expendable. Also, he was told that if the allied forces lost the battle of Midway, he would be issued bombs to destroy the entire O'ahu food supply so that enemy troops could not benefit. "I don't know how people would have survived," Macdonald was quoted as saying years later. "They would have starved."
After the war, Macdonald stayed in Hawai'i. He used his experience in food distribution to establish a thriving food brokerage firm, called Macdonald & Porter, in 1945 with then-partner John Porter. The company originally had offices in Aloha Tower, but later teamed up with Sunkist to buy a specially designed produce warehouse on Queen street in Kaka'ako, where it continues to do business.
Jane Mori started with the company when she was 19 years old. She worked in the seventh floor of the Aloha Tower, and she learned quickly that Mr. Macdonald had the highest standards.
"You know how when you're typing and there's a mistake, some people just cross it out with a pen and write in the correction? He wouldn't let me do that," Mori remembers. "This was in the days before correction fluid or a copy machine. We had to use carbon paper. I had to type it again until it was perfect." Mori tells this story with great fondness in her voice. She liked that he expected the best. "To this day, I try to do things the way he wanted them to be done," she says.
Alister Macdonald would go to trade shows on the Mainland and find products he thought Hawai'i consumers should have. That's how Reynolds Wrap got to Hawai'i, and Exchange Orange Ade, the after-school juice drink for a generation of Hawai'i kids who still remember the catchy jingle. Macdonald introduced Purina dog and cat chow to Hawai'i, as well as Chex cereal.
And then there was Hinode. In the late '40s and early '50s, rice was shipped to stores in 100 pound burlap or cotton bags. The stores would repackage the rice in 10-pound paper bags for household use. When supermarkets came along, it became more difficult for the stores to provide the labor for re-bagging. Macdonald had the brilliant idea to get the rice packaged in smaller bags at the mill. The idea took off. As family legend goes, Macdonald was having coffee with representatives from the Rice Growers Association one morning when he came up with the idea for the yellow bag with the red lettering, the image that became an integral part of every family kitchen in Hawai'i.
In 1958, Macdonald formed a hui with prominent businessmen like Maurice Sullivan of Foodland, John Fujieki of Star Supermarket and Albert Teruya of Times. The hui bought a freighter named Leilani and started up the Hawaiian Pacific Freight Agency. During the prolonged West Coast dock strike of 1961, the supply of food, especially rice, had Hawai'i residents in near-panic. But Macdonald, true to form, found a way to keep the food supply coming. His son, Bob Macdonald, says: "They had all of their grocery products and the rice trucked up to Vancouver (British Columbia) and they had their boat go up there to get loaded up. They were like heroes because they got rice to Hawai'i."
Daughter Kathy Macdonald, who owns an executive search firm in California, remembers her father drawing a picture for her when she was a kid. He drew a man with a long nose touching a round rock. "Always keep your nose to the grindstone," he would say.
"People trusted his word," Kathy says. "I remember him being an honorable businessman. "
Macdonald never fired anybody from his company. Ever. If an employee was having trouble, he'd find a way to work it out. He considered it his responsibility. And though he was known for being frugal (Kathy points out that the office looks exactly the same as it did in the 1970s) he always made sure the company contributed the maximum amount to his employees' retirement accounts.
Macdonald insisted on working well into his 80s, teaching himself how to use modern computers and figuring out how to construct complicated spreadsheets that his daughter calls "amazing."
Even after his eyesight started failing, Macdonald would come into the office and pour over the numbers using enlarged text on a computer screen. "That was heartbreaking to see," says Kathy.
Alister Wilson Macdonald died Nov. 23, at The Queen's Medical Center. He was 91 years old. As son Bob puts it, "It's like the passing of an era."
Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or email@example.com.