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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, July 25, 2002

Tourism agency names Johnson as new leader

By Katherine Nichols
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Hawai'i Tourism Authority unanimously selected Rex Johnson yesterday as its executive director, a relative outsider to the tourism industry who was chosen for his ability to reach consensus about attracting visitors to a vacation spot still struggling to recover from Sept. 11.

The Hawai'i Tourism Authority has selected Rex Johnson as its executive director.
Johnson's appointment comes at a crucial time for the authority, which oversees $56 million in tourism marketing money and was heavily criticized in a recent state auditor's report that accused the authority of mismanaging its budget and failing to tell lawmakers exactly how the money was used.

The authority, with 13 board members, seven of whom are new, also has been under fire for the effectiveness of its $45 million contract with the Hawai'i Visitors & Convention Bureau and what benefits it has provided the state.

The 56-year-old Johnson said his first task is to "bring closure" to the audit and move forward.

"I really think this organization has a lot of potential," he said. "I think we have no place to go but up."

In Johnson, whose three-year term begins Sept. 1, the authority is getting someone with a broad resume of experience in government and business who has been praised for unifying differing parties and getting all sides to agree.

For the past year, he has been the director of physical facilities at Kaka'ako for the John A. Burns School of Medicine where he spent much of his time coordinating the interests of landowners, zoning authorities, engineers, architects, contractors and government agencies. The project's groundbreaking is scheduled for early October.

"He's organized," said Dr. Ed Cadman, dean of the John A. Burns School of Medicine and Johnson's former supervisor. "He gets people from various backgrounds to work together. And, most importantly, he listens to everybody before making a decision."

His supporters said Johnson also understands how the state's No. 1 industry permeates everything and his primary responsibility will be to help the tourism industry emerge from a severe economic slump brought on by the terrorist attacks.

"Since tourism affects every sector of our life in Hawai'i as we know it today, my vision emphasis would be on creating partnerships with Hawai'i's people and businesses," he said.

Mike McCartney, the newly elected chairman of the authority, said Johnson is an impressive choice.

"He has a track record of accomplishing things; he's tried, proven and he delivers," McCartney said. "He understands government, he understands community, he understands business. ... "

McCartney said Johnson is especially skilled at "getting consensus."

During the executive session vote in which Johnson was selected, McCartney said, "the energy in the room rose" and the board of directors broke into spontaneous applause when the decision was officially made.

Former executive director Rick Humphreys — also considered a skilled administrator with less visitor industry knowledge than most on the authority — noted similarities between himself and Johnson, and expressed faith in Johnson's capabilities. "I think HTA is lucky that he's available," Humphreys said.

To find Johnson, executive search firm Inkinen & Associates worked with a committee that included Roy Tokujo, David Carey, Keith Vieira and Ron Wright along with newly appointed board members McCartney, Larry Johnson, Lorrie Lee Stone and community member Joyce Tsunoda.

With a base salary of approximately $250,000 per year, Rex Johnson will be paid more than his predecessors but less than the $325,000 compensation package ceiling set by the Senate Committee on Tourism and Intergovernmental Affairs. Former executive director Robert Fishman, whose contract allowed for $182,000 annually over three years, resigned last November when he was called up for active duty at the Pentagon. Humphreys took on the post temporarily for a $1 fee.

From December 1994 to July 2001, Johnson served as executive director for the Nature Conservancy of Hawai'i. He was director of the state Department of Transportation from December 1991 to December 1994, and head of the Hawai'i Community Development Authority from 1983 to 1991.

"He understands Hawai'i," said Murray Towill, president of the Hawaii Hotel Association. "And the experience at the Department of Transportation is going to be useful because air service is such a big equation."

Johnson graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in transportation business management. He has lived in Hawai'i for more than 30 years.

His duties will include directing the authority as it formulates and implements both short- and long-range policies and plans. He will communicate directly with the governor and the Legislature, and work with public and private organization to support and develop tourism throughout the state.

Johnson has been married for 17 years to his wife, Gigi, who was born and raised on O'ahu. They have a daughter, Casey. Before beginning his new post, he will travel to Montana for a trout fishing excursion.

Reach Katherine Nichols at knichols@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8093.