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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, January 19, 2004

Leadership Corner: Vicky Cayetano

Interviewed by David Butts
Advertiser Staff Writer

Vicky Cayetano

Age: 47

Title: President and CEO since 1990

Company: United Laundry Services Inc. She helped found the company in 1988. It now employs about 300 people and services many of O'ahu's major hotels and hospitals.

High School: Lowell in San Francisco

College: Stanford, two years, left to found a travel agency.

Little known fact: In 1963, the then Vicky Tiu appeared in the movie "It Happened at the World's Fair" with Elvis Presley. In the film, Presley's character befriends a Chinese girl (Tiu) at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair who introduces him to various women. "When I was making that movie with Elvis, the person I really wanted to meet was Dr. Kildare (star of a 1960s TV series by the same name and played by Richard Chamberlain). Last year at a dinner I told him (Chamberlain). Here I was making a movie with the King and the only person I wanted to meet was Richard Chamberlain."

Life changing events: Becoming a mother, finding her faith ("I'm a Christian. I wouldn't say of any denomination but I go to First Presbyterian), marrying Gov. Ben Cayetano in 1997 and becoming first lady of Hawai'i.

Major challenge: Being prepared for change in business which is coming faster all the time, yet being true principles such as taking care of customers and employees.

Upcoming event: YWCA's Bungee Boost on Thursday, noon to 1 p.m., featuring a talk by her on leading by example. Call 538-7061 extension 0 to register.

Q. How did you first get into business?

A. I started a travel agency in San Francisco when I was about 19. We had an opportunity to do a really big account. One of my friend's father's job was managing travel for Bechtel (the San Francisco engineering company currently involved in rebuilding Iraq). He's always saying how bad the service is. I was itching to do something.

I got a group of young women together and it just went from there. They were so pleased with the service that it expanded and expanded. I introduced some ideas. Back then they didn't use credit cards for travel. I suggested to them, rather than tie up their cash flow, you go on an air travel card.

I like to approach things creatively. The same approach here at the laundry. People say who did you take the business from. We really didn't take it from any laundry company. We took it from the on-premise laundry, and convinced them that you shouldn't run a laundry on prime Waikiki real estate.

Q. You have just this one location off Sand Island Access Road. What's your plan for expanding the laundry?

A. I think we are far enough along that I can tell you that we would like to and we are hoping to open in Kona.

With all the growth I'm reading about in the Kapolei area, all the time shares, I would be very interested to see if they would like to ... do a small laundry that's much closer to those facilities.

Q. How has the transition from first lady to regular citizen been?

A. The transition that I've had a tough time with are the more mundane things ... the hardest thing for me has been finding parking space. Before I could go anywhere, now I'm like, "Oh, I got to find a space. How much time to allow. Lot Full. Where do I go."

Q. Are you going to run for mayor in 2004?

A. The timing isn't right because there is so much to do here at the business. I had at first said no, and then I actually really thought about it again a little bit more. It's not because I don't like the two candidates out there (former Councilman Duke Bainum and former Councilman Mufi Hannemann). I think they are very qualified, in some ways more than myself. But I just think that it would be nice, looking at their styles and their thinking and approach to government, to give people a third choice that is very different.

I just do not feel, from the business perspective, that the time is right.

Q. Are you leaving the door open for 2004?

A. I don't think it is realistic, you know, because of the timing. It's already almost February. I'm confident that I can raise money, but the deadline is in the next 30 days. It's not fair to the people who support you to go in it and not be fully committed to winning. I know the timing is not right. I just really feel this tug. It's a job that requires full time, so this year is out.

Q. How is it having a retired governor at home?

A. That's why I spend so much time at the laundry. No. Actually, he is really enjoying himself and busy as ever. He plans to write a book.

Q. You are perhaps most remember as first lady for your effort to get a long-term-care tax adopted (a mandatory $10 per person per month statewide tax that would finance up to $75 per day for long-term-care benefits that would last up to a year). Now the long-term-care tax is dead. Is that still disappointing to you?

A. Very much so. For all the talk, for all the rhetoric we hear, government's tendency is always to have to react when it is a crisis. We know in business, when we do that, we are too late to the game. We cannot be successful anymore. We are just putting Band-Aids all over the place.

I'm still hopeful that somebody will champion this cause because it is so needed and I hope to one day have an opportunity to be part of that.

Q. The argument against it was that it would create a new bureaucracy to do something that is best left to the private sector. Why do you think the government should do this?

A. As a business person, we always believe that less government is better government. But when it came to this issue and having talked to many people, this is not an issue that can be individually solved. That's why the program we have wasn't fixed to services, it was fixed to a dollar benefit. When you fix it to services, you can't control the cost. But when you fix it to a dollar amount and let people decide how they want to do it — for respite, for a wheelchair, for whatever — it was really a good program. It gave consumers the flexibility to be in the driver seat.

Q. Which was more exciting, appearing in an Elvis movie or marrying the governor of Hawai'i?

A. Oh, gosh. What can I say. When I was making a movie with Elvis at six and a half (years old), I did not appreciate the full importance of being on a movie set with Elvis. I enjoyed the experience.

There is no question that being first lady is much more meaningful. One was more exciting, but one was much more meaningful, being able to go out there and work with the people and have an impact on their lives is much more far-reaching in a substantive way.