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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, May 23, 2005

Homegrown talent preferred

By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Staff Writer

The higher echelon of Hawai'i's hotel management is increasingly populated by Hawai'i-born or long-time residents.

Robert "Mick" Minicola started off as a graveyard shift security worker but maintained his dream and is now regional general manager of HTH Corp., overseeing the Pacific Beach Hotel, King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel and the Pagoda Hotel and Restaurant.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

That wasn't the case two or three decades ago, and local hotel executives hope the change will encourage more Hawai'i students to look at lodging as a viable career path.

Robert "Mick" Minicola's first job in the hotel industry was as a security guard on the graveyard shift at the Ilikai Hotel in 1979. Now the 49-year-old is regional general manager for HTH Corp. where he oversees the Pacific Beach Hotel, the King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel and the Pagoda Hotel and Restaurant.

Minicola, a Roosevelt High School graduate, has a mechanical engineering degree from Leeward Community College. He was running his own custom automotive business during the day when he took his first hotel position as a second job to support his young family.

At age 24, Minicola decided he wanted to be a hotel general manager. Some colleagues and superiors dismissed the idea.

"People I told that dream to said, 'There's no way you're going to be a GM. Unless you graduated from Cornell business school (home to the School of Hotel Administration), don't even think about it,' " Minicola said.

"At that point, you stop telling people because you don't want to get the negative response. I wasn't sure it was possible or not, but that's what I set my goals to. So all of the opportunities that were given to me, I tried to strive to do the best I could, hoping it would lead me up the ranks. I guess it worked."

A succession of managerial posts at the Ilikai and Outrigger Hotels and Resorts ultimately led to his first general manager position at the Outrigger Hobron in 1993.

"When I went to Roosevelt, no one ever pitched the hospitality industry to us," said Minicola. "But one of the things that I want to let all local children know is that they're the preferred employee. They know where everything is located. They know where the best places are because they lived here. ... So they are much more qualified, actually. All they have to do is spend the time and effort, and they actually have an advantage."

Reaching the top

A survey of about 90 Hawai'i lodging businesses found that 40 percent of the general managers were born and raised in Hawai'i, said Murray Towill, president of Hawai'i Hotel & Lodging Association, which conducted the poll. Another 20 percent have lived in Hawai'i longer than 20 years.

"I think it's a function of the maturing of the industry," Towill said. "Thirty years ago that was much more the exception to the rule. Today you see a lot more local people who have been involved in the industry (for years), came up through the ranks and now they're in the top echelon.

"I think it's absolutely terrific. I think it really is helpful and important for the industry to have local people involved. They have real roots here and a real affinity for the place."

Having local executives provides more of a sense of Hawai'i ownership and responsibility, particularly in this day of hotel consolidations and large hotel chains, Towill said.

Students graduating from the University of Hawai'i's School of Travel Industry Management are usually offered entry level management positions with salaries ranging from $28,000 to $40,000, depending on the property, said internship and career placement coordinator Kawehi Sellers. Neighbor Island properties tend to offer higher salaries to attract students, she said.

Salaries of hotel general managers range from about $70,000 to $155,000, according to a 2000 survey commissioned by the Hawaii Hotel and Lodging Association. Pay is linked to the size and complexity of the property, and compensation packages often include performance-based bonuses, Towill said.

Salaries for general managers of nationally branded, full-service hotels range from about $110,000 to $240,000, said Keith Vieira, senior vice president and director of operations for Starwood Hotels & Resorts in Hawai'i and French Polynesia.

Start as a busboy

Ernest Nishizaki, a 1965 Leilehua High School graduate, is executive vice president and chief operating officer of Kyo-ya Co., which owns the Sheraton-Waikiki, Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Sheraton Moana Surfrider, Sheraton Princess Kaiulani and Sheraton Maui.

Nishizaki got his first job in the hospitality industry as a busboy at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. After graduating from the University of Hawai'i's Travel Industry Management program he joined ITT Sheraton Corp.'s management trainee program and worked in various management positions at several properties here and on the Mainland.

He became the first Hawai'i-born general manager of The Royal Hawaiian, the state's second-oldest hotel, in 1993.

"Back when I started, almost all of our chefs were European-trained, and all of our GMs probably came from Cornell University or something of that nature," Nishizaki said. "Today that doesn't have to be the case. As you look around our state, many of our finest culinary people are locally-born people. So it's changed. It's getting better."

Nishizaki also said there will be increased hotel opportunities particularly within the next five years or so as baby-boomers begin retiring.

"So all of a sudden there are going to be positions ... for people to take," he said. "Does that mean that the college grad is going to get that general manager position at a hotel? No. It means that the person who's working there today in the hotel is going to hopefully elevate themselves up to more responsible positions. And then that means that there will be new positions opening up at the entry level."

Focus on locals

Starwood's Vieira started his hospitality career as a tour bus driver on the Big Island. The Hilo native and UH College of Business Administration graduate joined Sheraton 24 years ago and since then received nearly a dozen promotions up to his current position as senior vice president and director of operations in Hawai'i and French Polynesia. He oversees 17 properties in Hawai'i, San Francisco and Tahiti.

The hotel industry is "very focused on trying to bring more locals into their senior management ranks because it's the right thing to do," Vieira said. "That movement started in the early '80s when I was starting with Sheraton and it certainly benefited me as being a local person, being part-Hawaiian and understanding about the importance of culture, history, traditions, Hawaiian values, and how that affects our business."

Walter Jamieson, dean of UH's School of Travel Industry Management, said the industry in general recognizes it needs to work harder to educate students about the opportunities it offers.

"It's an incredibly sophisticated industry and while yes, there are an awful lot of people in what might be called vocational positions, there are a lot of jobs in finance, human resources, IT (information technology), sales and marketing," he said.

"There's no doubt that the industry recognizes that locally grown talent, people who come from here, are going to be naturals to work in the industry if they have the right kind of training," he said. "If what we're selling is aloha, if what we're selling is a special sense of place, if what we're selling is this really incredible mosaic of different cultures coming together, then the people best able to sell that and exhibit that are obviously local people."

Stiff competition

But that doesn't mean those who move here can't exhibit the same characteristics, or that every general manager must be from Hawai'i, he added.

The TIM school has agreed to work with the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs to get more Native Hawaiian students into the school, Jamieson said. About 6 percent or 7 percent of the TIM students are Native Hawaiian, he said. Jamieson said he also sees a need to help those already in the industry who may find themselves at a disadvantage because of the lack of formal qualifications.

"We don't have the answer to that one in the sense of where the money is going to come from, but we're recognizing that this is a very important area in terms of ensuring again that the host community are in positions of responsibilty within the larger industry," he said.

Kimberly Leimomi Agas, vice president-operations of Outrigger Hotels and Resorts' Waikiki Beachfront Division, fell in love with the hotel industry during a summer job at the Outrigger Reef on the Beach's executive office and front desk.

The 1981 Kamehameha Schools grad left the University of Hawai'i in her senior year to join Outrigger full time. Now she oversees four properties in Waikiki, the Big Island and in French Polynesia.

"I think a lot of the local kids, they want to be a part of the industry," Agas said. "Not the typical hula skirt and doing the hula for our guests but really embracing and sharing our culture. We're proud of what we have in our culture."

Mike Tasaka, general manager of the Aston Waikiki Beach Tower and Aston Waikiki Beachside hotels, said while having local leaders in the industry is important, companies ultimately base their decision on who is best qualified to help them remain competitive with other properties and destinations.

"I think it's important to have that local flavor here in the Islands," the 1973 Kaimuki High School graduate said. "When you're born and raised here, it's the passion for sharing the culture and what you know about the Islands and so forth, and I think that that's important — that it doesn't get lost in any way. But I think that when you look at it from a business standpoint, that you do want to have the best available people in these key positions.

"We have to compete against other resort locales around the world. I think what it does though, like anything else, I think everyone hopefully embraces competition, and that will drive each individual that much more to be the best that they can be."

Reach Lynda Arakawa at larakawa@honoluluadvertiser.com or at 535-2470.