A history of helping little guy
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Dan Nakaso
Developer Peter Savio's interest in helping soon-to-be-displaced pineapple workers buy their Del Monte Fresh Produce plantation homes dates back nearly half a century to when Savio would watch his mother orchestrate deals that put buyers into their first homes.
Even the dinner hour was spent with the five Savio children listening to their mother, Mary, working the phone, often with the fate of first-time homeowners at stake.
"She believed in home ownership and now all of the kids in our family are into real estate," Savio said. " ... I'm always looking for projects to help the local guys, because they're priced out of the market. We're the ones that need the help. The wealthy Mainland guys can buy anything they want."
Del Monte said on Wednesday it will shut down its Hawai'i operations at the end of 2008 after more than a century of growing pineapples on O'ahu. The company did not say what it plans to do with the plantation homes at Kunia Camp, which houses about 350 employees and family members.
Savio provided hope earlier this week to Del Monte workers who face the possibility of losing both their jobs and their homes. He wants to work with lawmakers to get the land rezoned so the pineapple workers can buy the land from Campbell Estate and the homes from Del Monte — for a total cost of about $50,000 each, he said. Savio said he would make no more than 5 percent on the deal.
Savio's offer to help pineapple workers may not resonate with some homeowners who are still angry that Savio represented the Bishop Estate in the 1990s when the estate began offering to sell them the fees on their property at what some called inflated prices.
Local real estate researcher Ricky Cassiday characterized Savio as "more than a Boy Scout."
"But there are guys who had leasehold who hate the guy (Savio), just think he's the devil," Cassiday said.
Harry Saunders, Castle & Cooke's president of Hawai'i operations, only knows Savio by reputation but believes that Savio was unfairly blamed by homeowners a decade ago.
"He wasn't universally loved," Saunders said. "He was doing his job, which was to represent the seller, which was his responsibility."
Otherwise, much of Savio's real estate career has been spent "trying to find creative solutions to challenged properties to provide affordable housing," Saunders said. "Any creative guy doesn't necessarily hit 100 percent. He's had some other great ideas that haven't necessarily panned out, but I'm hopeful that this does for those (plantation) families."
Savio is currently enjoying a new round of prosperity after his Savio Development Co. filed for bankruptcy in 2000 when many of the people he tried to put into affordable homes defaulted on 100 to 150 loans representing $5 million to $6 million.
A year later, Savio filed for personal bankruptcy protection, saying he needed to keep Central Pacific Bank from evicting his Savio Development from its offices on University Avenue. Savio listed his debts at the time at $45 million.
Hotelier André Tatibouet, who founded Aston Hotels & Resorts and filed for bankruptcy protection himself last year, said Savio has "come back like a Phoenix rising from the ashes. I know some banks are unhappy with him, but in his heart Peter's always just trying to help little people get their own place. The last three, four years have been good for Peter and I'm pleased. It couldn't happen to a better person."
Last week, Savio provided hope to Del Monte workers who face the possibility of losing both their jobs and their plantation homes at Kunia Camp when Del Monte closes its Hawai'i operations at the end of 2008.
Savio has been working with other Del Monte workers at the Poamoho Camp plantation housing to let them buy their homes from Del Monte and their land from Campbell Estate — and wants to use the same formula at Kunia Camp.
"He saved us from Del Monte," said Vaeleti Tyrell, the 70-year-old president of the Poamoho Camp Community Association. "Del Monte gave us only six months for us to move out from here. He came out here and saved us.
"People like him," Tyrell said. "When we need him to answer some of the questions, he always comes. Savio really likes to help. He's a local boy. He always talks about (how) he's a local boy and he wants to help people."
Savio was born in Hilo and moved at the age of 3 or 4 when First Insurance transferred his father to Honolulu.
He attended Star of the Sea Schools, then Saint Louis School and the University of Hawai'i, where he majored in real estate.
But Savio's first deal occurred when he was only 15 years old.
Using money he earned mowing lawns, delivering papers and running odd jobs, Savio and his 17-year-old sister pooled their cash and bought a one-bedroom Waikiki apartment for $15,000. The condo was in the same building in which they lived. Their idea was to rent it out to tenants and manage the property themselves.
Savio and his sister had considered a three-bedroom, 1 1/2-bathroom, single-family home in Hawai'i Kai for $26,000. But the price seemed too high and Savio didn't want to ride his bicycle from Waikiki to Hawai'i Kai to show the property and maintain it.
Over the decades that followed, Savio's fortunes rose and fell and he created companies that included Savio Realty Ltd., Better Homes & Gardens and Queen Emma Gardens Development Co., many that were based on buying properties and figuring out ways for the tenants to own them.
Beginning in the 1980s, Savio enjoyed a 15-year run where no one ever defaulted on a loan.
And then Hawai'i's inflated real estate market went bust when Japanese investors pulled out.
"By '94, '95, the economy was really bad," Savio said. "People started to have problems. We realized a lot of people didn't have the down payments so we started loaning them the down payment. Then people couldn't qualify, so I started cosigning notes for them. Then the wife would lose a job or the husband passed away."
Through good financial times and bad, Tatibouet said Savio has always remained humble.
"There's nothing flamboyant about him," Tatibouet said. "He is a very down-to-earth, shirt-sleeves guy. He's hardly flashy in his attire."
Savio, 57, is 5 feet 9 and weighs 230 pounds. He described himself as "short and fat and ugly."
Savio recently had to give up on his 1985 Volkswagen van that finally died and now drives a hand-me-down from his wife, Phyllis, that he believes is a Toyota Celica.
"I'm not a car guy," Savio said. "So when people ask me what kind of car I drive now, I say, 'white.' "
He lives in a 58-year-old, three-bedroom, two-bath home in 'Aina Haina that has a leaky patio roof. On the weekends, on date nights with Phyllis, Savio prefers dinner at Burger King and a movie.
"I'm not a spender," Savio said. "And people get suspicious of what I do now. That's my biggest problem. People do not understand what I'm doing."
Reach Dan Nakaso at email@example.com.