Community-minded Buyers ran C. Brewer
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Dan Nakaso
John W.A. "Doc" Buyers grew up watching poor, Depression-era families come to his father's church in Pennsylvania looking for help, and swore never to be poor himself.
Buyers made good on his vow and later became a legend in the Islands for giving back to big and small communities as the head of one of Hawai'i's "Big Five" sugar companies, C. Brewer & Co.
Buyers, who had suffered from dementia, Alzheimer's and bladder cancer, died yesterday in Pennsylvania at the age of 77. Since November, Buyers was cared for by his former wife, Elsie P. Buyers, and their three daughters, said one of his daughters, Rebecca Buyers-Basso of Bar Harbor, Maine. He died at Keystone Hospice in Wyndmoor, Pa.
"He took to Hawai'i and Hawai'i took to him," said Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who worked for Buyers and C. Brewer in a variety of positions for nearly seven years beginning in 1984.
"He told me, 'You can't just come into a community and make a profit and not give back.' He was one of those Big Five leaders that understood you had to get along. ... He was my private-sector mentor."
In 1975, Buyers was president and CEO of General Waterworks Corp. — a Pennsylvania subsidiary of International Utilities Corp. that had gained a controlling interest in C. Brewer & Co. — when Buyers was asked to move to Hawai'i and take over C. Brewer as its CEO.
"He thought it would be a stepping stone to the presidency of IU International," said Haidee Kanakanui, Buyers' former assistant and vice president of Buyers' last business venture, Hilo-based D. Buyers Enterprises LLC.
"He thought he would spend three years in Hawai'i and return to Philadelphia," Kanakanui said. "When he was asked to go back to IU International to be president, he turned it down because Hawai'i became his home and he decided to stay."
'WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES'
Buyers served on dozens of boards of directors and boards of trustees, including First Hawaiian Bank, Outrigger Enterprises, Inc., Lyman House Memorial Museum in Hilo and the Board of Governors of Hawai'i Preparatory Academy in Waimea. He also was a member of the Governor's Blue Ribbon Panel on Health Care in Hawai'i and the Governor's Economic Revitalization Task Force.
He was chairman of the Hawai'i Island Economic Development Board, Hawai'i Land & Farming Company, Inc., Hawai'i Visitors Bureau, C&H Sugar Company, University of Hawai'i Research Corporation, University of Hawai'i Foundation, Chamber of Commerce of Hawai'i, Hawai'i Sugar Planters Association and other organizations.
Buyers also loved sports and was a commissioner of the Hawai'i Sports Hall of Fame and served on the board of the Hawai'i Sports Foundation, Aloha State Games and the Aloha Stadium Authority.
In one of his often noted achievements, Buyers and former Hawai'i first lady Jean Ariyoshi led the campaign to plant "A Million Trees of Aloha," which received the National Arbor Day Foundation State Project Award in 1985.
Buyers came to the Islands with his then-wife, Elsie Parkhurst Buyers, "not knowing anyone," said his wife, Elizabeth K. Buyers, who, as Elizabeth Lindsey was a former Miss Hawai'i. She is now an anthropologist and filmmaker.
Elizabeth Buyers returned to the Big Island last night from Pennsylvania to find her cell phone and home phone message systems filled with "extraordinary messages about Doc from all over the world."
"When he arrived in 1975, he was a virtual stranger," she said. "He leaves having been loved by so many. Each one remembered something so personal he said to them or how he affected their lives. He was child-like in many ways and lived in a world of possibilities. Doc loved these islands and they gave him so much."
GREW UP POOR, GIVING
Buyers was born John William Amerman Buyers on July 17, 1928, in Coatesville, Pa. in Lancaster County. He was the fifth of five children of the Rev. William Buchanan Buyers and Rebecca Watson Buyers.
"He grew up very poor in a missionary family during the Depression," Buyers-Basso said.
"They got dressed out of a missionary barrel and everybody came to the church with their hand out. His whole childhood was about people not having enough. He determined early on that he wanted to make money," she said.
"Even at the age of 5, when he started saving, he always felt he needed to gather his resources. He was definitely a Republican in his political philosophies about savings, hard work and investment. But charitable giving is also part of his church upbringing."
Buyers enlisted in the Marine Corps and served as an admiral's orderly at Naval headquarters in Washington, D.C., Kanakanui said, then enrolled at Princeton University.
At Princeton, Buyers' teammates on the football team nicknamed him "Doc" after Doc Blanchard, the Army fullback who won the Heisman Trophy in 1945.
In the years that followed, Buyers worked for Proctor & Gamble, Bell Telephone in Pennsylvania, earned a master's degree in industrial management from MIT, then joined General Waterworks in 1966.
Buyers ran C. Brewer & Co. from 1975 to 2001 and presided over the slow death of the company's sugar operations in the Islands and helped steer it toward diversified agriculture products such as macadamia nuts, Kona coffee, tropical juices and guava, and worked to expand Hawai'i's markets around the world.
Under his leadership, C. Brewer also planted nearly 3 million trees over the past two decades.
"There were always great temptations, I'm sure, to develop the vast resources of land that C. Brewer owned," said former Gov. Ben Cayetano. "But Doc was always looking for a way to keep C. Brewer going in Hawai'i after sugar. I thought he was a good example of the kind of CEO that is very community-minded. That's what I liked about him. He was very straightforward and very sincere."
Don Horner, president and CEO of First Hawaiian Bank, where Buyers served on the board of directors, said, "Doc was a true leader within the business community. He was highly respected for his integrity, entrepreneurial spirit, and his commitment to our community. He possessed a unique and contagious positive attitude toward life. Hawai'i will miss his leadership and everlasting smile."
In 1981 — and later with Hannemann in 1985 — Buyers successfully lobbied Congress to include sugar in the U.S. farm bill.
"When we lobbied for the farm bill, Doc taught me how to sell, taught me how to market," Hannemann said. "That's how we salvaged the sugar industry."
In 1986, Buyers led a successful leveraged buyout and purchased all of C. Brewer's common stock from IU and became the largest shareholder in the new holding company, Buyco Inc. Buyers served as Buyco's chairman and CEO until its dissolution in 2001, when he founded his own private company, D. Buyers Enterprises LLC in one of C. Brewer's former buildings in Hilo.
The company specializes in tropical juices, diversified agriculture and real estate.
"I learned everything from running a small business to lobbying in Washington to carrying the principles that I carry with me because of Doc," Hannemann said. "No matter how bleak things may be, no matter how dark the clouds, he always preached creativity and energy and enthusiasm. He was a corporate giant who always wanted to give back to the community."
Buyers is survived by his sister, Charlotte Farr of Clarksville, Ind.; wife, Elizabeth Buyers; former wife, Elsie Buyers; daughters, Elsie Viehman of Chestnut Hill, Pa.; Rebecca Buyers-Basso of Bar Harbor, Maine; Jane Russo of New York City; and six grandchildren.
Buyers will be buried in Pennsylvania. Memorial services in Honolulu and Hilo have yet to be scheduled.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Keystone Hospice in Wyndmoor, Pa. or the Hawai'i Island Food Bank.
Reach Dan Nakaso at email@example.com.