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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 1, 2009

Richard Kimi of Hilo, hotel industry pioneer, 83

By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Richard Wassman Kimi

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Long before tourism was the state's No. 1 industry, a young man from Hilo had a vision.

In the mid-1950s, Richard Wassman Kimi noticed that the tourists who came to the Big Island arrived on large ships or airplanes, meaning they had money. But the then-29-year-old felt there very few affordable places for local residents who wanted to visit Hilo for a day or two.

So in 1956, despite the naysayers who told him he was crazy, Kimi built the 30-room Hotel Hukilau in Hilo. The small hotel was one of the first along Banyan Drive, which now is lined with East Hawai'i's largest hotels, such as the Naniloa and Hilo Hawaiian.

Kimi, a visionary and pioneer in the local hotel industry for decades, died Dec. 19 in Honolulu. He was 83.

The Hotel Hukilau catered to the budget-conscious and local residents and was consistently packed. Realizing that his concept was working, Kimi went on to build Hukilau and Seaside hotels in Kona, Maui, and Kaua'i, and he would also purchase the old Waikiki Biltmore Hotel, now the site of the Hyatt Regency.

Alan Kimi, Richard's son and president of Seaside Hotels Hawaii, said his father never wanted to build large hotels. He said his father's main objective was to serve local residents and budget-minded visitors.

"People traveled by boats in those days and the ones that traveled by plane were rich," Alan Kimi said. "So his idea was, as the airplanes became bigger, what about the average guy? What about the local traveler, people that lived in Kona, but that wanted to go to Hilo for a couple of days but couldn't afford it? That's how it started."

Kimi said his father was one of the first to put together air, room and car packages for residents. He also was a leader in taking reservations via fax machines and toll-free numbers.

"Dad's whole life was keeping things simple," Kimi said. "When it came to our product, which was a local hotel, it was friendly, and it was clean, and well-maintained and affordable."

Richard Wassman Kimi was born Feb. 3, 1925, in Hilo and was the son of Territorial Sen. William Kimi. Soon after the Dec. 7 attack on Pearl Harbor, Richard Kimi enlisted in the Army, where he was promoted to sergeant at age 19.

After the war, Kimi returned to the Big Island and worked for his family business, which sold Army surplus goods. But the business struggled, so Kimi took the Army equipment that wasn't sold and turned to construction.

He and his brothers built Kimiville, a low-rent housing project in Hilo, and later built the Hilo Hukilau at the site of the family's surplus store. Although the store was gone, the Kimi family stuck together to run the new hotel business.

"He always thought five to 10 years ahead," Alan Kimi said. "When we had meetings and said, 'This is what our quarter was and this is what our last six months were,' he said, 'I'm not interested. Just tell me five, 10 years what you guys are going to be doing.' We were really blessed to have him as a mentor."

Richard Kimi also enjoyed teaching and sharing his sales, marketing and business knowledge. One of his students was Robert Kiyosaki, author of the "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" books, who based his original "rich dad" on Kimi, Alan Kimi said.

Kimi is survived by his wife, Kathryn; sons, Philip, Alan and Don; daughters, Noe Kimi-Buchanan, Patti Kimi-Woodd, and Kim; brother, Uncle Billy; grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Services have been held. Donations may be made to the Hawaii Food Bank.

Reach Curtis Lum at culum@honoluluadvertiser.com.