EBAY FOUNDER MAKES HOME IN HAWAII
A 'wonderful rediscovery' in isles
By Rick Daysog
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Rick Daysog
Hawai'i's richest man, a 41-year-old Internet entrepreneur worth nearly $4 billion, enjoys his anonymity.
Pierre Omidyar slipped into Hawai'i in 2006 with his wife and three kids and virtually no publicity. Since then, the founder and chairman of eBay Inc. has kept mostly to his Kahala home while in the Islands.
"You may have noticed that I do like to fly under the radar," Omidyar said in a rare interview. "When I walk around town, the only people I want to recognize me and call me by my name are the folks at Starbucks and Jamba Juice."
Sporting a faded polo shirt and khakis, Omidyar discussed with The Advertiser his decision to drastically downsize from a 45,000-square-foot mansion in a Las Vegas suburb to a 5,800-square-foot home close to the ocean. He spoke of his fondness for the cultural and ethnic diversity of Hawai'i and his desire to raise his biracial kids in a place that he says is a model for the future of the world.
While he's clearly enamored with the Island culture, he is also aware of the danger of living in the middle of an ocean. Omidyar worries that a pandemic could cut Hawai'i's lifelines and leave it with an 11-day supply of food.
To that end, he has made pivotal donations to local nonprofits dedicated to building sustainable local food supplies.
At the same time, he has stockpiled several months of food for his personal use at storage facilities on O'ahu, several former employees said.
Omidyar employs a group of former Secret Service agents and ex-State Department officials to serve as his private security team and to fly his private jet, a French-made Dassault Falcon 900EX, which he keeps parked in a private hangar at the Honolulu International Airport.
"I'd say we're probably more significantly prepared than the average family," Omidyar said. "We have property all over the world and we have property we can fly to."
In addition to his Kahala home and Nevada mansion, Omidyar owns a 640-acre ranch in Montana, a home in southern California and a residence on an island off the coast of France.
Wealth of that magnitude often draws legal challenges, and Omidyar is no exception. He was sued in Hawai'i Circuit Court in February by Jack Picardy, a former employee, who accused Omidyar of wrongful dismissal. Picardy, a former U.S. State Department official in Australia, said he moved to Hawai'i to work for Omidyar and was fired after five days on the job.
Picardy also said Omidyar used his jet to fly people to Syria for meetings with the Palestinian political group Hamas.
True to form for a dot-com innovator, Omidyar responded to the lawsuit using the Twitter social networking site. "Ok, now I've seen everything: I'm being sued by someone who claims I've been palling around with terrorists," Omidyar wrote in a "tweet."
The flight Picardy was referring to occurred when Omidyar lent his flight crew to fly former President Jimmy Carter to the Middle East as part of his peace brokering efforts, said Omidyar spokeswoman Sarah Steven.
As to Picardy's other accusations, Steven said they were meritless. A Hawai'i judge last week decided the lawsuit should be mediated in Nevada.
Aside from that legal hassle, Omidyar described his life in Hawai'i as "a wonderful rediscovery."
According to Forbes magazine, Omidyar is the world's 156th richest person, with a net worth of $3.6 billion.
Much of that wealth is derived from his 13.5 percent stake in eBay, which he founded in 1995.
His fortune tumbled more than $4 billion over the past 12 months in the wake of a 55 percent decline in eBay's stock price. In early 2008, Forbes valued Omidyar's wealth at $7.7 billion.
Besides eBay, Omidyar's financial empire also includes a big stake in luxury hotel operator Montage Hotels & Resorts, a 4.2 percent share of Maui Land & Pineapple Co., and undeveloped resort property in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and Sonoma, Calif.
Omidyar said he gave up his day-to-day management duties at eBay in 1999 and has been focused on his charitable giving ever since.
The Omidyar Network Inc. — a Redwood City, Calif., nonprofit he founded with his wife — has made more than $750 million in charitable contributions to groups around the world. The network has made another $150 million in philanthropic for-profit investment during the same period.
The grants went to groups that provide small loans to the poor in India and other countries, nonprofits that promote transparency in government and those that support property rights for people in developing nations.
"He isn't your typical dot-com entrepreneur who is trying to make a lot of money. ... He's not a typical businessman at all," said Adam Cohen, author of the 2002 book "The Perfect Store: Inside eBay."
"He was always someone who is an idealist and wants to make the world better."
Omidyar, who is of French-Iranian ancestry, was born in Paris in 1967 and lived most of his early life in the Washington, D.C., area before moving to Hawai'i for two years.
Omidyar attended eighth and ninth grades at Punahou School. He arrived at Punahou the year after Barack Obama graduated from the Manoa private school. Along with the president, another famous Punahou alum is AOL co-founder Steve Case, who graduated in 1976.
Omidyar and Case serve on Punahou's board of trustees.
Omidyar's wife, Pam, grew up in Hawai'i Kai, attended 'Iolani School and enjoys surfing.
In 1995 while living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Omidyar founded the predecessor to eBay while working out of a spare room of his townhouse.
EBay became the premier Internet auction site that today has more than 86 million users worldwide with annual revenues of more than $8.5 billion.
Around the time he stepped back from the daily management of eBay, Omidyar moved to Nevada, where he spent seven years.
He and his wife had always considered moving back to Hawai'i, he said. They decided to return two years ago.
"As far as a place for to raise your kids, I don't think you can wish for anything more," Omidyar said. "For me, what's so important is the diversity and culture here. ... It's a wonderful model for the future of our global world."
Omidyar said his philanthropic efforts in Hawai'i are just getting off the ground. The themes range from renewable energy production to organic farming and other green causes.
One of his larger local contributions went to Kanu Hawaii, a grassroots social organization that encourages residents to improve their community.
In 2007, the Omidyars awarded a three-year, $750,000 grant that allowed Kanu to hire staff and build up its online network, which now includes more than 6,700 members, said James Koshiba, Kanu's executive director.
"It helped us scale up pretty quickly," Koshiba said.
The Omidyars also have supported Ma'o Organic Farms in Wai'anae with grants totaling $750,000. Ma'o grows organic produce and educates at-risk students in the Wai'anae area about agriculture, sustainable development and the Hawaiian culture.
The grants helped Ma'o purchase 11 acres of farm land earlier this year, adding to the five acres of leasehold land farmed by Ma'o, said Kukui Maunakea-Forth, Ma'o's executive director.
"It helped root the program," Maunakea-Forth said.
Omidyar donates to food-related nonprofits due in part to his concern for food security in the Islands.
With most of Hawai'i's food supply being imported from the Mainland, any disruption to shipping could be disastrous. A pandemic could limit shipping companies' ability to operate by taking out many of their employees, Omidyar said.
"As much as 30 percent of the population will be out of action during a pandemic," he said. "You start worrying about having so little food."
Former employees said Omidyar has taken extreme precaution in case of such outbreaks.
He keeps several months' supply of food in storage facilities near his homes around the world.
One of Omidyar's companies, Sky River Management LLC, has rented space in Hawai'i to store food, former employees said.
He also keeps emergency kits with equipment to protect against disease outbreaks and chemical and biological attacks, they said.
Omidyar recently acquired a 640-acre ranch near Billings, Mont., that would serve as his safehouse in case of a disaster.
Reed Point Ranch is entirely self-sufficient, powered by solar panels, wind generators and a diesel generator. It was originally built by a Montana resident who feared that Y2K problems would result in a global crisis.
Hawai'i's nonprofit community is less interested in Omidyar's disaster preparedness and more excited about his zeal for supporting local causes.
"For Hawai'i, it's wonderful that Pierre and Pam have decided to come home and live here and to raise their family here," said Kelvin Taketa, CEO of the Hawai'i Community Foundation.
"From a philanthropic standpoint, they're growing increasingly active in supporting a number of organizations in Hawai'i that are focusing on sustainability issues."
Reach Rick Daysog at email@example.com.