Robert J. ‘Bobby’ Pfeiffer
March 7, 1920 – September 26, 2003
Chairman Emeritus, Alexander & Baldwin, Inc.
Chairman Emeritus, Matson Navigation Company, Inc.
“Old sailors never die, they just drop the anchor,” Robert J. “Bobby” Pfeiffer said over a decade ago as he was contemplating retirement. Pfeiffer, one of Hawaii’s most renowned sailors and captains of industry, dropped the anchor Friday, September 26, 2003, at age 83, at his home in Orinda, Calif., after a lengthy illness.
During his 12 and a half years at the helm of Alexander & Baldwin, Inc., Pfeiffer became practically synonymous with business leadership in Hawaii. He charted a course of modernization and diversification, and led A&B through one of its strongest periods of growth and prosperity. At the same time he earned a reputation for leadership – personal as well as corporate – in support of charitable and other community causes.
Pfeiffer’s maritime and business career spanned 58 years, nearly 38 of them with A&B and its ocean transportation subsidiary, Matson Navigation Company, Inc. During that nearly four-decade period, he served as A&B’s chief executive longer than all but two of his predecessors, and he piloted Matson for 19 years, longer than any of that company’s chief executives since its founder, Captain William Matson.
For his significant contributions to the mid- and late-20th-century modernization of American shipping, Pfeiffer was recognized with the transportation and maritime industries’ highest honors.
The descendent of an eight-generation line of sea captains, Pfeiffer was born in Suva, Fiji, in 1920. He came to Hawaii with his family the following year and spent his early childhood in Hilo and Ka‘u on the Big Island. It was there, in a mostly Hawaiian community, that he learned to speak Hawaiian – “otherwise you couldn’t eat!” he would later explain – and “developed an affection for the Hawaiian people that [he] never lost.” It was feeling that would deepen when, as a young man, he worked on interisland steamers with Hawaiian shipmates, for whose seagoing skills and “friendly, compassionate, generous” qualities he developed enormous respect. Many decades later, he still danced the hula with enthusiasm.
Pfeiffer moved to Honolulu in 1929 with his family, and he was soon spending all his spare time at the waterfront, in the holds and on the docks, helping unload freight, checking cargo, riding forklifts without permission, and learning to run equipment. By age 12 Pfeiffer was working summers for Inter-Island Steam Navigation Company, Ltd. His first assignment: deckhand on a harbor tug. Within three years he earned an operator’s license for vessels up to 75 feet long and could legally skipper harbor tugs.
He showed leadership qualities and initiative early. By the eighth grade, already captain of Roosevelt Intermediate School’s junior police squad, Pfeiffer was chosen president of all junior police on Oahu. As he entered high school, his ambition was to attend West Point and make the Army his career. Knowing that McKinley High School had an excellent ROTC program, he decided on his own to transfer from Roosevelt, then one of Hawaii’s elite “English-standard” schools. As he later recalled, “I attended McKinley for three weeks before my parents found out.” He worked his way up to cadet colonel of the ROTC Brigade and earned an appointment to West Point. Shortly before graduation in 1937, however, Pfeiffer’s father lost his job, which prompted the young man to abandon his plans for West Point.
Instead, Pfeiffer went to work full-time for Inter-Island Steam Navigation, starting the day after graduation. Being a sailor “was a hard life,” he later recalled. “Many times we collapsed on mail sacks in the ’tween decks to snatch an hour or two of sleep.” He was soon made an officer. By 1941 he was back ashore, serving as terminal superintendent.
During World War II, Pfeiffer served in the U.S. Navy. At the end of the war, he married a fellow naval officer, Mary Elizabeth Worts, at Koloa Union Church on Kauai. While he would remain in the Naval Reserve until 1965 (retiring with the rank of commander), he soon returned to Inter-Island Steam Navigation, where by 1950 he had risen to executive vice president. Later that year a U.S. Department of Justice order split the company in three; Pfeiffer was picked to head one of the successor companies, Overseas Terminal, Ltd. He remained with the company until 1955, when he moved to Alhambra, Calif., to become vice president and general manager of Pacific Cut Stone and Granite Co.
Pfeiffer began his long association with Matson in 1956, when he was named vice president and general manager of Matcinal Corporation, a Matson stevedoring and terminal subsidiary in Alameda, Calif. Except for the two years (1958-60) that he managed Pacific Far East Line’s terminal and cargo operations division in San Francisco, Pfeiffer would spend the rest of his career with Matson and its corporate parent, Alexander & Baldwin.
Returning to Matson in 1960 – as vice president and general manager of Matson Terminals, Inc. – Pfeiffer promptly earned a place in U.S. maritime annals by helping negotiate the historic labor agreement that made possible the most significant advance in shipping since steam replaced sail: containerized cargo. Today the standard method of shipping, containerized cargo was then in its infancy, having been pioneered in the Pacific by Matson, beginning in 1958.
The Pacific Maritime Association, the shippers’ group, made Pfeiffer chairman of its steering committee, charged with negotiating the ground rules for containerized cargo with the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), headed by Harry Bridges. Over “months of intense negotiations,” that Pfeiffer would later call “labor-management statesmanship at its finest,” the parties created the Mechanization and Modernization (M and M) Agreement. “The union held a coast-wide caucus to consider whether to resist [containerization] … or to bargain for a ‘share of the machine,’ ” Pfeiffer later recalled. “The caucus opted to go after a share of the machine.” The result was a significant rise in longshore workers’ wages and a new lease on life for the U.S. merchant fleet.
In 1962 Pfeiffer was named president of Matson Terminals, the first step in an 11-year rise to the presidency of parent Matson Navigation Company. He was made a Matson vice president in 1966, in charge of the company’s Far East freight division. In 1970 Matson promoted him to senior vice president for operations, and in 1971 to executive vice president. In 1973, he was named Matson president and, at the same time, senior vice president of its corporate parent, A&B.
During his nearly two decades at the helm, Pfeiffer led Matson’s transformation into one of the world’s most efficient ocean transportation companies, shaping and directing a $400 million capital investment program that modernized both the company’s fleet and its terminals in Hawaii and on the West Coast.
Noting Pfeiffer’s successes at Matson, A&B promoted him to executive vice president in 1977, appointed him to its board of directors in 1978, and, in October 1979, named him president and chief operating officer. Less than three months later, in January 1980, A&B appointed him CEO. In October of the same year, he was elected chairman of the board. After 25 years, the former deckhand had sailed home to Hawaii.
Pfeiffer established a far-reaching legacy at A&B. He developed a strategic plan that focused on completing the technological renewal of Matson – which he continued to head personally for some years – as well as on reinvigorating the company’s property development and management activities, and revitalizing its roots in agriculture. He made the Hawaiian word imua – “go forward” – his motto.
To help realize the potential of A&B’s extensive landholdings as a revenue generator – a full-fledged “third leg,” alongside Matson and sugarcane – Pfeiffer began diversifying the company’s real estate assets, starting with the sale of the Wailea Resort on Maui, which A&B had been developing for nearly two decades. He reinvested the proceeds in a new portfolio of income-producing commercial properties on the U.S. mainland, which were managed not only for current income, but also with an eye to appreciation and resale, so as to keep the portfolio growing in value. He also expanded the development and management activities of subsidiary A&B Properties from Maui to Kauai. By 1985, profits from A&B’s real estate activities surpassed those from sugar.
Pfeiffer also led the battle to keep A&B’s sugar business viable. He oversaw the completion and expansion of investments in drip irrigation of the company’s sugar plantations on Maui and Kauai, and the pioneering automation and computerization of its sugar mills. Together with his success in bringing plantation operating costs under control, these steps kept A&B’s sugar business profitable when most other plantations in Hawaii were failing. Pfeiffer also diversified into coffee on a portion of the company’s Kauai lands. A&B’s Kauai Coffee Company is now the largest coffee grower in Hawaii.
As a result of these efforts, under Pfeiffer’s leadership, A&B’s annual revenue and total assets both nearly tripled, while shareholder equity practically doubled.
Enroute to these achievements, Pfeiffer saw his leadership seriously challenged. In 1985, investor Harry Weinberg, who had gradually purchased more than a quarter of the company’s stock and wished to boost its value by more aggressively capitalizing on A&B’s extensive landholdings, attempted to replace Pfeiffer and the board with his own slate of directors. After a hard-fought proxy battle, the majority of stockholders voted with Pfeiffer; Weinberg subsequently sold his shares back to the company.
Pfeiffer kept his hand on the tiller at A&B for more than a dozen years. After devising and testing a succession plan – one of his proudest achievements – and acquiescing in requests by the board that he remain at his posts, Pfeiffer retired as president in 1991, as CEO in 1992, and, finally, as chairman of the board and director in 1995. He returned to all three posts – and also to the chairmanship of Matson’s board – in mid-1998, after his successor, John Couch, had to take a medical leave of absence. Pfeiffer retired again as president and CEO after three months and as chairman of A&B and Matson a year later. After stepping down as chairman in 1995, and again in 1999, the boards of both A&B and Matson named him chairman emeritus, and he continued attending their meetings regularly until his health began to fail. He kept regular office hours at Matson headquarters in San Francisco until shortly before his death.*
Pfeiffer’s legacy at A&B was not all business. He was concerned with the well-being of the community as well. In a landmark 1985 speech to Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, he announced A&B’s adoption of a policy of making charitable contributions equal to 2 percent of pre-tax income, and urged his listeners also “to consider the 2 percent solution.” Pfeiffer explained that he viewed giving a portion of profits “back to the community where they are earned, not so much as an obligation, but as an opportunity to help shape the kind of community we would like to see.” In an editorial, Pacific Business News said, “Pfeiffer’s ‘call to giving’ boils down to what’s good for the community is good for business.” In 1992, Pfeiffer institutionalized what he called “A&B’s long tradition of investing in the community’s social fabric” by creating the Alexander & Baldwin Foundation.
Pfeiffer did not merely lend his name, but worked hard for many of the causes he supported. He played an instrumental role in saving the Hawaii Theatre from the wrecker’s ball, lending much-needed credibility to the efforts of the band of dedicated volunteers who wished to restore it. He was generous with his own money too. In the late 1990s, according to columnist Bob Krauss, a member of the board of the Hawaii Maritime Center, Pfeiffer made “an exceptionally generous personal gift” to establish an endowment for the Falls of Clyde, the world’s last four-masted, full-rigged vessel, now permanently moored at the foot of Bishop Street, alongside the Hawaii Maritime Center. “It was a noble deed that will help save her for the people of Hawaii forever,” said Krauss.
Experiences early in life help explain Pfeiffer’s strong charitable instincts. “Most of us at McKinley came from poor families, so we learned to share,” he recalled half a century later. “Some of my classmates lived in a Japanese commune at the foot of Alapai Street at King, and I visited them often. I always was struck by the fact that as poor as they were, … there always was something to eat, which was shared with visitors.” Poverty was a condition Pfeiffer knew well, but learned to deal with. He would later tell how, as a schoolboy, he could get a good meal at the Central YMCA for a nickel, the price of a plate of rice and gravy, which he would wash down with “tomato juice” he made by stirring ketchup into a glass of water. He also recalled how, as a young sailor, he would sometimes sail to the Hansen’s disease colony at Kalaupapa on Molokai. At the pier in Honolulu, “fathers, mothers, children, husbands and wives said good-bye forever. It was a heartrending situation, and all of us on ship felt badly for days after.”
Pfeiffer had a zest for life. He not only danced the hula, but sang and played the ukulele. Four times a week he would begin his day with a four-mile run, a habit he continued into his eighth decade. In 1965, he learned to fly. He earned certification as a flight instructor and developed his skills to the point that he took up aerobatics and purchased his own aerobatic plane. While he was president of A&B, the company acquired two jets, Imua, a Cessna C-550 for interisland flights, and Manukapu (Treasured Bird), a BAe 1000 for transoceanic and transcontinental flights. Pfeiffer was certified to fly them both, and whenever he was on board, he was never to be found in the cabin, but always in the cockpit –– in the left seat, as pilot in command.
Pfeiffer freely admitted he “thrived” on work. He began his day in the office at 5:15 a.m. and was renowned for his punctuality at meetings. It was a trait he expected others to share. A self-described hands-on, people-oriented manager, he made it a point to get to know employees personally. He managed by walking around and was famous for greeting or phoning employees on their birthdays.
Pfeiffer had a deep affection for the ships and crews of the Matson fleet. Even after his retirement and his move back to California to be closer to his children, when a ship concluded a voyage to the West Coast, he would telephone the captain to see how the voyage went and how the captain and crew were faring.
Pfeiffer earned many honors over the course of his career. The most distinctive was the naming of a Matson ship for him, the $129 million, 713-foot MV R.J. Pfeiffer – completed in 1992, the only commercial vessel built in a U.S. shipyard since 1984. The name was an initiative of the board of directors – he had entered the meeting intending to recommend another name for the new ship.
Pfeiffer was also particularly proud to have been honored with:
- The National Transportation Award (for which he was selected by the U.S. Secretary of Defense on the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, putting him in the company of such previous recipients as Juan Trippe of Pan American, William M. Allen of Boeing, Donald W. Douglas of Douglas Aircraft, and helicopter pioneer Igor Sikorsky), 1975.
- The Admiral of the Ocean Sea Award, by United Seamen’s Service, the maritime industry’s highest honor, 1985.
- The “Connie” Award of the Containerization & Intermodal Institute (“for significant contributions to the development and promotion of containerization and intermodal transportation”), 1985.
- The Charles Reed Bishop Medal, by Bishop Museum (citing his “leadership and personal example” in making A&B “a leader in corporate citizenship”), 1995.
- The Order of the Splintered Paddle, Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, 1996.
Having no formal education beyond high school, Pfeiffer also took great pride in his three honorary doctorates –– from the Maine Maritime Academy (Doctor of Science, 1986), the University of Hawaii (Doctor of Humanities, 1986) and Hawaii Loa College (Doctor of Humane Letters, 1987).
Among Pfeiffer’s many other honors:
- Distinguished Service Award, United States Coast Guard Foundation, 1995.
- Bay Area Trade/Transportation Executive of the Year Award, San Francisco Daily Commercial News, 1978.
- Person of the Year Award, Transportation Clubs International, 1986.
- Distinguished Citizen Award, Gannett Foundation, 1986.
- Junior Achievement Hawaii Business Hall of Fame laureate, 1998.
- Historic Hawaii Foundation Kama‘aina of the Year Award, 1990.
- Distinguished Citizen of the Year Award, Aloha Council, Boy Scouts of America, 1986.
- Sales & Marketing Executives (SME) of Honolulu Salesperson of the Year, 1989.
- Brass Hat Award, Propeller Club of the United States, Port of the Golden Gate, 1973.
- Ship-in-the-Bottle Award, International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, 1981.
- McKinley High School Hall of Honor (he was among the inaugural 38 members inducted), 1986.
Pfeiffer was a life member of National Defense Transportation Association. Among the many professional, civic and charitable organizations he served in a leadership role were A Committee on Excellence, State of Hawaii (chairman); American Bureau of Shipping (member, Board of Managers); Bishop Museum (member, board of trustees); Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii (member, board of directors); Containerization & Intermodal Institute (member, Honorary Board of Advisors); Hawaii Business Roundtable (vice chairman); Hawaii Community Foundation (member, board of governors); Hawaii Maritime Center (vice chairman); Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association (chairman); Institute for Human Services (member, board of directors); Joint Maritime Congress (Advisory Committee member); Marine Exchange of the San Francisco Bay Region (director); Maritime Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences (chairman); McKinley High School Foundation (honorary co-chairman); National Association of Stevedores (president); National Cargo Bureau, Inc. (chairman of Pacific Coast Committee); National Tropical Botanical Garden (trustee); Propeller Club of the United States, Port of Honolulu (president) and Port of San Francisco (Board of Governors); Reserve Officers of the Naval Service (president, Honolulu Chapter); The Conference Board (senior member); School of Travel Industry Management, University of Hawaii (member, advisory board); University of Hawaii Foundation (chairman, board of trustees); U.S. National Committee of the International Cargo Handling Association, Inc. (chairman). He served as a director of at least two dozen other companies, and he was a member of the prestigious Bohemian and The Pacific-Union clubs in San Francisco and of the Oahu Country Club and The Pacific Club in Honolulu. Pfeiffer was also a life member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Pfeiffer is survived by his children, Elizabeth “Betsy” Tumbas and her husband Stephen; Margaret “Marga” Hughes and her husband William; Kathleen “Kappy” Pfeiffer; George W. “Skipper” Pfeiffer and his wife Julie; and nine grandchildren. His wife, Mary Worts Pfeiffer, died on December 4, 2002, five days after the couple’s 57th wedding anniversary.
Services are pending. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that donations in Pfeiffer’s memory be made to the Hawaii Maritime Center or to one’s favorite charity.
* At this point in the obituary, A&B inserted (in the version issued to the media on Sept. 29, 2003) the following personal comments:
A&B Chairman of the Board Charles M. Stockholm said, “I was deeply saddened to learn of Bobby’s passing. He was a good friend and I was fortunate to have worked with him since 1972. I had the utmost respect for him. He was a leader in the truest sense of the word, both in the corporate world and in the community.
“Bob Pfeiffer was completely devoted to A&B and to Matson, and he will be greatly missed by all who knew and worked with him. He contributed significantly to our company, to the maritime industry, which he loved dearly, and most generously to Hawaii and its people. His legacy of generosity – with his time and other precious resources – continues to inspire those who follow. Long after he ceded his responsibilities for the day-to-day operations of the Company, Bobby continued his warm relationships with the people of A&B. His personal phone calls on birthdays and other special occasions continued to be a highlight for our employees right up until his passing.
“Bob Pfeiffer began his career as a junior seaman, and rose through the ranks to become an industry giant. Along the way, he pioneered many innovations that were instrumental in enhancing the industry. His favorite motto was ‘Imua,’ or ‘to go forward.’ He brought that spirit to everything that he did, and all of us at A&B and Matson are the better for it. As a Company, we mourn him, while we also honor him and his spirit by continuing to build upon his legacy,” Stockholm concluded.
“Hawaii has lost one of its great leaders,” said Walter A. Dods, Jr., close friend, long-time A&B board member, and chairman and CEO of First Hawaiian Bank. “Bobby was a kama‘aina in every sense of the word. He had a great love for Hawaii and it showed in everything he did. From McKinley High School to the pinnacle of success, he never forgot his roots. We will miss him very much.”
Also on Sept. 29, 2003, Hawaii Senator Daniel K. Inouye had the obituary printed in the Congressional Record.