Chairman and CEO Peter Ho Talks Roots

By Allison Schaefers | Photography By Leah Friel

PETER S. HO COMES ACROSS as uncharacteristically low-key for a guy with enough drive to head the state’s largest independent bank. If that weren’t enough, he chairs the Hawai’i Host Committee for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), which many in the isles consider the most significant event to date.

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“I’m just a normal guy,” says Ho, who despite being born into privilege began his working life scooping pineapple scraps onto a conveyor belt for $3.40 an hour at Dole Pineapple Cannery.

When pressed for tales of his accomplishments, the 46-year-old Ho seems at a greater loss for words than most. Ho attributes his humble nature to his father, famous Hawai’i businessman Stuart T.K. Ho. “He often advised, ‘Never wear your resume on your shirt sleeve,’ which translates into, ‘Don’t make big chest.'”

Still, Ho gets animated when asked about his wife Michelle and kids Kahn, 4, and Lia, 2, or about APEC, which will bring President Barack Obama and the heads of state from 20 other economies to Hawai’i in November.

In Michelle, Ho attests that he found someone that shares his vision for a strong family-and a greater Hawai’i-one where children do not have to permanently leave home to build a life.

“There needs to be vibrancy in the community,” he says. Ho, who earned degrees at the University of Southern California and began a banking career in New York City, returned to O’ahu in 1993 to serve as assistant vice president of Bank of Hawaii’s National Banking Division. By 2008, he had completed Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program and had worked his way up to Bankoh’s president. Last year, Ho added Bankoh chairman and chief executive officer to that title.

Ho’s banking achievements are part of why he was tapped to lead Hawai’i’s APEC hosting efforts, says U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye.

“Peter Ho’s experience as head of one of Hawai’i’s oldest and largest financial institution is an invaluable asset to the APEC host committee,” Inouye adds.

Ho’s connections and enthusiasm helped Hawai’i Host Committee raise $4 million for APEC, double its original $2 million goal. His understanding of Hawai’i and the Asia Pacific business community also has helped Ho steer the strategic planning and preparation for APEC’s November meetings, Inouye says.

“I’ve known Peter for quite some time. His father, Stuart Ho, used to be my campaign manager,” he says. “I’ve watched this young man grow up and I am very proud of the leader he has become.”

Some might say that seizing opportunity and building relationships are part of Ho’s DNA. His great-great grandfather, who emigrated from China in 1875, earned a modest living planting rice in Waikiki. Ho’s grandfather, the late Chinn Ho, nearly seven decades later shattered racial barriers to become a self-made multi-millionaire, and was affectionately dubbed the “Chinese Rockefeller.”

Through APEC, Ho is working to create an environment where Hawai’i’s children can find the opportunities here that he and his family have. The event, which will bring 20,000 government and business leaders to Hawai’i as well as international media, is Hawai’i’s best chance to capitalize on the long-sought “Asian Century,” he says.

“It alone won’t move the needle, but it can spark thought and get leaders discussing how best to take advantage of our location and of a culture and a community that is so international and Asia-friendly,” Ho says.

APEC could help grow Hawai’i’s clean energy, ocean and natural sciences, health and business travel industries, he adds.

As a boy, Ho says he often heard his family discuss their hopes that Hawai’i could benefit from Asia’s expected growth.

“My parents told me if you do anything you should really learn how to speak Chinese because someday China will be a big deal,” Ho admits. “I was 12, so I said, ‘That’s great, but I’ve got other things going on. I’m going to be a basketball player.'”

Ho says he should have listened more to his family and their influential friends, adding that his famous grandfather Chinn Ho would have been “really excited and tickled by the whole (APEC) thing.”

Ho remembers that his grandfather, while proud to be an American, always had an interest and desire to understand what was happening in China and Asia.

“He did a lot of traveling to China early in his life,” Ho says. “It was an area that he believed had potential and where Hawai’i could play a meaningful role.”