Whether it’s waves, wine or Waikiki, George Szigeti manages to come out on top.
Former pro surfer George Szigeti has caught plenty of rogue waves in life and business, but he’s managed to ride most of them to the top.
The second of six children born to Dezo Szigeti, a gardener, and Florence Szigeti, a housekeeper, Szigeti’s rise to the helm of Hawai‘i Tourism Authority is a ride he never could have imagined as a young kid growing up in austerity.
“It was very humble,” Szigeti says. “We lived on a California ranch, where my father did repair work. My mom scrubbed thousands of floors to make ends meet. I would have never thought that I would be sitting here today with the great team that is HTA because I could not have envisioned that such a path would have been open to me.”
But Szigeti’s playground extended beyond the ranch to Los Angeles County’s affluent beach cities of Malibu and Santa Monica, where California dreamers go to ? nd fame and fortune. At age 12, Szigeti found his panacea in surfing, a sport he grew to love as soon as he climbed atop a borrowed board, courtesy of his friend Dave Rochlen. He was soon surfing every morning in Malibu and Santa Monica, and hitchhiking 20 miles to school.
By age 17, Szigeti had risen to the No. 10 surfer in the international circuit. Competition took him to Hawai‘i, where he had to wash cars to keep his head above water. Unfortunately, he was also on his own.
“My father was old school. He came from Hungary, and when I turned 16, he considered me a man. He kicked me out,” Szigeti says. “? ere wasn’t enough food to go around. Even today, my wife teases me that I’m the fastest eater she’s seen. Growing up one of six kids, I had to be, or there wouldn’t have been any food.”
Despite being forced to be independent at such a young age, Szigeti was able to graduate from Santa Monica High School.
“I spent a few nights in my car, and then couch-surfing, until I got on my feet. Surfing was my guiding light. It kept me out of trouble,” he says.
Surfing connections kept Szigeti under Dewey Weber’s sponsorship until the age of 22. It also opened the door to earning income as a model, and to a job at Chuck’s Steakhouse, which was filled with surfers.
The support helped Szigeti work his way through UCLA, where he majored in psychology and sociology (because the school’s famed business program did not yet exist).
“I wasn’t making a lot of money, but I really enjoyed my time slinging steaks,” Szigeti says. “Then, when I graduated, I was fortunate enough to get recruited to work for E&J Gallo Winery, which along with Procter & Gamble was one of the most sought-after companies by graduates of that time.”
Six months later, Szigeti earned a promotion to district manager, and eventually was asked by Ernest Gallo himself to move to O‘ahu to become the company’s first Hawai‘i state manager.
“I was really driven because being on my own at such I young age, I developed a real fear of failure. Gallo moved me back to Hawai‘i in 1982 to be its first state manager,” Szigeti says. “Thirty-six years later, Hawai‘i has become my home. My wife, Sandra, who is a flight attendant, and I live in Honolulu. Our daughter, Alexis, graduated June 2015 from Santa Clara University.”
After E&J Gallo, Szigeti became sales manager for McKesson Wine Partners.
Its sale in the early 1980s wrecked career havoc for many, but led Szigeti to a job as vice president of sales and marketing for Better Brands. He became president and CEO of Better Brands in 1997, and served in that role for 15 years until the company morphed into Young’s Market and its top leadership changed. Visitor industry connections that he made during his food-and-beverage tenure in Hawai‘i led to an opportunity to take over as president and CEO of Hawai‘i Lodging & Tourism Association (HLTA).
Julie Arigo, general manager of Waikiki Parc Hotel, says Szigeti’s tenure at HLTA was a success. He increased membership by 24 percent to 680 members, which now includes more than 160 hotels representing 50,000 rooms statewide. Szigeti’s efforts also helped the organization’s fundraising efforts hit $1.87 million in 2014, which was a record year.
Szigeti is perhaps best known for encouraging the industry to partner with Institute for Human Services and Mayor Kirk Caldwell to work on homeless solutions, including getting Waikiki’s compassionate disruption, or sit-lie law, passed. The law gives police the ability to move homeless squatters so that Waikiki’s streets and sidewalks are kept clear for public use and enjoyment. Under Szigeti, HLTA wrote the first $100,000 check for an expanded homeless outreach to help Waikiki’s down-and-out residents.
He left HLTA in May to become HTA’s president and CEO, a role many in the industry expect he will excel in, given his leadership in for-profit and nonprofit community organizations that support business and travel for Hawai‘i. He was recently recognized at Na Mea Makamae o Waikiki, the gala fundraiser for Waikiki Community Center, where he was carried in on a surfboard.
Currently, he serves on the steering committee for the Hawai‘i Bowl and Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic. Previously, he has served as chairman of Hawaii Food Industry Association, president of Hawaii Liquor Wholesalers Association, and as board member for Hawaii Foodbank, Hawaii Restaurant Association and Hale ‘Aina ‘Ohana, which supports Hawai‘i’s young chefs.
With a new dream team of HTA chief operating officer Randy Baldemor and Marc Togashi, HTA vice president of finance, beside him, Szigeti says the organization is updating long-term strategies to maintain tourism growth and momentum.
“We are starting a new chapter here at HTA. We are looking at how we can be a more forward-thinking organization,” Szigeti says. “We also want to look at ways to better utilize technology, as we see how important it will be for tourism across the globe.”
Szigeti says his philosophy of business management is one that seeks collaboration and partnerships that support the greater good for all, instead of individual interests. It’s an approach he has honed riding the highs and lows of a three-decade business career in Hawai‘i.
“I learned to remember to smile, to listen, to stay balanced and to make good friends. I believe that it takes a team to live the dream,” Szigeti says. “Good and bad times are a part of life, but no matter what you have, [I learned] to treat others like you want to be treated.”