Hailing from Hilo, WCIT Architecture President Rob Iopa keeps his feet on the ground but his eyes on the prize.
The university of Hawai‘i-Hilo’s Ka haka ‘ula o Ke‘elikolani College of Hawaiian language is more than just a building to its home-grown architect Rob Iopa.
The $21 million complex represents the power of determination for Iopa, who graduated from Waiakea High School with a 1.75 GPA. He says it’s also a modern-day reminder that roots make us strong.
“This was the building that helped our company get back on track after the Great Recession,” the 47-year-old WCIT Architecture president says. “There’s also a bit of, ‘Hey, I achieved something.'” There was a period of time in high school that a lot of people, myself, my friends, my parents, my family, thought that I wouldn’t add up to much and that I’d go down the wrong route.”
Iopa said he grew up in Hilo, but went to O‘ahu with his mom, Kay Iopa, after his parents divorced and she got accepted to law school.
“I got accepted to Kamehameha Schools in ninth grade, but for various compounding reasons was asked to leave and went back to Hilo to live with my dad, Kenneth Iopa,” he says. “I was a quarterback at Waiakea, but chose not to excel at academics. I even got an F in drafting. I wasn’t accepted to any universities because of my grades.”
Iopa remembers accompanying his childhood friend former Hawai‘i Mayor Billy Kenoi, who had a 1.8 GPA, to the counselor’s office to look for community colleges.
“We were searching a community college close to the ocean with the highest proximity of women to men,” Iopa says. “Luckily, I settled on Monterey Peninsula College, where I didn’t have as many distractions. There, I reinvented myself.”
Two years later, Iopa enrolled at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, a top-ranked architecture school.
Iopa also managed to land several impressive architectural internships. He worked for a few firms in Hilo and eventually interned with WATG, a top architectural firm specializing in resort projects. After graduation, WATG picked him up, and within two years, he was traveling the world, especially Asia. Iopa worked at WATG for five years, but eventually left to return home.
“I was going to China and Thailand and working on projects that expressed their cultures,” he shares. “It didn’t feel right. I thought they have architects in their countries that can do that. I wanted to come home and express my culture. I’m half Hawaiian, half Chinese.”
Iopa returned to Honolulu and joined Architects Hawai‘i, but said he grew dissatisfied with the “big corporate way of doing things.” In 2000, he founded WCIT along with several former WATG bosses.
“I was just 30 [years old], and all my mentors were in their 60s. I thought I’d get to work with them for 10 years and learn the business. In three years, I found myself alone,” Iopa says. “Many times you see an exodus when things are going bad and people are jumping ship, but this was as we were growing and climbing.”
Iopa said WCIT enjoyed incredible growth from 2003 to 2008, picking up more than 50 employees and expanding into San Francisco. The firm was on a high going into 2009 when it worked on the master plan for the Sheraton Waikiki and oversaw the complete renovation of the iconic Royal Hawaiian Hotel, which was built in 1927. But by early 2010, Iopa said the global recession had dried up most of the firm’s work and he had to cut his staff to nine.
“I saw it happening, but the decisions were tough and I didn’t want to make them.I just held on until I couldn’t any longer and had to slice deeply,” he says. “We put almost everyone on furlough. We paid their medical benefits, and they collected unemployment and promised that we would bring them back as soon as we could.”
Iopa hunkered down, diversified into planning and public sector work and six months later, put 80 percent of his staﬀback to work.
And these days, WCIT continues to forge ahead, having completed big projects such as Andaz Maui at Wailea, International Market Place in Waikiki and Waeia at Ward Village.
Kenoi, who experienced teenage angst along with Iopa, said he’s not surprised by the way his longtime friend has sailed through challenges.
“Watching him through the years, he’s very courageous and strategic. He’s one risk-taking entrepreneur. He’s got a million things going on at once and somehow he moves it forward. He’s been doing that since small-kid times,” Kenoi says. “I remember when we was swimming one night and we were at the highest platform of the Olympic pool and talking about going in. I’m thinking, ‘I’m not sure about this, it’s really high and it’s dark and we can’t see,’ but Rob jumps and I jumped after. He was always willing to take risks whether he was the quarterback, the pitcher on the mound or the kid who jumped first.”
Iopa hangs his turnaround on luck, but he doesn’t mean it in the way most would expect.
“I have a friend, Jay Kadowaki, who owns a construction company. He’s one of those guys who has it all figured out,” Iopa says. “One day, he told me, ‘Ultimately you are born lucky. You are born and develop a work ethic and if you work really hard, you will find luck.'”
The moral of the story, “Put your head down, work hard, and good things will happen,” Iopa says. It also helps to have been blessed with a family that inspires and motivates you, he said.
His wife of 12-years Rachelle says Iopa, indeed, puts his focus on her and their sons Ian, 9, Eli, 7 and twoand-a-half-year-old daughter, Iliana.
“Although he has a demanding work schedule, he is home for dinner every night and makes most every sporting event for our children … He is an excellent father and husband,” shares Rachelle, a Hilo girl who went to a rival high school.
Rachelle reveals Iopa is passionate about everything from work to coaching their son Ian’s baseball team, the Manoa Mets, to planning every family trip.
“Rob is a stickler for details and thinks everything through which makes things seamless and “easy” for others. For example, when we travel, alone or with our children, he plans it all out prior to arrival—from the great restaurants to what subway stop we need to get on or oﬀfor each sight we see,” she says.
Jeff Camacho, who met Iopa on the ball field, said genuineness and humility are the hallmarks of his friend’s winning personality.
“When I first met Rob on the baseball field, he was laying down with his baseball hat backwards and no slippers,” Camacho reveals. “I thought he was this random, nice person that didn’t work. Th en come to find out, he’s one of the most successful architects. He’s very balanced.”