Despite a rocky start, Kohanaiki president and CEO Joe Root sees the luxury residential community becoming what it was meant to be.
Joe Root, 64, is an exceptional golfer-friends have seen him hit a magical 29 on a nine-hole course twice.
That’s pretty good considering a 26 is the best PGA Tour 9-hole scoring record. But those who know him professionally aren’t surprised saying he excels at circumventing obstacles on and off the course. It’s been nearly a decade in coming, but the president and CEO of Kohanaiki Shores LLC and its five related companies has finally seen his dream of opening what he considers the nation’s best private golf club in one of the most exclusive Hawai’i Island neighborhoods come to fruition.
So far the development has attracted celebrities such as tennis champion Lindsay Davenport, professional golfer Ben Crenshaw, and Jacksonville Jaguar Davon House. Not all residents are famous, but all are tremendously successful, Root says.
“They had to do something really well to be able to get here,” he says.
Friends and co-workers say the same could be said of Root, who has managed to drive past many a development obstacle. For starters, the $400-million development almost didn’t make it past the Great Recession.
“We had the infrastructure partially complete and the golf course almost complete in 2008 and had just started marketing the property when the financial crisis hit,” Root says. “I had about 120 people working on property and I had to tell them that the owners had decided to put the whole development on hold.”
Root says he still remembers the challenge of having to lay off about 100 of his 120-member team, keeping only a skeleton crew for the golf-course and a little bit of administration and security.
“We tried to handle it in the most humane and respectful way that we could,” he says. “Everything was uncertain and we didn’t know when anything would be stable. I even relocated my wife, Kim, and my youngest child, Brody, to the California Bay area, where I started a small home remodeling business in case things didn’t work out.”
Luckily, there was no debt on the property, so the owners were able to hang on. By 2011, the major crisis had passed, and the project could move forward. Today, Root says it employs 270 people, many from island families.
George Punoose, Kohanaiki’s general manager, says it says a lot about Root that he and all other laid-off employees have returned.
“He promised that if he were allowed to come back, each and every one of us would get the first call to come back,” Punoose says. “The fact that everyone came back shows how powerful Kohanaiki is and how much we all respect Joe Root and how loyal we are to him. He’s the best human being that I’ve met in my life. It’s simply amazing how may people look up to him.”
Even the local Hawai’i Island community, which has a reputation of being anti-development, was glad to see the project back on track, says Allan Ikawa, owner of Big Island Candies and Root’s friend for more than 25 years.
“Joe was able to get the developer to see the local ways— he’s like a local guy, he’s been here more than half of his life,” Ikawa says. “You know if he gives you his word it’s good. Kohanaiki’s public area has the best public restrooms and park in the state. ~ at’s because Joe is an ideal leader and visionary who gets it. He’s about doing everything pono.”
Root’s personable approach possibly goes way back to his small-town upbringing in Santa Ana, California, which at the time was about the same size as Hilo.
“I grew up in an area with orange groves and farms,” Root says. “My parents Joe and Roberta Root were both East Coast doctors who migrated west to California. My dad died when I was two, and my Mom raised me and my two sisters Kathy and Jody by herself.”
Root says he learned the importance of determination and trail blazing from his mother, who became a doctor in the days when most women were housewives, secretaries or teachers. He also learned the importance of community from his neighbors, who fostered his love of golf, a passion that eventually opened up doors that he wouldn’t have dreamed of as a young kid.
“It was a family neighborhood. My next-door neighbor had taken up golf. We played all kinds of sports, but golf stayed with me,” he says. “I even remember paying one of my friends to run my paper route so that I could play golf.”
After studying at UCLA, Root moved to the Hawaiian Islands. First to Kaua’i, before settling on Hawai’i Island.
“I pestered Dennis Rose for about a year to give me a chance and he finally gave me the opportunity to start behind the counter at Waikoloa Beach Resort, where I was able to meet about 50,000 people a year,” he says.
From there, Root’s career took off. By 1989, he was Waikoloa Beach Resort’s head golf professional. In 1994, he became the director of golf for the Mauna Kea Beach.
Root’s winning attitude and the experiences that he gleaned both in Hawai’i and on the California coast set him on the course for his current success. He left Hawai’i in 1999 to take a job as director of golf for CordeValle, an exclusive private club with a corporate membership and a 45-villa hotel. By 2006, Root had worked up to general manager, eventually became the owner’s representative.
“Many people don’t leave Mauna Kea, but this was a tremendous learning opportunity to build a private club in a 45-room boutique hotel from scratch,” he says. “By being in positions that allow you to learn and grow, you can advance your career as well as do things that you are passionate about.”
The lure of Hawai’i and the unique opportunity to develop Kohanaiki brought Root back to Hawai’i Island in 2006 to serve as project general manager. Despite global economic challenges, his role there has evolved into the company’s top leadership role.
“If you had told me as a young man that I would be doing what I’m doing now, I would have said there’s no way,” Root says. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I wanted to figure it out. I guess you could say that I have.”