McCabe, Hamilton & Renny Co. owner and Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Foundation director emeritus Tim Guard is chairman of the board—whether he’s in the office or in the ocean.

There’s a sink-or-swim moment in nearly every great leader’s life. Ironically, celebrated waterman Tim Guard experienced that moment during a consultation with the attorneys who represented McCabe, Hamilton & Renny Co.

The year was 2008, and economic downturn was about to push the largest and oldest stevedoring company in Hawaiʻi underwater.

“They said, ‘There’s only one way out of the jam, and that’s really to declare bankruptcy,'” says Guard, who is McCabe, Hamilton & Renny Co.’s owner, president and CEO. “I said, ‘I’ll save it, if I have to contribute my last personal dollar.

I’m not going to be the guy standing the watch after 110 years, and the ship goes down and the leader with it.'”

Righting the company was more than just business for the 74-year-old Guard, whose family has been part of the company for almost its entire existence.

“My dad (Jack Guard) started working for the company as a hired hand in 1913. He worked for them for 58 years until he passed away in 1971. My brother Charles worked for the company as an operations manager, and I worked for them as a stevedore while I was in high school,” he recounts. “My dad wanted me to get a dose of reality. For sure I got it from those guys. They were the salt of the Earth.”

After graduating from Punahou School, Guard earned an international relations degree from the University of Southern California. During the Vietnam era, he volunteered to enter into the U.S. Navy, where he earned a Bronze Star and Navy Commendation Medal. Upon returning to Hawaiʻi, Guard opened an executive recruiting company.

He accepted an offer to become general manager of McCabe, Hamilton and Renny in 1984 and purchased the company in 1987. The company thrived under his leadership until the super recession of 2007 to 2010 almost became its undoing.

Ruth Ann Becker, chair and CEO of Becker Communications, who is on the board of the USS Missouri Memorial Association, which Guard chairs, says she admires Guard’s fortitude during those difficult times.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all that he told the attorneys that he couldn’t file for bankruptcy,” Becker says. “He has a strong sense of ethics and well-placed values that put people first.”

If the company had gone under, it would have put 250 people out of work on the docks, and it would have taken Matson and other affiliated companies a long time to recover, explains Guard’s longtime friend Mike Irish, who sits on McCabe, Hamilton & Renny Co.’s board.

“He had to get lines of credit and risk everything to save the business,” says Irish, who owns Halms Enterprise and its sister companies, Keoki’s Laulau and Diamond Head Seafood. “His business depends on healthy imports and exports, but he got down and dirty and held it together until the economy turned itself around.”

The welfare of the company and its people inspired Guard to apply paddling skills to move the company forward.

“Canoe racing is the ultimate team sport. It’s a selfless sport. Nobody is the hero. If you win a race, it’s a collective effort and if you lose everyone is responsible for the loss,” says Guard, who has paddled in about 18 MolokaÊ»i canoe races and four or five races on a one-man kayak across the channel.

For a paddler or a businessman, Guard acknowledges that a lot rides on who is in the canoe. Guard reduced his workforce by 20 percent, transferring about 70 of his 350 employees to jobs with major customers.

“We had to become far more conscious about costs and we had to make changes in our management structure, including several people who for one reason or another weren’t pointed in the same direction after we decided our strategic course,” he says.

He has since grown the remaining 280 employees to a workforce of over 300. “We’re doing well, but I don’t take it for granted,” he says. “You have to accept that you will win and you will lose. Learn from your mistakes, and strengthen your resolve to do better in the future.”

Guard said most of his employees embrace these tenants, because like him, many have come from athletic backgrounds and are deeply connected to the ocean. Guard said he was just 12-years-old when Duke Kahanamoku, who was a close friend of his father’s, introduced him to his first ride on a surfboard.

“To meet ‘The Duke’ was to elevate your spirituality,” Guard says. “He resonated the aloha spirit and kindness. Youngsters like me would do what we could to emulate him.”

Five years later, a 17-year-old Guard won the juniors division of The Makaha International Surfing Contest. As he got older, he turned to paddling serving on four crews that won an open division race and three or four crews that won a master’s division race. A past president of the Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Foundation, he spearheaded the creation of the Hawai‘i Waterman Hall of Fame to honor Kahanamoku and all of the greats that have come in his wake.

“Really my whole life has revolved around the ocean—on it, or in it. It’s a playground for me, and an important part of my business. Second to my wife [Devon], it’s the love of my life,” Guard says. “I feel very fortunate to be doing what I’m doing.”

As such, Guard has no immediate plans to retire and cautions folks who are following him to watch out for the cloud of smoke.

“Keep up if you can,” he says with the satisfied smile of a man who has attained his heart’s desires.