Making Waves

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Mike B. Pietsch is riding big waves in and out of the water.

There’s an image of Mike B. Pietsch surfing a giant wave at Jaws, Pe‘ahi, on Maui. He’s crouched down on his surfboard with his eyes looking straight ahead, as he puts a huge tower of power behind him.

Only a few well-timed moves in the impact zone stand in the way of a big wave wipeout. But he’s adept at finding calm in chaos.

“Nothing else matters, except what you are doing at that moment in the ocean. The bigger the waves, the more stressful the situation. You have to conserve oxygen and energy. I feel like, for me, you have no choice but to turn inward,” Pietsch says. “You have to find the calm.”

Pietsch has learned to depend on the sort of courage that’s not conditional on anything but the self-minded doggedness of the protagonist. He not only wants to survive the story; he wants to write it.

Pietsch recently added a couple more main events to his life story. After 20 years of big-wave surfing, he finally made the 2019 list of alternates for the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational.

Earlier this year, he added the role of president to his chief operating officer job at Title Guaranty, a family business created by his grandfather David Pietsch Sr. and Kenneth Makinney. His dad and best friend, Michael A. Pietsch, moved into the company’s CEO position.

Pietsch’s youngest sister Noel Shaw believes that her brother makes success look easy, but is dedicated in business and on the waves—a role landed him on the cover of Surfing Magazine.

“It’s not luck. He works very hard,” she says, recalling that her brother got up very early throughout high school to surf the North Shore waves and still get to Punahou on time.

To be sure, Pietsch is a business pioneer much like his grandfather, who brought title insurance to Hawai‘i in the 1950s. That was a revolutionary move that provided security for Hawai‘i lenders, and helped position the now 123-year-old company for more modern days.

He’s already left his stamp on the organization by promoting a new client-driven method of operating called FIERCE, which stands for “fast, innovative, exceptional, responsive, customer-focused and empowered.”

The company’s new philosophy allows it to embrace the technological changes made possible in 2017 when Title Guaranty sold a stake to Fidelity National Financial Inc., one of the nation’s largest title insurance companies.

“What made you successful in the past will not make you successful in the future,” Pietsch says. “We’ve got to be an extremely nimble and adaptive organization that can quickly respond to changes in technology and clients.”

While the big-wave surfer Pietsch is a natural risk taker, one of the challenges he’s faced is making sure that all of the company’s 340 or so employees at 17 branches statewide also change within the organization.

“Changing a legacy company doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of hard work and clear communication to get a workforce to look at their jobs differently,” he explains. “We’re probably 75% closer to achieving full success of modernizing the company.”

Sam Chillingworth, Title Guaranty sales director, says that successful change management also takes drive and humility, something his childhood friend has in spades.

Chillingworth shares that Pietsch has always been kind of guy who “will do whatever it takes to get it done,” while staying focused on the team.

“I remember as a kid that he forgot his shin guards before a soccer game. He went to McDonald’s and fashioned some out of french fry boxes and straws,” Chill-ingworth recalls.

Chillingworth says Pietsch brings that same level of industriousness to work, but never puts his own needs above others.

“His grandfather would talk to Mike about how the decisions that he made are about the employees and their kids,” he says. “He carries a heavy burden and always makes sure that he keeps the people that he manages close to his heart.”

Pietsch has been working on continuing to improve the family company since 2005, when he took a job as a title searcher and worked his way through each department, until he became the company’s COO. Before that, he worked for Coldwell Banker as a real estate agent and broker.

He’s found his own outlet from life’s pressures in surfing, hot yoga and the love of friends and family, especially his wife Malia and their two boys Aka, 13, and Nalu, 10.

When it comes to surfing, like all big wave surfers, Pietsch’s goals are as simple as catching an epic wave and surviving to tell about it. When it comes to the family business, he wants to be known for helping the “Title Guaranty family and industry navigate a new way of doing a real estate transaction.”

But Pietsch isn’t content for his influence to end with the present. He and Malia are working on establishing a 501c3 called Plant a Tree Hawai‘i with the goal of planting 40,000 trees on O‘ahu’s North Shore over the next 10 years to offset the carbon footprint and improve Hawai‘i’s environment.

“We want to leave Hawai‘i better for our children,” he says. “We want to show them that they can create change. We also wanted to get people out into the environment.”

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