Academic journal article ABA Banking Journal

Here Comes Walter Dods

Academic journal article ABA Banking Journal

Here Comes Walter Dods

Article excerpt

Walter Dods keeps a dog outside his office. Not a live dog, but a modest-sized sculpture of one that the bank purchased from a local artist. The vaguely oriental-looking animal wears a curious expression. It almost seems to be smiling, yet the look also suggests tenacity. Not everyone at the bank likes the dog, but Dods does. And so there it sits on a cube at the entrance to his outer office.

If you were to spend three days observing and trying to keep up with the fast-moving chairman and chief executive officer of First Hawaiian, Inc., you might sense that the sculpture and its caretaker are kindred spirits.

The man who will be president of the American Bankers Association for the next 12 months is an affable, down-to-earth fellow who is at home speaking with anyone. At the same time, he is by all indications an aggressive competitor, a hands-on manager with an almost uncanny grasp of detail, and a boss who gives his subordinates free rein to innovate, but also holds them accountable. Thus, like the sculpture outside his office, there's a certain yin and yang to Walter Dods--personable yet demanding.

Because an organization reflects its CEO, attention to detail permeates the culture at First Hawaiian. In an $8 billion-assets organization scattered over four states and the island of Guam, senior managers can't know everything, of course, and they don't. But FHI managers--Dods first and foremost--know a great deal of what's going on in the organization. One big reason why is because they talk to each other a lot. "There's no such thing as overcommunication," says Dods. He insists on frequent communication of ideas, problems, and successes among the different divisions to avoid the "silo" mentality that plagues many large organizations.

This detail-oriented, communicative culture has served the bank well during the four-year recession that Hawaii is just emerging from. While the bank saw its nonperforming loans rise during that period, it suffered relatively few outright losses, and remained profitable the whole time (ROA never fell lower than 1%).

Open communication also encourages innovation, which is something Dods is particularly proud of. First Hawaiian was the first bank to put customers' photos on bank cards, for example. Likewise it offers auto loans of any duration-27, 33, 52 months, anything up to 60 months--rather than forcing customers to conform to fixed schedules.

Hawaiian Horatio Alger

Walter A. Dods, Jr., 55, is the oldest of seven children. His father was a policeman and his mother worked as a cashier at a Waikiki restaurant--both are retired now.

A 1970 Honolulu magazine article about Dods (he was then 29 and a newly minted First Hawaiian VP), described the Dods family as very close. Everyone learned to hustle early because, as Dods put it, "The last one to the table got the leftovers." That hustle has never left him.

Beginning at about 14, Dods paid his own way working nights and weekends at service stations, Chinese restaurants, a pineapple cannery--sometimes one place during the day and another at night in the summer months.

True, some of Dods' earnings went toward souping up cars--the policeman's son even admits to some hot rodding and drag racing as a teenager. He's long since rechanneled that energy, but an interest in cars remains. He owns a 1957 Ford Thunderbird (the type with "portholes" in the hardtop), which he bought from James MacArthur of the "Hawaii Five-O" television show.

When Dods graduated high school, his father urged him to go to college. But, says Dods, "I was too 'smart' to go to school, so I went to work instead." His first full-time job was as dead files clerk at First Insurance Co. Gradually Dods realized his mistake and began taking night classes to get a college degree.

Doris also did a five-year stint in community relations and advertising at Dillingham Construction Co. …

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