By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Hawaii Island lost one of its trailblazers Monday, with the death of 78-year-old Harold T. Tanouye Jr., CEO and founder of Panaewa’s Green Point Nurseries Inc.
Friends and family said Tuesday that Tanouye, who had been ill during the past year, was an example of a business man who believed strongly in the aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
“He defied some of the norms of the industry and the economic realities,” explained state Rep. Clift Tsuji, D-Hilo, Keaukaha, the former chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture. “Rather than trying to ward off competition, he embraced competition. … I do not believe he thought of his peers on the Big Island as competitors, he considered them a unified group that could compete with the rest of the world collectively.”
To that end, Tanouye worked in collaboration with University of Hawaii at Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources and other groups to further the nursery industry on the Big Island, sharing many of the methods he developed to built his company into a successful and sustainable powerhouse among Hawaii flower exporters.
When Tanouye attended Grinnell College in Iowa, he noted that anthuriums sent by his mother to his host families were always very well received. At the age of 28, he organized Hawaiian Heart Inc. and Hawaiian Anthurium Ltd. as the first major anthurium nursery on the island.
“In 1964, I finally decided to cut my own trail, so to speak. I wanted something to export,” he told the Tribune-Herald in 2007. “I felt that I could make this into a business. It wasn’t my intention to grow to some 30 acres of production.”
Four years later, in 1968, he was recognized as the State of Hawaii Outstanding Young Farmer of the Year. In 1997, he developed Green Point Nurseries to grow and market leather leaf ferns and anthurium cut flowers, growing it into a multi-million-dollar business with dozens of acres of production that ships to locations all around the world.
It was his innovative production and distribution methods that really set Tanouye apart, recalled University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) Hawaii County Administrator Russell Nagata.
“He was really an industry leader in his actions and the things he’s done over the years,” Nagata said Tuesday.
Prior to Tanouye’s digging into the problem, anthuriums had been grown under citrus trees or native hapu ferns under variable light conditions. But he pioneered the use of plastic wrap shadehouses, helping to provide more predictable growing environments.
“By using the Saran houses, he was able to standardize production,” Nagata said. “He also was the first to use cinders in growing these anthuriums … offering a good growing medium.”
Tanouye also began using hermetically sealed, gusseted plastic bags inside of cardboard cartons for delivery, a practice that has since become an industry standard.
In addition to earning the respect of fellow industry insiders, Tanouye’s business smarts and attention to detail earned him a dedicated customer base, friends and family said. This summer, Tribune-Herald readers selected Green Point Nurseries in the annual “Best of East Hawaii” section.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Tanouye was active in the community, serving on the Dean’s Advisory Board for UH CTAHR, Wholesale Florists and Florist Suppliers of America, Society of American Florists, Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce, Japanese Chamber of Commerc & Industry of Hawaii, Hilo Y’s Men, and Aloha Golf Club.
A proud, third-generation Japanese American, Tanouye had a strong work ethic, said daughter Robin Nakayama — something he passed on to his children.
“He believed, no matter how high up the ladder you went, you always needed to be able to do the lowest job. That’s why he always walked his fields. He believed a farmer should always get his hands in the dirt. The last time we went out to the fields was Thursday,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “He just loved it. It made him so happy, it made him smile.”
She added that she and her siblings began working the farm at an early age, and learned the value of hard work.
“He used to say that no one ever died from hard work,” she said with a laugh.
Son Eric Tanouye described his father as a quiet man who didn’t seek much in the way of public recognition. So much so, that many people in the community may not have known how much he had given back to the community where he was born and reared.
For example, Eric Tanouye said, when it was evident a few years ago that the recession sweeping across the country was headed for Hawaii, Tanouye decided he needed to do something to help give a boost to the Hilo community. That year, he worked with other members of the floral industry to donate flowers for the Merrie Monarch festival. It began a tradition that has continued over the past several years.
“He knew that Merrie Monarch was the biggest thing for Hilo, and even in this hardest time, he wanted to give back. … He was not expecting anything back. That was just the way he thought,” Eric Tanouye said.
Friends may call from 9-11 a.m. Saturday at the Church of the Holy Cross, 440 W. Lanikaula St., followed by a memorial service at 11 a.m. The family requests casual attire.
Among his survivors, Tanouye leaves behind his wife, Lillian Tanouye, two sons, two daughters, and numerous grandchildren.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.