Full text of a SmallBiz Q&A with HHF President, Tom Fee, summarized in a feature on Pacific Business News, “HHF Planners firm and the Greener Business Plan.”
Q: How was the firm founded and what principles was it built on that are still prevalent today?
Tom: The firm was founded in October 1980 by Mark Hastert & Larry Helber and was for a time the planning division of architects Wimberly, Whisenand, Allison, Tong & Goo (now known as WATG). They both came from Belt Collins during its early days and travelled around the Pacific with Walter Collins working on mega projects for clients such as Lawrence Rockefeller. The tie with WATG provided an international stage for the firm, with Larry covering far flung locations and Mark focusing on the Hawai‘i market. The trust between partners and the flexibility to go where the opportunities are still resonates with our current set of partners.
Q: How has the firm changed over the years?
Tom: We’ve grown from a department of an architectural firm to an independent staff of 38 planning and design professionals with projects located throughout the Pacific, US Mainland and even the US Virgin Islands. The planning services industry is evolving rapidly due to technological advancements and competitive pressures. We have a strong corporate culture to reinvent ourselves with each new generation; new staff are told to think about where they want to take the company and that their vision and insight matter to the Board and help inform the direction of the firm.
Q: What’s new? What recent projects has the firm worked on?
Tom: We have a very broad range of ongoing projects covering a broad geographic area. We have ongoing projects in all four Hawai‘i counties, all the US territories and affiliated islands (except Puerto Rico). We recently completed the O‘ahu Bike Plan Update for the City and County of Honolulu and are currently working on Complete Streets projects for the Ke‘eaumoku corridor and for Kahului (Hele Kākou Kahului), all of which continue a legacy of active transportation planning projects that we’ve been involved in since our first bicycle master plan in the 90s. We are in the process of finalizing the Kawainui-Hamākua Marsh Complex Master Plan, a decade-long effort that involved extensive community outreach and a deep understanding of both the kuleana of Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners to care for the land and extend educational opportunities and the needs of neighboring communities and other stakeholders. As part of our ongoing Department of Defense contracts, we have also recently completed a nationally-recognized Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan which covered all four of the Navy’s shipyards, including Pearl Harbor.
Q: How long have you been with the firm?
Tom: I started with the firm in 1985 as one of its first staff members.
Q: How has business been this year compared to years past?
Tom: It’s been a remarkable year of challenges and adaptation. Like every other business in Hawai‘i, we’ve been challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, we invested in IT upgrades in 2019 that allowed us to quickly move to a remote office configuration – along with most of our clients. Our staff have been fantastic in managing the somewhat drastic change to our business model. In a recent survey, many said they appreciated the flexibility that working from home (WFH) provides, and don’t think they’d ever want to return to the typical 9-5 routine in a downtown office building (we have a wonderful office – but it’s been largely empty for the past six months). We still have a lot to learn about the longer term effects of the WFH model, including how to maintain a family-oriented corporate culture in an era of social distancing.
Q: Has Covid impacted the firm? If so, how? And what role did you play in the response?
Tom: Aside from forcing us to work remotely, the pandemic has essentially shut down our ability to engage with our clients and our project stakeholders on a one to one basis. Travel to local and remote work sites has essentially been curtailed. Planners are social animals and that personal interaction is what attracted many of us to the profession. We have pivoted to using the various video conference tools and are building a range of online tools for community engagement like interactive digital maps, virtual open houses and a more robust use of social media tools. These tools will have a lasting imprint on how planning services are provided and, in my view, will be gamechangers in the future of our profession. Clearly, our responsibility as planners is to ensure all stakeholders have a voice in the future of our communities, so we need to be sure we are able to provide access to the socially disadvantaged sectors of our economy to ensure their voice is heard. And we have a lot more work ahead of us to provide that level of robustness.
Q: What has the biggest challenge been this year, and how did you address it?
Tom: The pandemic will go down in history as one of the biggest threats of our generation, hands down. Maintaining our family-oriented culture and a sense of ‘ohana is a key challenge facing our firm. We’ve always been tight-knit, so we’ve kept the traditions of brownbag lunches, Monday staff meetings, work process improvement seminars and even “talk story” sessions, but moved them online. Certainly, the biggest challenge is to keep our staff motivated while they experience the brunt of the pandemic—e.g., home schooling, supporting aging parents, broad unemployment issues facing extended family members and curtailment of day care opportunities. Surveys indicate a stable, professionally challenging job provides an anchor in this time of great uncertainty. Our Board is doing its best to keep expanding opportunities for professional growth and career advancement and keeping HHF a great place to work. We all look forward to a post-COVID setting where our staff can return to a more balanced way of life.
Q: How did you get into this line of work?
Tom: I started in the real estate and construction fields on Maui which stimulated a deep interest in development and its effects on the environment. I interviewed Professor Kem Lowry at the UH Manoa’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning and he convinced me that planning was more exciting than law, and I was hooked.
Q: What sets the firm apart?
Tom: Hard to tell – but we really do push Deming’s “continuous improvement” cycle in everything we do (for our clients and in our business systems). The way we do our work and what we actually do has changed radically from what we did 40 years ago. We are producing a lot more value with each hour of service because we take care to hire motivated professionals and provide the training and tools to let them excel. We have a competitive benefits package which results in great staff retention, which in turn adds to the quality of the services we provide. One of our business system objectives this year is to reinforce our IT security to ensure client information is protected from cyber-attack, a growing national concern.
Q&A: Number of employees? 38
Q: Looking ahead, what’s next for the firm?
Tom: We have a tremendous group of clients and a motivated and highly experienced professional staff. We have emerging markets we are gradually gaining footholds in – oftentimes led by senior staff. As long as we focus on continuous improvement, continue to provide a great place to work, and implement a thoughtful and deliberate leadership transition plan, we’ll emerge from the pandemic as a stronger, more resilient organization.
Q: What does the work you do mean to you?
Tom: Every day I learn something new, get inspired by the people I interact with, and feel that I’m contributing to the legacy of a great firm. There are ups and downs of course, but I’m glad I followed Professor Lowry’s advice!
Q: Forty years is quite a milestone! What does this milestone mean to you, and what impact do you hope the company has, and continues to make in Hawaii and the pacific rim?
Tom: We are into the third generation of owners and should be able to keep the momentum going as long as we embrace change, are able to attract and retain great staff and continue to provide excellent service to our clients. We’ve shown we can adapt quickly and have survived several severe economic shocks and now a global pandemic. The challenges moving forward will be to recruit and retain the right people to lead to us into the next generation of owners while continuing to diversify and improve the quality of our services.