Larry Ellison buys an island in Hawaii

You probably haven’t been there before, to Lanai (pronounced La-nigh-ee). I myself have lived in Hawaii for 25 years now and I’ve never set foot on Lanai either. The island is and was privately owned for the last 100 years. Incidentally, the island of Niihau (pronounced knee-hee-ow) is also privately owned, first purchased from the Kingdom of Hawaii by Elizabeth Sinclair in 1864. Her descendants, the Robinson family, still own the island today. So it’s no surprise that I haven’t set foot on Niihau either.

But I did get a close-up look of Niihau once and even spent the night there just offshore on a fishing expedition with my father. All I saw was the uninhabited side and it really wasn’t all that memorable. At night there is even less to see (obviously since it’s dark and I already mentioned we were on the uninhabited side). But the one remarkable thing about complete uninhabited darkness is the sky. There are infinitely more stars in the night sky than you will ever realize living in a Metropolitan area. And as we lay down staring at this remarkable night sky (because there really was nothing else to look at) my dad told me stories of an earlier trip where he and his friends hopped ashore.

They merrily drank cans of beer at the edge of the Forbidden Island, as it is otherwise known, until they were greeted by a great Paniolo (that’s a Hawaiian cowboy for the uninitiated). Per his story, this great Paniolo, riding around on horseback of course, was a muscular giant who used no words. He didn’t have to. Crushing one of their beer cans with his bare hand was all the exchange they needed to promptly get going, not that my Dad and his friend understood Hawaiian anyway (Niihau is the last place on Earth where Hawaiian is the primary language).

As for the other main islands, I’ve been to them all. I grew up on Kauai and now live on Oahu. I’ve visit friends and family frequently on Maui and the Big Island too. I even visited Molokai once (on another fishing expedition with my family). Molokai is an island perhaps best known for its use by the Kingdom of Hawaii circa 1860 as a quarantine area for people suffering from Hansen’s disease. And, probably the only reason Molokai is even known for that (since banning residents to small islands isn’t exactly a shinning example of humanity) is because of Father Damien, the one shining example of humanity in that whole Molokai ‘leper colony’ business.

Unfortunately, Hawaii cannot claim Father Damien as its own. In all of Hawaii at the time he was the only one who volunteered to care for Hawaii’s Hansen’s disease sufferers and he traveled all the way from Belgium to do it. Belgium, by the way, is farther away from Hawaii than all of the United States and Canada as well as Asia. After 16 years Father Damien himself died of the disease. Now that is remarkable.

Back to the inspiration for this post. According to the media, Lanai recently exchanged property owners and the proud new owner is Mr. Larry Ellison who actually owns 98% of the island rather than the entire island. Like I said, I’ve never set foot on Lanai. The closest I’ve gotten to Lanai is looking at its hazy outline from the island of Maui. There are public roads there, but no public transportation. I don’t expect Larry Ellison’s purchase will change public accessibility very much.

There was a conversation, naturally, that went around the office the day the news broke and it went like this:

“So Larry Ellison just bought Lanai.”

“Right. Who’s Larry Ellison?”

“I don’t know. Some guy from California, the CEO of Oracle or something.”

Even though the people having this conversation presumably know little of what Oracle is (other than that it is a big, important software company), we continue with the conversation because it doesn’t really matter how Larry Ellison obtained enough money to buy one of the Hawaiian Islands so much as the notion that somebody could and would spend hundreds of millions of dollars doing so.

Someone poses the question, “Can you imagine buying an island when there is a guy struggling just to buy a 600 square foot studio?”

A 600 square foot studio in Waikiki, by the way, runs for around $350,000 and that doesn’t include the land underneath. Larry Ellison by contrast just purchased ~137 acres or so of pristine Hawaii real estate.

“Well Larry Ellison isn’t like most of us,” I quickly say, not really knowing how much Larry Ellison isn’t like most of us. According to Forbes (because I Googled it later), he is third richest in the U.S., behind Bill Gates first and Warren Buffet second.

I further add, “If that struggling guy wants to buy an island, the same American dream is available to him.”

I guess I just didn’t care to play along with the poor-rest-of-the-population-who-can’t-afford-to-buy-islands-let-alone-a-600-sq-ft-studio game. I don’t hold it against Larry Ellison just because he has riches beyond what I at this moment could only dream of obtaining. Ever optimistic, I hold on to the ideal that if I really wanted that much money I could get it. So I don’t have as much money as Larry Ellison does because I choose not to. I am a real piece of work I tell you.

Anyway, we go on to discuss the details of owning an island as if we were Larry Ellison, but we do it and completely fail to grasp the concept of having that much money.

“I wouldn’t buy an island,” someone else says then asks, “Why would you buy an island when people already live there?” Lanai currently has about 3000 residents. “There’s water utilities and roads to worry about.”

Enough said. Why would Larry Ellison worry about infrastructure. First of all, only civil engineers worry about such things. (Did I mention my day job is in civil engineering?) The man has enough money to buy Lanai to the tune of 500 million dollars for goodness sakes. If infrastructure is a problem, he would hire a team of civil engineers to worry about it and his team would probably come from California, rightly so.

Still I can’t say that even if I had all that money, plus maintenance too, that I would buy Lanai. Instead, I would start a visionary project for the people where I live and aspire to be a grand philanthropist like the first two ranked billionaires on the richest Americans list. I wouldn’t blankly give it away though as another of my co-workers suggested Mr. Ellison do with his blatant extra millions.

I would spend it in the same visionary way that helped me obtain all that money in the first place. For Hawaii, that means I would build energy self-sufficient homes, restaurants, whole buildings and resorts even, because energy is a bit problematic in Hawaii (and well California too). We still largely depend on foreign oil here in Hawaii when don’t need to. We have abundant resources in wind and sun that could be cultivated with enough money, like say 500 million dollars. If I could reduce the cost of living and do it responsibly in a novel way, I’d spend the extra millions without reservation.

But I’m not Mr. Ellison and I don’t have 500 million extra dollars to spend as I like (not that I couldn’t one day if I wanted to, right?). Yesterday’s Star Advertiser headlines included this one, Residents in the dark about sale of Lanai. Apparently, Mr. Ellison has forgotten his manners and not properly introduced himself to his new tenants.

So I offer to shed some light for these residents who are hoping for change that will stimulate the community and job growth. Mr. Ellison has a penchant for expensive toys. According to a Forbes article, Is Larry Ellison’s $500 Million Hawaiian Island The World’s Most Expensive? Mr. Ellison spends his money on things like luxury yachts (his comes complete with a basketball court and wine cellar), yacht racing teams (he spent $100 million and successfully won America’s Cup), cars, jets and now an island possibly more expensive than any other recently purchased island. Incidentally, Mr. Ellison also has 4 ex-wives.

I’m not judging the man. He absolutely deserves everything he has (and doesn’t want to have). I’m just not sure what he’s looking for, but I am pretty certain it’s not what he can do for Lanai. So unlike Niihau whose owners are related to the original transaction with the Kingdom of Hawaii and whose owners somehow manage to preserve a piece of Hawaiian culture from that era intact, Lanai is likely to be a luxury vacation spot complete with all the frills that a lot of money can buy, but it won’t be for tourists. It will be for its owner and whoever he wants to share that with. I just don’t see Mr. Ellison buying into this venture as some sort of responsibility to a bunch of people he doesn’t even know. Sorry. If I were wrong on this I think he would have at least said “hello” or something by now (1 week post purchase) to the 3000 or so residents of Lanai.

What would you do with $600 million dollars if you had billions more to spare? Buy luxury toys or give back to the people somehow? There really are no wrong answers. It’s just a matter of what makes you tick.

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