LIHUE — Randy Francisco looked at Sandi Kato-Klutke, sitting across the table from him at the Kauai Chamber of Commerce office Friday afternoon, and smiled.
“Sandi is at fault and responsible for hiring me,” he said, laughing. “She’s been with me from the beginning.”
Kato-Klutke also smiled. She recalled that when Francisco arrived in 2006 to accept the role as the chamber’s president, the organization was struggling and had gone through some leadership changes.
“We needed to hire somebody to get us out of this slump we were in,” she said.
Francisco, born and raised on Kauai and a University of Hawaii-Hilo graduate with a career in higher education, was their man.
He arrived with enthusiasm and high hopes that he turned into reality as the chamber gradually grew and become one of the island’s business leaders. It would not only survive the recession that hit Kauai hard, but help its members survive, too. He united organizations at all levels — private, government, community and nonprofit. Friendly and personable, Francisco was often seen chatting up nearly every guest that attended the bustling chamber events.
“He helped us to work together to make this a better place for everyone,” Kato-Klutke said.
That’s why, she said, it will be difficult to replace him, as Francisco announced his resignation this week. His final day will be April 30.
“The organization is where it needs to be,” he said. “The economy is getting fixed.”
The 1973 Waimea High School graduate has accepted a Kauai County post in economic development with Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr.’s administrative team, which he will begin May 1. He said he considered jobs on Oahu, but wanted to remain home.
“I get to stay,” he said. “I get to be where I was born and raised.”
J. Robertson, chamber board chairman, said that during the past 10 years, Francisco brought the chamber to a new dimension.
“With Randy’s guidance, we have accomplished many goals and increased our visibility on the island and throughout Hawaii,” he wrote. “Randy has helped to solidify our chamber as one of the top outer-island chambers in the state. Randy has advocated for our Kauai businesses from Polihale to Washington D.C.”
Robertson said the chamber’s executive committee and board will begin the search to find a new leader.
“We have much ahead of us and understand the importance of the work that is done by the chamber,” he wrote. “We will continue to grow our chamber, providing vital services and benefits to our members. As they have in the past, our efforts will aim to strengthen the business community of Kauai.”
Francisco said when he joined the Kauai chamber it was at the height of the economic boom. But he saw signs that boom was about to bust.
“I knew that what goes up is going to come down,” he said.
So he prepared the chamber’s members for tougher times and in many cases, his efforts were the difference between a business going under or staying open. He restructured the chamber with new programs, refocused committees and increased the number of its networking events. He counseled business owners, big and small, and let them know they weren’t in this fight for survival alone.
Key was providing benefits and services to members, creating value, and people noticed. When he arrived, membership was around 300. Today, it stands at nearly 500.
“We made the most of what we could,” he said.
Francisco created partnerships between the chamber and many groups, not just businesses, on the islands. He strengthened ties with social agencies like Big Brothers Big Sisters, charitable programs and community clubs. He worked with the visitors industry, economic development agencies and the farm bureau.
“We come in as partners and work together,” he said.
The chamber, too, made its own concessions to the recession. It moved from its longtime home at the Lihue Plantation Building into a smaller office on Rice Street, reduced its operations, streamlined its budget and, as he says, “resized to fit ourself into this economy.” Its staff of three includes Caroline Manera Texeira, executive vice president, and Chantal Zarbaugh, executive assistant.
Slowly, the economy recovered. The chamber marked its centennial two years ago, which Francisco liked to sometimes joke, “I thought it was a hallmark because we’re still here.”
The chamber is definitely still here.
Quarterly membership meetings are always packed. Business After Hours is popular. It offers various training programs and brings in guest speakers such as Hawaiian Airlines President and CEO Mark Dunkerley. Last year, it organized a Hawaii fashion month. It also sent a team to Washington, D.C., for Hawaii on the Hill, in part to “communicate to policymakers how their decisions affect us, 5,000 miles away.”
He’s proud to point out this year, the chamber launched its “Kahookele Circle Sponsorships,” that proved successful.
“We really need to try to help each other out,” he said.
Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kauai Visitor’s Bureau and chamber board member, said it’s been a pleasure working alongside him these past 10 years.
“Randy is very strategic in his work, always trying to tie back to the big picture, with a special touch of Kauai,” she wrote. “We are very grateful for the work he has done for Kauai’s business community and how he has grown the Kauai Chamber of Commerce and its team. We will miss Randy’s leadership at the Kauai Chamber of Commerce, but are grateful he will continue to use his talents for the benefit of Kauai in a new chapter of his life.”
Kato-Klutke was pleased, too, Francisco is staying on Kauai.
“He’s not leaving the island,” she said. “We know where to find him.”