Howard Karr plunged off a 155-foot bridge last year. Luckily, the cord around his ankles held. Bungee jumping off the Kawarau Suspension Bridge in Queenstown, New Zealand, was a first for him and his wife, Audrey. So was having lunch at an elevation of 4,000 feet on the small, jutting lip of a mountain peak on New Zealand's Southern Alps. Karr plays makule (Hawaiian for senior) softball twice a week. He takes yoga classes with Audrey on Monday afternoons. "And we just started social dance lessons," he says. "She can dance, but I've got two left feet." It's for the cruises they will take, he explains.
At 62, Karr appears every inch the successful, retired banker -- slim and well-dressed with thick, silvery hair and the unlined face of the solidly secure. But he retains the unpretentious air of the hapa haole electrician's son whose first job was delivering papers at 8 years old. "It's my philosophy that the harder you work, the luckier you are," he says. "I've been very lucky."
Karr's father worked for the Royal Hawaiian and Moana hotels, then owned by Matson Navigation. His family lived in a company-owned cottage in Waikiki. "One of my favorite things to do on Sundays was to follow my father on his rounds, especially through the Royal Hawaiian kitchen, where they had the French pastries," he recalls.
When the family moved to the Punchbowl area, Karr spent his free time at Dole Park playing baseball, football and basketball. He attended public schools and put himself through college at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. "I worked at my uncle's service station, did janitorial work, and, later, bookkeeping and tax returns for a CPA firm," he says.
After graduating in 1966 with a bachelor's of business degree, he was hired by a national accounting firm and stayed with the Hawai'i branch for seven years. His decision to leave the company came after he'd gone nearly two and a half years without a vacation. "I just made the decision one weekend," Karr says. "I decided I didn't want to do public accounting anymore."
He joined First Hawaiian Bank as assistant controller about six months later. "I was still involved in accounting, but I also learned about the banking side of the business," Karr says. From there, he worked his way up to vice chairman and chief financial officer. He retired in 2002.
Over that 29-year span, Karr learned much from his bosses, legendary bankers John Bellinger and Walter Dods. Bellinger, he says, was a strong leader who had a soft heart for his employees. Dods was a great communicator and visionary who delegated to and empowered employees, Karr says. "He made sure everyone on board knew what was happening. He'd say, 'I'm telling you this now in case I get hit by a bus.' If not for his vision, I couldn't have retired when I did."
From both, Karr learned the importance of giving back to the community, a practice he continues in retirement. He serves on the boards of Aloha United Way, Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific, Special Olympics of Hawai'i, and HMSA, among others. And he recently received The Order of the Rising Sun from the government of Japan for "helping to strengthen the bonds of friendship between Japan and Hawai'i."
As chair of HMSA's finance committee, Karr is savvy about the importance of paramount financial issues such as maintaining adequate reserves. He points out that HMSA's reserves have come entirely from the investment income the nonprofit association has been able to generate over its 67-year history. "Reserves are an absolute necessity for health plans," he explains. "They act as a safety net, protecting members, employer groups and providers against operational losses and unforeseen emergencies."