Robert "Bub" Wo's destiny began in the aisles of the general store founded by his grandfather, Ching Sing Wo, in 1909. Although his grandfather's true surname was Ching, people who went to his Honolulu store always asked for "Mr. Wo." Eventually, Ching gave up and legalized his name as C.S. Wo.
"Wo" means harmony in Chinese. It's a perfect moniker for this close-knit family. Bub's parents, Bob and Betty Wo, have been inseparable since seventh grade. During their college years, his dad would drive from Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., across the bridge to Mills College in Oakland to spend weekends with his mom. They wed after graduating, over 60 years ago.
The first of five sons, Bub was born in the year of the dragon. The luckiest of all the signs, the dragon is said to bestow a strong karma to lead and succeed. Bub and his brothers grew up in the store and spent their summers handling inventory and helping in the warehouse.
The boys learned the business from their dad, but it was Mom who taught them to preserve harmony with others. "Relationships come first," she told them repeatedly. "You work hard, you play hard, but you do it as a team. Treat each other with respect and fairness."
It worked. Bub remembers with fondness the brothers' annual Thanksgiving get-togethers. "During high school and college, and our early careers, despite living in various cities throughout the country, we'd always meet and spend the Thanksgiving holiday together," he says.
Bub graduated from Stanford University in 1974 with a degree in economics, then spent two years working for an international teakwood furniture company operating in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. He then enrolled at Harvard Business School, completed his MBA in 1978, and returned to the family business.
Today, the brothers manage the Wo dynasty with their father. The company has undergone many transformations, yet always manages to remain at the forefront of the industry.
Bub prefers to spend any free time with his wife, Polly, and their three children, Jamie, 17; Kellie, 14; and Bradley, 11. He's happiest when they are traveling and he can give them his full attention, he says. He remembers an awesome sundown the family took in at the base of Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. "As the sky darkens, lights illuminate the faces carved into the mountain," he says. "It was awesome!" In 2004, the entire Wo clan visited the villages of his father's ancestors, Nam Long and Lung Do, in Southern China.
Longevity may be his ancestors' genetic gift. His parents, both in their 80s, are in good health. Dad works out every day, he says, and Mom uses Chinese herbs. Bub practices chi gong daily. "The stretching and breathing help me deal with stress and keep my body in balance," he says.
He serves on several business and nonprofit boards, including the Wo International Center at Punahou School, a gift from the Wo family established in 1993 to promote appreciation of cultural diversity and global responsibility. "On the boards, you're at the 30,000-foot level talking policy and strategy, but I really like working at the ground level, face-to-face with kids," he says. As a Honolulu Rotary Club member, he enjoys tutoring two third-graders in reading.
But his favorite volunteer experience was his Junior Achievement involvement with high school students. "We'd form a company, make products, and sell them," Bub says. "They'd keep the books, figure the profits and stock value, and at year's end, we'd pay off the shareholders and dissolve the company."
As a member of HMSA's board of directors, Bub says he enjoys hearing the different perspectives of board members representing all walks of life. These days, the topic stays the same: "There's so much need. The technology and drugs are better than ever," he says. "But they cost money. It's our challenge to provide the best services possible for our members, while managing those ever-increasing costs."