Most successful people can point to a mentor who inspired them to make a mark in the world. Gary Kajiwara, president and CEO of Kuakini Health System and an HMSA board member, credits four significant people with leading him to a rewarding career in hospital administration.
Kajiwara's first role model was his father, a Honolulu businessman who taught him the importance of self-pride and persistence."Whether it was picking up leaves or cutting branches in the yard, he always told me to work until the task was finished," he recalls. His father also encouraged him to go into the business world, but Kajiwara preferred health sciences."Ironically, I ended up working on the business side of health sciences," he says.
His mother, who worked as an administrative secretary at the Hawai'i Institute of Geophysics (HIG) at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, taught her son the importance of hard work and accuracy."I learned that you have to put in long hours to complete projects," says Kajiwara, who holds a second-degree black belt ranking in kung fu.
She taught her son how to use a mimeograph machine; while a student at UH, Kajiwara often helped her compile and produce scientific publications and funding proposals. His skill at drawing maps and charts and creating graphic tables led to his being hired as a student helper. "By helping my mom, I also learned the importance of being accurate," he says."If there was an error, she'd have to type it all over again."
His mother's boss, HIG Director George Woollard, soon became another role model. "He was super intelligent and one of the top scientists in the world of geophysics," says Kajiwara. "I was impressed with his style and the way he treated people. He commanded respect among international scientists and dignitaries, but he could always come down to the level of non-researchers or children."
After graduating from UH with master's degrees in business and public health, Kajiwara had concerns that those degrees would not open the doors to a career in hospital administration. He sought advice from the CEOs at major Honolulu hospitals. Most of them told him he had earned the wrong degrees.
But Will Henderson, then president of The Queen's Medical Center, created a unique internship in the mid-1970s that would change Kajiwara's life. It was Henderson's theory that someone who knew about business and administration could apply that knowledge to hospital administration with experience in a hospital setting. Kajiwara was his test case.
One of the new intern's biggest challenges was testifying at the state Legislature on behalf of Queen's and the Hawai'i Healthcare Association. "Will gave me an opportunity to be the last intern in his career," says Kajiwara. "I was very fortunate."
Henderson's theory was correct. After Kajiwara's successful internship and residency at Queen's, he landed a fast-track position at Kuakini Medical Center as an assistant vice president in 1976. In 1990, he was named president and CEO.
Under Kajiwara's 17-year tenure, the nation's last existing hospital founded by Japanese immigrants has become the state's third largest private hospital on O'ahu. It has earned much praise for its internationally recognized research programs and excellence in cancer and cardiac care, gastroenterology, orthopedics, pulmonary/sleep lab services, and diagnostic imaging.
As a volunteer on the boards of HMSA and a dozen other local companies, Kajiwara now finds himself serving as a role model for others seeking a career in hospital administration. He's especially excited about the recent $50 million HMSA Initiative for Innovation and Quality, which funds innovative advancements by local hospitals and offers assistance in acquiring electronic medical records systems for local physicians."That's a real special initiative," he says. "HMSA is ahead of the pack."