Perhaps the greatest benefit of the APEC summit — at least from the point of view of supporters — is that it could snuff out once and for all the notion that Hawaii is a bad place to do business.

On Wednesday at the Plaza Club in downtown Honolulu, the president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce added his weight to that argument.

“If you come here and make an investment, if you come here and invest in the time — not sorta fly in on Monday and expect to make money on Tuesday — I take the long view that it’s a great place to do business,” said Tom Donohue, who addressed a Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii luncheon. “One very important point: It’s great to do business in Hawaii, but it’s a really great place to do business from Hawaii to the rest of the Pacific.”

Donohue also pointed out that the local chamber was established in 1850, some 60 years before the national chamber. The reason was to expand trade between the U.S. and the then nation of Hawaii.

China Dominates

Donohue is in town to promote an aggressive American trade agenda at APEC that includes a Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. He said Wednesday that a key focus of the APEC summit will be how to better prepare and respond to natural disasters like the Japan earthquake and tsunami.

Legislators and presidents listen to Donohue; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce represents the interests of more than 3 million businesses.

Oddly, the Plaza Club luncheon was not packed; there were few political or business heavyweights chowing down on Beef Wellington.

But a lot of reporters were on hand, including from Asia. In a press conference that followed the luncheon Donohue fielded a few questions about Hawaii and a lot of questions about China.

At first it appeared Donohue would take the typical approach of joking about the challenge of doing business in Hawaii.

“I would think from my own perspective how hard it would be to do business — it’s so beautiful, the beach looks so great,” he said, smiling.

That drew laughs form the international press corp but probably froze the spine of Jim Tollefson, president and CEO of the local chamber, who stood nearby.

But then Donohue — a warm and jokey sort in person in contrast to his tough national image — delivered a more thoughtful take.

“Look, Hawaii — I started coming here back in the early ’70s,” he said. Gesturing to all the high-rises visible from the 20th floor Plaza Club, he said, “This stuff wasn’t all here. These are banks and investment companies and trading companies.”

Donohue said he sat next to an executive during lunch who ran four hospitals.

“Some of the innovation they’re doing here is far beyond what’s happening in many places on the mainland,” he said.

Labor and Veterans

Donohue said the complaint that it’s hard to do business is common in many states, not just Hawaii. He said the bottom line for business to flourish is the quality of workers (“You’ve got pretty good workers here, a fairly decent education system”), and a financing infrastructure.

A third factor in business growth is labor unions.

“Are they for growth and development and expansion?” he asked. “I talked to a guy who runs the whole shipping deal here, and things are much better. People are working double and triple shifts and all that good stuff. People more and more want jobs. And a lot of the people who were difficult before in terms of allowing business to flourish are getting a new feeling. Because they’re recognizing — they’ve seen what’s happened in other places, and they want the jobs.”

Some may take issue as to whether working multiple shifts is a sign of enthusiasm for business growth, or a sign of economic necessity. As for his description of Hawaii’s education system, some might take a less complimentary view.

Earlier, in his luncheon speech, Donohue suggested some labor groups may be obstacles to growth. The same goes for environmental groups.

But then, Donohue’s business is business.

As much as he recognizes the value of travel and tourism to Hawaii and the U.S., for example, he is cautious about granting visa waivers to China. Why? He’s concerned about the threat to American intellectual property.

On Monday Donohue will join the local chamber at Pearl Harbor for a jobs fair for military veterans, an initiative the national group has pushed. Donohue said about 3,400 veterans and their spouses had been hired.

“It’s the right thing to do, but companies also want those vets because they have a lot of skills that count,” he said.

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