Kuokoa, the company that shocked Hawaii’s energy sector two years ago with plans to take over the state’s major electric utility, has lost its top leadership and appears to have all but ground to a halt.
“We are not active like we were doing earlier,” said Richard Ha, chairman of Kuokoa and owner of Hamakua Springs Country Farms on the Big Island. “It’s just not doing anything.”
Kuokoa is no longer seeking to take over Hawaiian Electric Co., though the company is still “looking for energy solutions for Hawaii,” said Ha.
Kuokoa had $750,000 in start-up funds when it launched, according to news reports. But it no longer has any paid staff or contractors, according to Aaron Landry, who still serves as the company’s chief operating officer despite taking a full-time job at a public relations firm last year.
Ha and Landry are two of the four original company members. Kuokoa’s CEO and president have both departed, as well as members of the board.
The start-up company announced in January 2011 that it had formed to buy all the shares of Hawaiian Electric Industries, at the time valued at $2.33 billion. HEI is the holding company for the electric utilities on Oahu, the Big Island and Maui County, as well as American Savings Bank. At the time, Kuokoa officials said that they intended to sell off the bank, take the utilities private and implement an aggressive plan to move Hawaii to 100 percent renewable energy in 10 years.
Kuokoa executives said at the time that HECO wasn’t moving fast enough on clean energy and was hamstrung by being a publicly-traded company.
Kuokoa’s plan was met with heavy skepticism by the local business community. The fact that the company’s founder had no energy experience was alarming. But Kuokoa managed to attract some high-profile national figures to join its board, including a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Quiet Exodus of Leaders
Kuokoa’s leadership did not include any of the usual suspects one might expect from the finance sector, given its plans to take over a multi-billion dollar company. The company’s founder admitted he had never handled a deal this big or complex before and early on did things that rubbed people the wrong way.
Over time, company executives and board members have quietly left.
Ted Peck, who served as Kuokoa’s president, took a job with Johnson Controls earlier this month, where he serves as energy solutions general manager for the company’s building efficiency program in Hawaii, Guam and the South Pacific.
He told Civil Beat he is no longer a part of Kuokoa.
“It wasn’t a hostile or negative departure at all,” said Peck. “It wasn’t a departure where I’m sick of this thing.”
Peck held a prominent role in Hawaii’s energy sector as head of the state energy office before resigning his post to join Kuokoa.
Roald Marth founded the company, recruited its members and served as its CEO. He was also a source of controversy.
Marth, who declined an interview request for this story, was a former motivational speaker who had been involved in start-up companies on the mainland. But he had no experience in the energy industry when he moved to Hawaii in 2010 to be with girlfriend Mina Brinkopf, a distribution planning engineer for HECO. Ten months after landing in Honolulu, he announced Kuokoa’s plans to take over HEI, one of the state’s largest publicly-traded companies.
But local business leaders were put off by his approach.
Pono Shim, president of Enterprise Honolulu, a private economic development agency, said that Marth approached him about joining the company in the early days of Kuokoa’s formation. Shim said that Marth offered him one million shares in the company at $1,000 a share, or $1 billion. Marth denied he made the financial offer at the time, though confirmed he had tried to recruit Shim to the board.
Shim didn’t join the company.
“I just didn’t trust him, and that was the bottom line for me,” he told Civil Beat in an interview this week.
Marth officially left Kuokoa toward the end of 2012 and is no longer living in Hawaii, according to Landry.
Peck said that he only saw Marth twice last year.
Landry said that Marth was more of an ideas person and not someone interested in the day-to-day operations of a company.
“He’s great at building groups of people together, developing a mission and vision, and really being able to put the pieces together,” said Landry via Facebook chat. “But the boring day-to-day operations of things, he’s less interested in.”
Marth still lists himself as CEO of Kuokoa on his personal website, where he is described as “an internationally recognized venture capitalist, technologist, author, strategist, and marketing guru.”
Shim says he considers Kuokoa essentially defunct.
“It’s pau,” he said. “And hopefully we learn there is no panacea, that it takes effort and a lot of hard work to shift things around.”
Heavy Hitters Leave Board
Kuokoa, which needed to raise billions of dollars to take over HEI, seemed to struggle from the start. But it did manage to attract some prominent members to its board.
Landry wouldn’t say how many board members the company still had, but did say it was a lot smaller now.
Original board members included James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA and outspoken advocate of reducing the nation’s dependence on Middle East oil.
TJ Glauthier, the second highest ranking official at the U.S. Department of Energy during President Bill Clinton’s administration and a member of President Barack Obama’s transition team, also joined the board.
Civil Beat interviewed Woolsey in September 2011, when he was in Honolulu to speak at the Asia Pacific Clean Energy Summit and Expo.
At the time, Woolsey said he “was impressed both by the board members and the objective, which in the short term would be to get Hawaii off of oil totally, and to move decisively toward renewables for electricity as well as vehicles.”
But his tenure with the company was short-lived. Woolsey declined an interview request this week. Nancy Bonomo, who works in his consulting firm, Woolsey Partners, sent Civil Beat an email Tuesday saying that he was no longer involved with Kuokoa.
“Jim resigned from the Kuokoa board in October of 2011 after only a few months of service and has not kept up on what they are doing so is unable to help,” wrote Bonomo.
Glauthier declined an interview for this story and did not respond to a question about whether he was still a Kuokoa board member. He referred questions to Landry, who also would not say whether Glauthier is still on the board.
In an interview with Civil Beat in September 2011, Glauthier said that he thought funding for a HEI takeover was feasible.
“I’ve talked already with some investment banks in New York on a preliminary basis and I think that this is exactly the kind of thing investment banking people would really go out and raise money for,” he said at the time.
Landry appears to be the company’s most active member. Civil Beat’s inquiries to former executives and board members were repeatedly referred to him.
He said Kuokoa is evolving, but still alive in some form.
“We are all interested in the big picture. It’s not about buying out a utility, it’s not about one energy source over another,” he wrote. “Over the years we evolved to truly study what the real paths forward are for the state, and everyone involved has learned a ton from the process and are continuing to work on energy in this state in different ways.”
He declined to delve into specifics about the company, such as how much money was invested or lost.
Landry, also from Minnesota, was recruited by Marth and relocated to Honolulu.
Before Kuokoa, he worked as an I.T. manager for St. Paul, Minn.-based Go East, a branding and marketing firm.
Landry recently took a job as the director of market engagement for Olomana Loomis, a business consulting and public relations firm. He also continues to manage an online food magazine that he helped launch in 2008, covering St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Landry said that his job with Olomana Loomis is his primary focus now.
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