[Editor’s note: This story has been updated since its first posting. This is the version that ran in our Jan. 3 print edition.]
To hear the hosannas from members of Maui’s progressive community, Christmas came early this year with Alexander & Baldwin’s sale of some 41,000 acres of former sugarcane lands to a mainland company for $262 million, or about $6,400 an acre.
So long Big Bad A&B, the water-guzzling, crop-burning, pesticide-spraying, plantation-era relic. In its place, a company calling itself Mahi Pono (translation: to grow or cultivate morally or properly), the corporate love child of a union between Canada’s Public Sector Pension Investment Board and a California-based agricultural company called Pomona Farming.
Within days, the coconut wireless thrummed with good news about the new owners. No GMO crops, existing A&B leases with Monsanto would not be renewed, community activists were being recruited for jobs.
What wasn’t discussed was the question: Who are these guys?
When I asked happy-dancing sale celebrants, their simple answer was “Not Alexander & Baldwin!” When I pressed, I was advised to stop being so negative (huh?), stow the “skepticism,” or “try wait” for the answer to reveal itself.
The go-to guy on this sale is Hawai‘i’s former Lt. Governor Shan Tsutsui, now vice-president at Strategies 360, a public affairs, communications, and research firm. Tsutsui said Friday that he began working with Pomona Farming six months ago to help them with the purchase.
When I asked, “Who are these guys?” Tsutsui was apologetic: “I don’t know exactly who the principals will be for the new Mahi Pono entity.”
However, he was unwavering in his support of the company. “I’m not going to go sell our community a bag of damaged goods! I feel very comfortable in their willingness to be a partner in our community.”
But surely, he met someone during the past six months.
“We have confidentiality agreements, so I can’t disclose the principals,” Tsutsui explained. “I can say their whole goal is to have a local team at work, so it’s going to be locally operated. They are coming to town [this] week to meet with different folks, so I’ll have them respond to that.”
So, while I waited, I Googled. There is very little to say about our new neighbor, Pomona Farming/Mahi Pono, now the largest landowner on Maui. Pomona is only 21 months old; Mahi Pono, less than a month. The story actually starts with a company called Trinitas.
Back in 2008, three San Mateo County friends with commercial real estate and investment backgrounds, but no farming experience – William Hooper, Ryon Paton, and Kirk Hoiberg – took money from friends and family and bought raw land around the small town of Oakdale, 33 miles southeast of Stockton, to plant almond orchards. They gave their enterprise a spiritual name: Trinitas. As Paton explained in a corporate video, “The three principals of Trinitas share a common Christian faith and that Christian faith is the underpinning for how we treat each other, how we treat our farming team and how we treat the outside community. We feel we have a higher calling of sorts that makes us responsible for how we do what we do and for what we do.”
Trinitas expertly rode the wave of the ensuing almond boom and offered more and more investment offerings with names like Trinityfirst Investments and Trinitas Almond Partners I, II, and III, entities that control dozens of subsidiary properties like Buckeye Orchard, and 445 Ranch. Some aren’t so agricultural. In mid-December a new LLC called TI Aviation was registered in California to Trinitas Farming, LLC.
While the holdings are easily identified – some 60 of them in all – determining who is in charge is difficult, despite Paton’s claim in the same corporate video that “there is a commitment to transparency and accountability from the top to the bottom.” No names are associated with any entity, except for Hooper, Paton, and Hoiberg – and that’s only with some companies. Even that is mysterious: Currently, bio pages for the three on the Trinitas website have been removed. (By comparison, publicly-held Alexander and Baldwin has similar interlocking companies and subsidiaries, but finding the names of dozens of executives and members of the board of directors is a snap.)
However, thanks to a source I’ll call Deep Keyboard, the bio page was retrieved. Not much there is surprising as background for guys involved in venture capital. Hoiberg and Paton both worked for the CB Richard Ellis real estate giant in its Global Corporate Services unit. Hooper co-owned and operated the Monterey Plaza Hotel. Hoiberg is a Harvard Business School grad. Hooper attended Stanford Business School and Paton, the University of California at Berkeley.
The extremely low-profile company generated publicity as it grew, not all of it positive. In 2014, as the California drought worsened, big growers like Trinitas came under fire for their water use in several news stories. Paton and Hoiberg subsequently appeared in a story about Trinitas’ vision. Hoiberg described he and his friends as “sponsors of investment opportunities.” Paton said Trinitas had been “unfairly characterized as the poster child for groundwater abuse” and maintained “We are good stewards of the land.” Hooper said nothing for the article at all.
In 2017, Trinitas partnered with the Canadian pension fund PSP and launched a new set of companies. Tp Pomona LLC (Pomona was a Roman goddess of fruitful abundance) was established as a subsidiary of Trinitas Partners. Tp Pomona’s 16 subsidiaries include Pomona Farming, LLC, which purchased the A&B land through subsidiary Mahi Pono.
In its brief existence, Pomona Farming – based in Redwood City near San Francisco – has established a basic website. It lists clients (various nut distributors, Sunkist, 7-11, among others) and philanthropies such as Future Farmers of America and the American Cancer Society. Its “About Us” section contains no names at all, although Hoiberg’s LinkedIn page lists him as a Pomona Farming director.
Maui Pono registered with the State of Hawai‘i on December 6. It also registered “Mahi Pono,” “Mahi Pono Agricultural Products,” Mahi Pono Farms,” and “Mahi Pono Maui Produce.” Its president is Ann Chin, who so far has only communicated through a Honolulu PR firm. Chin, per her LinkedIn account, is a chartered financial analyst. She worked at several San Francisco venture capital firms before joining Trinitas.
Perhaps more information will emerge after an owners’ delegation visits Maui this week to meet with various “lawmakers and other stakeholders,” according to Tsutsui.
“I’m going to be meeting with them,” Maui Tomorrow Executive Director Albert Perez acknowledged during a phone interview. “I’m cautiously optimistic from what I’ve heard so far.
Perez hasn’t found much information about the new owners either, but he wasn’t bothered. “Look,” he said, “We’ve been traumatized as a community by dealing with A&B. They’d tell us one thing and then do another behind the scenes. So I think it’s time to take a breath. These new people do own the land. Let’s give them a chance to be good actors. They’re reaching out to us. That’s encouraging.”
Tsutsui sees the sale as “a once-in-a-generation type of opportunity to really preserve the whole central plain, to bring agriculture back to Maui, and to do it in a pono way that is respectful to different cultural practices, that is respectful to the land and water, doing soil remediation, managing pesticide use, the commitment to using non-GMO. I am passionate about that stuff. I want to help them succeed, because I think the alternatives are pretty bad.
“My hope is that the community doesn’t pre-judge. I’m really hopeful that this is something the entire community can be proud about and that it can bring back agriculture. I’m excited. This is a totally new entity. I know that scares some people, but that’s why I want to continue to help them get the message out there to bring people together.”
Cover design by Darris Hurst
Photo 2 courtesy Alexander and Baldwin
Photo 3 courtesy corporation Wiki