By Robbie Dingeman, The Honolulu Advertiser
Kualoa Ranch president John Morgan oversees the 4,000-acre Windward O'ahu family-owned landmark ranch — which has survived the past 25 years with a mix of outdoor recreation, cattle ranching and a good-neighbor attitude.
Morgan said the business continues to evolve with a focus on being good stewards of the land while continuing to operate a successful and sustainable business.
"Back in the early '80s, two-thirds of the company was owned by stockholders in their 90s," Morgan recalls. "We had very little in terms of business."
The family members knew they needed to study their options with an eye on the values that drove them. They came up with three keys: "We didn't want to develop. We didn't want to sell and we did want to operate it ourselves."
The company developed outdoor recreation, from horseback riding, to all-terrain vehicles, tours of the ranch and gardens, ocean activities once included jet skis as well as catamaran rides across a historic fishpond.
In 1985, the ranch catered primarily to a Japanese visitor market with a one-stop shop package tour approach. "You could go to one place and do horseback riding, jet skis, helicopters and scuba diving, windsurfing, canoe rides," he said.
That approach worked for several years until the first blow came with the Gulf War in 1990s and increased competition.
The ranch reassessed: "Is this really the best thing for Kualoa? Are we utilizing the best attributes of Kualoa in the right way and the answer was no."
Morgan said the ranch shifted to a more diverse client base with Japanese visitors still a key, but changed other parts of the experience.
"We got rid of the helicopters. We got rid of the jet skis," he said, and focused more on Hawaiian culture history, natural beauty and the kama'āina family history.
The ranch also developed its reputation as a Hollywood backdrop offering a wide variety of terrains and access to more than 1,000 acres with very little sign of human civilization.
Morgan also recently got some different Hollywood exposure. He met with Alexander Payne who is here directing the film version of "The Descendants," which chronicles a land-rich descendant of Hawaiian royalty and American missionaries as he faces modern struggles that include whether to preserve or develop his land.
After meeting with Payne, Morgan said the director asked him to show actor George Clooney around a bit and he did.
"The director thought it would be worthwhile (for Clooney) to find out what it's like to be a descendant trying to preserve a bunch of land," Morgan said.
Morgan, 53, is the real deal — the sixth-generation of his family in the Islands. They are descended from Dr. Gerrit Judd — Morgan's great-great-great grandfather — who bought the ranch from King Kamehameha III in 1850.
Morgan's father was Big Island icon Francis Morgan, who pulled together with family and associates to take over Hamakua Sugar Co., the second-largest plantation in the Islands, at a time when the once-dominant sugar industry was starting to fade.
Although he eventually had to close it, he is remembered on the Hamakua Coast as someone who worked hard to preserve some 800 jobs and the lifestyle that went with them.
And John Morgan believes hiring good people and evolving the business has allowed the company to fare better than many other of our contemporaries in the visitor industry.
"We're a relatively large employer in a relatively small community and we're able to attract really good people. And so one of the key strengths is our staff," he said.
And the evolution is continuing as the company tries to refine more for the future. "We anticipate at some point getting rid of the gun range," which is still popular, but he said they'd like to build a community cultural center with a strong Hawaiian theme.
In 2004, the ranch created a visitor center that replaced the smaller operation that relied on contracts with other companies to sell T-shirts, run the gift shop and serve burgers and salads at the snack bar.
"We're starting a master-planning process to chart the next course," Morgan said, but it's premature to discuss the details of what new things they may adopt.
"We're still a cattle ranch with a herd of about 500," he said.
And they are increasing the agriculture.
"We're hoping in 2010 to get about 30 acres established" in bananas, papayas and other fruit trees, he said.
And they run three aquaculture facilities, including a historic fishpond where they raise shrimp, prawns and catfish.
Morgan clearly enjoys his work. He gets up at 5 and eats breakfast with his wife, then "gets out here between 6:30 and 9 o'clock depending on what the meeting schedule is and how good the surf is."
He and his wife also come out on the weekend to enjoy the ranch, often walking in the valley or stand-up paddleboarding on the fish pond.
Morgan said he measures their success by how he feels as well as the employees, guests and community.
"It really comes down if all of those feelings are good, usually the bottom line is black," he said. "The bottom line's important but it's the result of a lot of other things."