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Former Suisan president Rex Matsuno dies at 96

Rex Yoshio Matsuno, president of Suisan Co. Ltd. from 1967 until his retirement Dec. 31, 2013, died Thursday, according to family. He was 96 and had been in declining health.

Matsuno went to work for the company — which was founded in 1907 by a group of Japanese fishermen and fish peddlers, including Matsuno’s father, Kamezo, as a cooperative called Sui San Kabushiki Kaisha — in 1947. He became Suisan’s sixth president two decades later when Kamezo Matsuno retired.

“He was a great man who did some amazing things in his lifetime,” said Steve Ueda, president and CEO of Suisan and Rex Matsuno’s grandson, on Friday. “Only now, with him being away from the business and me running the business, am I really understanding how great he was.”

Suisan was in a period of transition when Rex Matsuno joined the company. His father, an immigrant to Hilo from Japan, was sent to an internment camp during World War II and the fish market on Waiakea Peninsula was destroyed by the April 1, 1946, tsunami, an event that would be repeated when another tsunami struck Hilo on May 23, 1960.

While Kamezo Matsuno was interned by the U.S. government, Rex Matsuno was serving in the U.S. Army as a Japanese-language interpreter with Military Intelligence Service.

“Coming out of the war, there was a lot of discrimination against Japanese,” Ueda said. “People had been interned. Kamezo himself had been interned. There wasn’t as many opportunities as there were today. (Rex) said he wanted to make sure the people of Waiakea Peninsula had a place to work. I heard him say he wanted to take care of the Waiakea boys, but he meant the people of Waiakea.

“I’ve heard many people refer to him … as the informal mayor of Hilo.”

Matsuno’s wife, Ethel Matsuno, said her husband was a devoted family man.

“He took the kids out every Sunday,” she said. “Even though he loved golf, he saved Sundays for us. He was a wonderful guy.”

Rex Matsuno is credited with the company’s 1950s expansion into frozen foods, produce and other products, and the post-tsunami rebuilding of Suisan’s signature fish market on Waiakea Peninsula, where Wailoa River meets Hilo Bay.

“When he started the frozen foods, he told the salesmen, ‘If you cannot sell this, we’re going to eat it,” Ethel Matsuno said. “There were no freezers then, so they used an ice cream box, the Meadow Gold ice cream containers to put frozen chickens in. That was the beginning, the frozen chickens.”

“He was definitely an entrepreneur. He was always thinking of ventures,” Ueda added. “… He had a definite philosophy about what kind of businesses he wanted to be in. He was always looking for what people wanted, then seeing if he could provide that service or product to meet a demand. He was always looking.”

The company also expanded to the Kona industrial area in 1970 and Suisan grew from a fish market to the largest broadline food distributor on Hawaii Island.

Gross sales in 2013 were a reported $81 million. Today, the company employs 185 people, with 33 refrigerated trucks, more than 5,000 products and 1,000 wholesale customers, including KTA Super Stores, which took out a newspaper ad on Sept. 7 to congratulate Suisan on its 110th anniversary in business.

“He was always there to support us,” said Barry Taniguchi, KTA chairman and CEO. “He did a lot to help KTA, and we tried to help him because local businesses have got to stick together and try to help support each other thrive.

“On a personal level, I’m going to miss him. I really liked him. Rex was an unusual guy, very funny.”

“He got things done without a big to-do. He accomplished a lot without a lot of fanfare,” Ethel Matsuno said.

Visitation is 9-11 a.m. Monday, Dec. 18, at Dodo Mortuary Chapel, with a memorial service at 11 a.m.

In addition to his wife, Matsuno is survived by daughters, Esther Ueda, Christine Matsuno, Luann Matsuno and Sam Matsuno; son, Calen Matsuno; seven grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and nieces and nephews.

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