HELCO celebrates 125 years

  • Mike Brestovansky/Tribune-Herald Fifth-generation HELCO employee Kandice Kubojiri with her father, fourth-generation HELCO employee Howard Kelly Jr.

At the end of the 19th Century, Akima Brown Akui began working for the newly founded Hilo Electric Light Company.

Today, Akui’s great-great-granddaughter, Kandice Kubojiri, is the latest of his family to work at the Hawaii Electric Light Company, which celebrated its 125th anniversary on Thursday.

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“They’ve done a lot for our family, but they’re really like a second family for us,” said Kubojiri at a HELCO celebration in Hilo on Thursday.

Kubojiri is one of at least 10 family members who have worked for some incarnation of HELCO since the company’s foundation. Akui’s daughter married a Hilo Electric lineman and gave birth to three children who also would go on to work for the company, and eventually raise four more future HELCO employees, one of whom became Kubojiri’s father, Howard Kelly, Jr.

“For a while it was the best job in town,” Kelly said. “The pay was good, and you’d get great ‘bennies’.”

Kelly worked as a HELCO lineman from 1973 to 2008, the same job his father held before him. Kelly said his mother did not support his choice of career: his father was electrocuted on the job and died when Kelly was three years old.

“But I always wanted to work there so I could prove it was an accident, that it wasn’t his fault,” Kelly said. “It was a matter of pride.”

For her part, Kubojiri said she didn’t expect to follow in her family’s footsteps, having lived on the mainland for years.

However, she moved back to the Big Island to be closer to her family, where she found a job in HELCO’s engineering department in 2008.

As for her children, Kubojiri said her son has already said he wants to be a lineman when he grows up, although both Kubojiri and Kelly said they would rather he take after his mother and work as an engineer instead.

Employees like Kubojiri and Kelly — who both said they have stayed with HELCO in part because of the close-knit company culture that Kelly said produced “friends for life” — are the reason the company has survived as long as it has, said Hawaiian Electric Industries President Connie Lau.

“If you think about electricity, it’s central to our way of life now,” Lau said. “It’s so important to us that most of the time you don’t think about it. You only notice it when it goes away. And it’s the employees that keep the power going.”

Lau said she is proud that the company has served the Big Island for 125 years and has high hopes that it will survive for another 125. By then, she said, the company will hopefully have returned to 100 percent renewable energy — in the early days of Hilo Electric, power was exclusively provided by water generators — and will work on spreading green technology across the island by helping to convert the transportation sector to renewable power.

Lau was one of several HELCO officials who spoke at Thursday’s event on Kalakaua Street, located next to the former site of the company’s first headquarters (currently the King Kamehameha Market). Among them was former HELCO president Warren Lee, who worked to increase grid capacity to end the need for engineered rolling blackouts, and former president Jay Ignacio, who retired earlier this year.

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“It’s not by luck that we’re here 125 years later,” Ignacio said. “It’s by our perseverance.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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