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Big Five

For decades, Hawaii's economy was dominated by a handful of companies that controlled the sugar industry and associated businesses. Commonly referred to as the Big Five, four of them had gotten their start during the heyday of the whaling fleet. Most were founded by missionaries, or the sons of missionaries, and even into the 1930s, all had direct descendents of missionaries on their boards of directors. Their economic power translated into political power as well, and politics and business in the Islands continue an intricate cross-pollination. Edward P. Dole, Attorney General of Hawai`i, wrote in 1903: "There is a government in this Territory which is centralized to an extent unknown in the United States, and probably almost as much centralized as it was in France under Louis XIV." That centralization is still evident today. While union organization, falling sugar prices, and the ascendancy of the Democratic Party diminished the Big Five's influence, their years of dominance profoundly shaped how life in the Islands is lived.

These five powerhouses continue in business today:

Alexander & Baldwin was founded by Samuel Alexander and Henry Perrine Baldwin, both sons of missionaries who were also brothers-in-law. In the 1860s, they both began work in the sugar industry, quickly striking out on their own by starting Haiku Sugar Company on Maui. By 1883, Alexander conducted business from his home base in California, while Baldwin assumed full direction of business in Hawai`i. In 1894, they expanded into general commercial business and established a new firm in San Francisco under the name Alexander & Baldwin. The company acquired additional sugar lands and also operated a sailing fleet between Hawai`i and the mainland; the shipping concern became American-Hawaiian Line, and later Matson.

Amfac, or American Factors, began in 1849 as a ship chandlery and general agency established by Heinrich Hackfeld, a German ship captain who had earlier run trading vessels along the coast of China. In Honolulu, he imported machinery and supplies for sugar plantations and exported raw sugar. One arm of the business eventually developed into the Liberty House store. Eventually Hackfeld retired and returned to Germany, but his company lived on in Honolulu. During World War I, the company's assets were frozen due to its German ties. Later its assets were liquidated and acquired by a conglomerate of investors who took the name American Factors.

Castle & Cooke was started in 1851 by two former mission secular agents, Samuel Northrup Castle and Amos Starr Cooke. They had both arrived in the Islands in 1837 as part of the Eighth Company of missionaries and were released from their duties after 15 years service. Their early business success was due in part to winning the mission trade.

C. Brewer got its start in 1826 when Charles Brewer, a Boston trader, set up shop in the Islands. His company is the oldest corporation west of the Mississippi. Brewer was involved first with the firm Pierce & Brewer, and eventually bought out his partner and operated the business as C. Brewer. After his retirement, a namesake nephew took over and beyond his tenure, the company continued under the Brewer name. In the 1880s, the firm got a boost when Charles Reed Bishop joined the company.

Theo Davies' founder was Theophilus Harris Davies, a Welshman who arrived in Hawai`i under a five-year contract to Robert Janion. Davies helped set up Janion's merchandising business then later opened his own store under the Theo H. Davies name with Janion as his silent partner. By 1870, Davies and Janion merged their separate businesses under the Davies name and acted as agent for 22 plantations. Davies retired from active management of the business in 1890 and returned to England where he acted as guardian to Princess Ka`iulani during her studies there.

 Sites for further information

"Big 5 companies were all-powerful" (Star-Bulletin)
starbulletin.com/1999/10/25/news/story5.html

"Sugar yeilds sweet deal for `Big Five’ firms" (Star-Bulletin)
starbulletin.com/1999/07/12/millennium/story1.html

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