A savvy businessman with a heart of gold

A man who helped families get their own homes, put shoes on the feet of Mauians and helped build the Maui Beach Hotel died in a house fire Thursday in old Sand Hills in Wailuku.

Shiro “Sam” Hironaka, 94, was found inside the bottom unit of his home on Naniluna Place and was pronounced dead at the scene, police said Friday. The cause of death is pending autopsy results.

The fire was reported at 4:35 p.m. Thursday and caused $630,000 in estimated damages to the residence and its contents, police said.

A female tenant living upstairs was able get out of the residence and told police that a man may still be in the downstairs unit. Officers attempted to gain entry. However, the bottom unit was engulfed in flames with thick smoke, police said. Firefighters extinguished the fire and were able to enter the downstairs area.

Investigators found a man in the residence who appeared to be dead, police said.

News of Hironaka’s death shocked longtime Mauians and businesspeople, many of whom were helped and mentored by him. He had humble beginnings, growing up in the Paia plantation camps, but went on to found Maui Savings & Loan and the former Roland’s Shoes store and became the head of American Savings Bank in Hawaii.

Hironaka never went to college but educated himself through correspondence courses while recovering from tuberculosis at Kula Hospital for more than five years. He left a lasting impression on many people.

“He was my mentor. I think he taught me everything that I know,” said Allan Kitagawa, president and chief executive officer of Territorial Savings Bank. “He was the most honest and finest and smartest guy. He was a fine person. I’m very sad this is the way he went.”

More than 20 years ago, Kitagawa succeeded Hironaka at the helm of American Savings. In 1986, Kitagawa moved to Territorial Savings and took with him the knowledge he learned from Hironaka, who started Maui Savings & Loan in 1962. American Savings Bank bought Maui Savings & Loan in 1973.

Contacted by telephone on Oahu, Kitagawa said that Hironaka was “always on the go” and was very inquisitive.

“I’m going to miss him,” he said.

Hironaka continued to call Kitagawa on Oahu to ask him tax questions and to share his opinion on the performance of Territorial Savings.

Oahu-based developer Peter Savio said that Hironaka gave him his start, when no one else would give him a loan for his first affordable housing project because profit margins were small and the project was in a bad neighborhood. Savio knew Hironaka because his wife was Hironaka’s secretary.

Still, Hironaka would not give Savio the loan unless Savio’s mother, a respected Realtor, agreed that the affordable housing project would work. Since then, Savio has developed at least 10,000 affordable units.

“He was the best savings-and-loan operation in the country,” Savio said, adding that his assessment was not based on his getting a loan from Hironaka. “He understood the business.”

Savio pointed out that Hironaka started Maui Savings & Loan and performed every aspect of that business operation.

“He understood the whole thing. He had a real desire to help people. It wasn’t about making money. It was about the people,” Savio said.

Hironaka was humble, too, so humble that a friend of Savio did not believe Hironaka was a bigwig, the head of American Savings. He had to take his friend to Hironaka’s office to prove it.

Lynn Araki-Regan, a Wailuku attorney and family friend, called Hironaka a “remarkable man.” She admired how Hironaka studied and took courses when he was sick with tuberculosis and stuck in Kula Sanatorium, also known as Kula San, where tuberculosis patients were sent.

“When he was in Kula San and away from his family, he wasn’t just feeling sorry for himself and in bed,” Araki-Regan said. “I think if I was stuck in Kula San, I would by lying down feeling sorry for myself.”

She also remembered that Hironaka, until the day he died, still was giving away fruit from his farm in Ulupalakua to friends and family. In fact, one of Hironaka’s grandchildren had gone to his house to pick up avocados Thursday afternoon, not knowing about the fire.

“Until the very end, he was thinking of what to give his family and what to give friends,” Araki-Regan said.

Mayor Alan Arakawa called Hironaka “one of the very, very strong community members.”

“We are greatly saddened by his passing,” he said. “Our deepest sympathy goes out to his family.”

Still shaken by her father’s death, daughter Carole Toy was inundated with calls from friends and family Thursday.

She said the last time she saw her father was Tuesday at the soprano Sumi Jo and Hawaii Symphony Orchestra concert in the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater. Her father had a mezzanine seat, and she was on the concert floor area.

Toy looked up at her father, who waved.

“Every time I looked up he was looking and waving,” she said.

She said her father loved the concert, saying it was one of the best performances he had seen.

“I think he floated on that, to the end of his life,” Toy said.

His time at Kula San, now Kula Hospital, was sandwiched by his employment as a bookkeeper at Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. Eventually, he worked for Kahului Development Co., which like HC&S was part of Alexander and Baldwin, she said. It was Kahului Development Co. that developed “Dream City,” the increments in Kahului, beginning in 1950.

In this growing community, there was a need for a shoe store, so Hironaka and his late wife, Chikae, began Roland’s Shoe Store, which initially was known as Roland’s Slipper House. (Roland is the middle name of Toy’s brother, Paul). It began at Kahului Shopping Center and branched out to Maui Mall. Later, Toy and her late husband, Robert, took over the store and opened locations islandwide. The family is no longer in the shoe business.

The savings and loan was born from a chance meeting with a couple from Reno, Nev., who had a savings-and-loan operation on the Mainland, Toy said. There are legendary stories of Hironaka going to local residents, asking them to invest in his venture. When he later sold the institution to American Savings, he made many of those investors a lot of money.

Hironaka opened his own financial institution in the area of Burger King along Puunene Avenue in Kahului. He gave loans to people to buy their houses, Toy said.

“I have people stopping me, always saying, ‘If it weren’t for your dad, we wouldn’t have our house,’ ” Toy said.

“Lots of times, he gave them loans based on the fact he knew they were good people. He knew he could trust them. It’s not that they had lots of money,” Toy said.

After American Savings Bank bought Maui Savings & Loan, Toy said that her father did not want to move to Oahu. So he took the job on the condition that he could commute back and forth from Maui.

Always a thinking businessman, Toy said that her father also gathered investors to build the Maui Beach Hotel in Kahului. He thought the bay created by Kahului Harbor would be a good place for a hotel.

In addition to his love of finance and accounting, Hironaka also enjoyed farming, Toy said. On his land in Ulupalakua, he tried to grow coffee and macadamia nuts, but found it too difficult. His crops later consisted of avocados and a type of mango that produces all-year round. In his later years, friends helped him farm, but Hironaka still gave away his produce.

Even at 94, Toy said her father “refused to live with us.” He recently had promised to move into a nursing home, but Toy learned from a tenant at her father’s house that was never his intention.

Hironaka loved to go to Costco and Wal-Mart because he loved to find bargains, Toy said. Going to big-box stores was something he did a lot of after his wife died in 2008.

“He thinks it’s so neat to have such a bargain,” she said. “His house was full of stuff.

“He loved to go shopping. He was thrilled that the kinds of bargains he could find.”

Hironaka’s immediate family includes his son and daughter-in-law, Paul Hironaka and Gayle; daughter, Carole Toy; four grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.