Banking

Who are these guys? Enthusiasm for the new owners of A&B farmland is high, although almost nothing is known about them

[Editor’s note: This story has been updated since its first posting. This is the version that ran in our Jan. 3 print edition.]

To hear the hosannas of members of Maui’s progressive community, Christmas arrived early this year with Alexander & Baldwin’s sale of some 41,000 acres of former sugarcane land to a mainland company for $ 262 million, or about $ 6,400 an acre.

So long ago Big Bad A&B, the relic of the plantation era, hungry for water, burning crops and spraying pesticides. In its place, a company called Mahi Pono (translation: grow up or cultivate morally or properly), the child in love with a union between the Public Sector Pension Investment Board of Canada and a California farming company called Pomona Farming.

Within days, the Cordless Coconut vibrated with good news for the new owners. No GMO crops, existing A&B leases with Monsanto would not be renewed, community activists were being recruited for jobs.

What has not been discussed is the question: who are these guys?

When I asked the celebrants of the Merry Dancing Sale the question, their simple response was “Not Alexander & Baldwin!” When I pressed, I was advised to stop being so negative (eh?), Put away the “skepticism” or “try to wait” for the answer to reveal itself.

The right man for this sale is former Hawaii Lieutenant Governor Shan Tsutsui, now vice president of Strategies 360, a public affairs, communications and research firm. Tsutsui said on Friday that he had started working with Pomona Farming six months ago to help them with the purchase.

When I asked, “Who are these guys? Tsutsui apologized, “I don’t know exactly who will be the directors of the new Mahi Pono entity.”

However, he was unwavering in his support for the company. “I’m not going to sell our community a bag of damaged goods!” I feel very comfortable in their willingness to be a partner in our community.

But surely he met somebody in the past six months.

“We have confidentiality agreements, so I can’t disclose the main ones,” Tsutsui explained. “I can say their goal is to have a local team at work, so it’s going to be managed locally. They’re coming to town [this] week to meet different people, so I will ask them to respond to that.

So while I was waiting, I googled. There is very little to say about our new neighbor, Pomona Farming / Mahi Pono, now Maui’s largest landowner. Pomona is only 21 months old; Mahi Pono, less than a month. The story actually begins with a company called Trinitas.

Central Maui Valley

In 2008, three San Mateo County friends with commercial real estate and investing backgrounds, but no farming experience – William Hooper, Ryon Paton, and Kirk Hoiberg – took money from their friends and family and bought of raw land around the small town of Oakdale, 33 miles southeast of Stockton, to plant almond orchards. They gave their business a spiritual name: Trinitas. As Paton explained in a corporate video, “The three main ones at Trinitas share a common Christian faith and this Christian faith is the foundation of how we treat each other, how we treat our farm team and how we treat each other. we are dealing with the outside community We feel we have some kind of higher calling that makes us accountable for how we do what we do and what we do.

Trinitas expertly rode the wave of the almond boom that followed and increasingly came up with investment offers with names like Trinityfirst Investments and Trinitas Almond Partners I, II and III, entities that control companies. dozens of subsidiary properties like Buckeye Orchard and 445 Ranch. Some are not that agricultural. In mid-December, a new LLC called TI Aviation was registered in California with Trinitas Farming, LLC.

While the holdings are easily identifiable – around 60 of them in total – it is difficult to determine who is responsible, despite Paton’s claim in the same corporate video that “there is a commitment to the transparency and accountability from top to bottom “. No name is associated with an entity except for Hooper, Paton and Hoiberg – and this only applies to certain companies. Even this is a mystery: currently, the bio pages of the three on the Trinitas website have been removed. (By comparison, Alexander and Baldwin, a public company, have similar nested companies and subsidiaries, but finding the names of dozens of executives and board members is a cinch.)

However, thanks to a source I’ll call Deep Keyboard, the bio page has been grabbed. It’s not much of a surprise for the guys involved in venture capital. Hoiberg and Paton both worked for real estate giant CB Richard Ellis in its Global Corporate Services unit. Hooper was co-owner and operated the Monterey Plaza Hotel. Hoiberg graduated from Harvard Business School. Hooper attended Stanford Business School and Paton attended the University of California at Berkeley.

Mahi Pono is one of the many subsidiaries

The extremely low-key company generated publicity as it grew, but not at all positive. In 2014, as the drought in California worsened, big producers like Trinitas were criticized for their water use in several reports. Paton and Hoiberg then appeared in a story about the vision of Trinitas. Hoiberg described him and his friends as “investment opportunity sponsors”. Paton said Trinitas had been “unfairly labeled a child star of groundwater abuse” and said “we are good stewards of the earth.” Hooper didn’t say anything about the article at all.

In 2017, Trinitas partnered with Canadian pension fund PSP and launched a new set of businesses. Tp Pomona LLC (Pomona was a Roman goddess of fertile abundance) was established as a subsidiary of Trinitas Partners. Tp Pomona’s 16 subsidiaries include Pomona Farming, LLC, which purchased the A&B land through subsidiary Mahi Pono.

During its brief existence, Pomona Farming – based in Redwood City near San Francisco – created a basic website. It lists customers (various nut distributors, Sunkist, 7-11, among others) and philanthropic organizations such as Future Farmers of America and the American Cancer Society. His “About Us” section does not contain any names, although Hoiberg’s LinkedIn page lists him as the director of Pomona Farming.

Maui Pono registered with the State of Hawaii on December 6. He has also recorded “Mahi Pono”, “Mahi Pono Agricultural Products”, Mahi Pono Farms “and” Mahi Pono Maui Produce “. Its chairman is Ann Chin, who so far has only communicated through a public relations firm in Honolulu. Chin, according to her LinkedIn account, is a Chartered Financial Analyst. She worked in several venture capital firms in San Francisco before joining Trinitas.

Perhaps more information will emerge after a delegation of homeowners visit Maui this week to meet with various “lawmakers and other stakeholders,” according to Tsutsui.

“I’m going to meet them,” admitted Albert Perez, executive director of Maui Tomorrow, in a telephone interview. “I’m cautiously optimistic from what I’ve heard so far.

Perez also didn’t find much information about the new owners, but he wasn’t bothered. “Look,” he said, “we’ve been traumatized as a community dealing with A&B. They would tell us one thing and do another behind the scenes. So I think it’s time to take a breather. These new people own the land. Let’s give them a chance to be good actors. They are reaching out to us. It’s encouraging. “

Tsutsui sees the sale as “a unique opportunity for a generation to truly preserve the entire Central Plain, bring agriculture back to Maui, and do it in a pono way that respects different cultural practices, i.e. land and water, soil remediation, management of pesticide use, commitment to use non-GMOs. I am passionate about this stuff. I want to help them succeed, because I think the alternatives are pretty bad.

“My hope is that the community does not prejudge. I really hope this is something the whole community can be proud of and can bring farming back. I’m excited. It is a completely new entity. I know this scares some people, but that’s why I want to continue to help them get the message out to bring people together.

Cover design by Darris Hurst

Photo 2 courtesy of Alexander and Baldwin

Photo 3 courtesy company Wiki

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