Randy Lau grew up in Honolulu on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. His grandfather immigrated to the island chain from Japan as a laborer, working in the local sugar cane plantations on Maui.
“I believe that a lot of Hawaiian customs nowadays are largely Asian-based,” explained Lau. “A majority of the migrant population in the sugar cane days was Asian. In our family, we were taught respect and politeness from a very young age.”
Lau is the second of three boys. He and his brothers grew up in a typical neighborhood, where all the kids went body surfing and boogie boarding together, enjoying all the beauty the island had to offer, before graduating from Kalani High School.
“I was the nerd,” he said. “I don’t exactly think we took it for granted, but we also didn’t realize how good (normal) we had it; we had nothing to compare it to. I think after high school was when I started to get the sense that living in Hawaii was a pretty good deal.”
Lau explained that for many who grew up in the islands, the decision to leave – or not to leave – must eventually be made. And it’s not an easy decision. His first job in high school was in a gift shop at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel, which then led to a position as a bellboy at the Kahala Hotel & Resort. After graduating from high school, he elected to stay in Hawaii, studying Travel Industry Management (TIM) at the University of Hawaii.
“There were three different areas of emphasis you could choose: hotel/restaurant, tourism, or transportation,” said Lau. “One of the core TIM classes, Transportation 100, that’s what hooked me. The professor came from the maritime shipyard side of transportation. I found it fascinating.”
During his senior year of college, Lau interned at Matson Navigation Co. His project was to “computerize” the tracking of containers being transshipped through Young Brothers. As his internship ended, he was offered a formal position, although he was still in school.
“I learned about Logistics in school, and was able to see it working first-hand inside the container terminal. I ended up building six months of benefits and salary with the company before I even graduated,” he said.
The company gave Lau the opportunity to leave Hawaii, offering him a position in San Francisco.
“I didn’t want to move,” he explained. “I was right out of college, and still felt very strongly tied to my parents. Instead, I took a position at Matson Terminals on Oahu, working outside the office to learn the operations.”
It was 1988, and Matson was taking its terminal and logistic operations from paper to computer. Lau’s primary responsibility: data integrity.
“I started on the bottom, taking inventory of containers. Then I was tasked to shadow the old-timers to find out what people were doing, and then translating operational needs to the programmers so that the systems that IT created would result in something functional that the employees would actually use.”
After five years, when his own position was rendered obsolete, Lau accepted a position at Sea-Land Services. Once again, he started on the bottom. One of his responsibilities involved inspecting incoming agriculture shipments.
“I weighed 90 pounds and was probably the smallest person on the whole waterfront,” he laughed. “They taught me how to recognize the hazards of opening container doors using my leverage and a cheater bar. I wore one of those big (Chinese bamboo) hats with long sleeves in the blazing sun, and I worked with the State Ag inspectors opening cans. You’d find all sorts of things in there. Spiders. Dead rats were the worst. The most I ever had to open (in one stretch) was 100, all off one ship. The most important thing, though, the thing that I stressed to everyone, was safety. Not getting hurt. A lot of the guys before me got hurt.”
Lau moved into a management position at Sea-Land and worked there for 10 years as the company transitioned into Horizon Lines. He spent a year attending classes at Honolulu Community College for his degree in Occupational and Environmental Safety Management before accepting a position in Dispatch for a small company named Smith Maritime.
“Every time I’ve changed jobs, I’ve started on the bottom. It’s been a good way to learn. I learned a lot about tugboats and tank-barge operations while at Smith, and what ‘24/7’ truly meant in the marine transportation world,” he laughed. “At the time, they had the reputation of being the worst (marine transportation) company in Hawaii. They had a lot of problems. The employees didn’t like management – when I started, I think the crews saw me as the most normal person there. I think they started opening up to me about everything because I was willing to listen and tried to put myself in their shoes. I wasn’t afraid to learn what they did and get my hands dirty, so to speak.”
Lau spent four years learning the tug and tank-barge business at Smith, working with key customers to assure a reliable product-delivery schedule.When he heard Smith was going to be sold, he landed an interview at Hawaiian Tug and Barge, and was hired as an assistant operations manager, working with the harbor crews to manage their work schedules.
“It was another learning process, but I got along pretty well with the crews,” he said. “I was able to see firsthand what they were going through. My primary focus was trying to schedule the crews, putting their safety first while providing the customers a quality service.”
Last year, Lau’s wife – whom he met through her roommate, who was a programmer working for Lau at Matson Terminals – was working a civilian job for the U.S. Army after years in the Coast Guard Reserves when she got a promotion that took her to Bremerton Naval Base in Washington State.
Lau applied for a transfer to Foss Maritime, based in Seattle, and was hired in the Marine Transportation division. The family moved from Hawaii last May.
“I’m now the Quality Assurance Manager,” said Lau, who made his first-ever international trip to South Korea while working for the MT division. “My job now is to make sure that crews know the safety program, and that Foss conforms to its Safety, Quality and Environmental Management programs. I really like what I do, and being able to go on the boats. What the crews go through, they really deserve a lot of credit. They have a pretty rough job with a lot of responsibilities, especially the guys towing barges. They get beat up. I used to get back from a short, three-day inter-island voyage all bruised up. I don’t know how they do it.”
Lau, whose own family includes two daughters, ages 11 and 6, gives a lot of credit for his success to his parents.
“I think I was raised well,” he said. “I’m really not good at parties, terrible in a crowded room. But put me on a tugboat, and I am very comfortable. I have tried very hard to build my career on being respectful, being a good listener, and being a fast learner.”