MARSHALL ISLANDS' MEGA-BUSINESSMAN ROBERT REIMERS DIES

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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (September 29, 1998 - Marshall Islands Journal)--- Flags began flying at half mast in the Marshall Islands today (Tuesday) in honor of Robert Reimers, the country's foremost businessman and civic leader, who died in Honolulu Sunday at Straub Hospital just short of his 89th birthday.

President Imata Kabua declared a week of national mourning, saying in an executive order issued today that Reimers was "a prominent Marshallese citizen who dedicated his life to improve the livelihood and well-being of the Marshallese people through his relentless efforts and undertakings as a business and civic leader."

His death brings to a close an era of Marshallese businessmen who got their start during the Japanese administration of the Marshall Islands in the 1930s.

U.S. Navy Commander Frank Avila, who worked in the Marshalls after World War II, recalling his friendship with Robert in the late 1940s, said "he was one of those gifted people that you meet once in a lifetime." Reimers was the son of a Marshallese mother and German father who created the Marshalls' first multi-million dollar corporate dynasty -- the largest family-owned business in the Marshall Islands, with grocery, retail and hardware stores, a shipping agency, office rentals, a hotel, car rentals and sales, a restaurant, and a clam and pearl oyster farm.

Reimers' son Ramsey, who is the chief executive officer of the company Robert Reimers Enterprises, said that his father had a vision and initiative that guided the company since it was founded 48 years ago.

The Marshall Islands Journal commented: "Robert will be long remembered for his easy going and down-to-earth manner, lively sense of humor, promptness for appointments, impatience at being made to wait, and the sparkle in his eye when he was telling a story. Above all, he provided a vision for the business community in the Marshall Islands, and constantly set a standard against which all other businesses measured themselves."

Reimers learned business from the bottom up as a teenager in the 1920s working for an uncle trading copra for merchandise. But the downside of working for an older relative, as Reimers once recalled, was that he did all the work and his uncle kept all the money. By the early 1930s, he took up a job with the Japanese firm Taiyo Shoten. His business ability was recognized by the Japanese who sent him to remote Wotje Atoll to manage the company's store there. At the time, it was virtually unheard of for a Marshall Islander to manage a Japanese business.

The outbreak of World War II curtailed trade and he moved to his wife's atoll, Likiep. His time there was full of small money making initiatives: brewing alcohol on home made stills to sell to the visiting Japanese ships that called each month; later carving wooden cigarette boxes and other handicrafts to sell to the Americans at Kwajalein after the war.

U.S. Navy officials on Kwajalein learned of Reimers' boat building and carpentry prowess -- prior to the war he had designed and built a handful of outrigger canoes -- from another Likiep Islander, and brought him to the Navy base to work at the boat pool in 1947. He was soon running the boat pool -- converting old Navy launches into cargo boats for use on the remote outer islands -- and, in his spare time, starting a new business by importing merchandise from Hawaii through a friend who had earlier worked at the Kwajalein base.

In 1950, the Navy moved Reimers and the boat pool operation to Majuro, which marked the launching of his current mega-business, starting from a 20 foot-by-20 foot building that he and his family lived in. In 1970 Reimers opened what was, by standards of the time, a huge grocery and retail store. The store included Majuro's first large freezers, making it possible for Robert Reimers Enterprises, as it began to be called, to begin importing frozen chicken, ice cream and other frozen goods.

One of his early innovations that allowed his store to leap beyond other local businesses was his realization of the value of expatriate managers. He was the first local businessman to bring in an American manager in the mid-1960s, and continued relying on expatriate managers ever since. He understood the value of having a non-Marshallese manager as a buffer between him and his large extended family of relatives so that he could build the business while still maintaining good relations with his many relatives.

Reimers' groundbreaking business initiatives extended beyond the retail level. In the mid-1980s, he began investing in a clam farm, which today remains the only privately operated clam farm in the Pacific region. By 1995, RRE began exporting clams to the United States, a business that it has continued to build.

Reimers is survived by Lupe, his wife of 68 years; seven children: Richard, Francis, Vincent, Ramsey, Minna, Ronnie and Reico, and hundreds of grand-, great-grand and great-great grandchildren.

MARSHALL ISLANDS JOURNAL Box 14, Majuro, Marshall Islands 96960 E-mail: journal@ntamar.com Fax: 692-625-3136 Tel. 692-625-8143 Subscriptions (weekly): 1 year: US $87.00; International $227.00 (air mail)

Giff Johnson P.O. Box 672 Majuro, Marshall Islands 96960 Fax: (692) 247-7439 E-mail: giff@ntamar.com

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