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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 9, 2010

Former AIG Hawaii weathered storm

By Robbie Dingeman

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Michele Saito

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Current job: President, Farmers Insurance Hawaii

Age: 50

First job: Working as cashier/counter help at Jack in the Box restaurant in Waikīkī as a junior in high school

Education: Graduated from Maryknoll High School and earned her bachelor's of business administration at the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa

Big new change: AIG Hawaii was acquired by Farmers Insurance, which also changed the name of the company.

Business tip: "The company is only as successful as the people that are there. You need to have happy people for them to give good customer service."

Favorite movie: "The Whale Rider"

Recent book: "A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose" by Eckhart Tolle

Family: Her "wonderful husband," Kevin, is a dentist and their daughter, Kristen, is a student at 'Iolani School.

Fun fact: Her family loves roller coasters. Some favorites are: Volcano at Kings Dominion in Doswell, Va.; Alpengeist at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va.; and the Silver Bullet at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif.

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Twenty-five years ago, Michele Saito took over the accounting department at a relatively small insurance company then known as AIG Hawaii.

"We're the third-largest personal auto insurer in the state," Saito said.

Now she's president, overseeing more than 300 employees statewide. The company is part of Farmers Insurance and just weathered some fallout from former owner AIG's financial crisis. "That was a bit tough for the company," she said.

Saito said she felt that Farmers was a good match with similar roots to the AIG Hawaii philosophy, culture and clients.

While the new parent company started by serving farmers, the local company began by serving plantation workers, Saito said.

"They are very involved in the community. They are very employee-centric," she said, of the new owner, which took over in January.

Saito was in public accounting at then-Arthur Young when a former colleague called her to say that this small insurance company was looking for someone to run its accounting department. At the time, the company employed about 60 people.

She has been working her way up ever since and had risen to executive vice president and chief operating officer last year, before being tapped to head the company.

When she started, she had a staff of seven fellow accountants. Since then she learned about every facet of the business including customer service and strategic planning.

"It's just really blossomed," Saito said. "The company's grown a lot and they gave me a lot of opportunities."

Saito said regular customers have been helpful and loyal during the recent troubles at the parent company . "I think they understood that we weren't part of the problems there and that we were very well capitalized here locally."

Saito is the first woman president of the company but doesn't think too much about the gender issue.

She came from a male-dominated public accounting background but insurance probably tips to more women than men.

She said feedback has been good: "Congratulations, it's so neat to have a woman running the company. It puts a little new awareness of the responsibility of that."

Saito credits her parents as the biggest influence in instilling in her a strong foundation of values. "I know it's corny but I have to say my parents."

From mother, Nancy Tagawa, determined, focused, hardworking. "Never compare yourself to the bottom, you always compare yourself to the people at the top."

From father, Walter Tagawa, she learned honesty and fairness. "He is just the most incredible optimist you have ever met. He's an entrepreneur."

Saito said she is building on the community links fostered by former company president Robin Campaniano, who retired after 17 years with the company and is now a senior adviser.

Campaniano became a partner in the Ulupono Initiative, a social investment firm dedicated to improving the quality of life for Hawai'i's residents through sustainability created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam.

Saito said the company did a food drive last year. "We worked with Lanakila, River of Life Mission and the food bank to collect food."

It was the first time the company gave employees time off to get involved with the organization in hopes they will continue on their own time.

At Lanakila, Saito worked on the assembly line, fixing meals.

Saito said she strives for balance in her business and family life but has enjoyed an evolving career without setting her sights on particular goals or a fixed timetable.

Despite her busy schedule, she makes time to serve as a co-leader to her daughter's Girl Scout troop.

"I kind of take it a day at a time," she said. "I want to contribute. I want to enjoy what I do."