Photo by Mark Coleman
For almost 15 years, the retired money manager’s financial acumen and love of ideas helped the institute thrive
It was a long, good run for Gilbert “Gil” Collins as a director of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.
Collins joined the board in 2007 at the behest of Dick Rowland, institute founder, and helped guide the institute until shortly after Rowland died this past November.
“Obviously, we’re all sad that he’s not around anymore,” Collins said, “so I thought that was a good time to retire.”
The COVID-19 crisis also was a factor. A resident of both Hawaii and California, he was at his home in San Rafael when the lockdowns began.
“It’s one of the reasons I resigned, because I couldn’t make the meetings,” said Collins, speaking by phone from California. “The Zoom thing is fine; you get to see faces. But you miss the jokes and the banter and being with people and discussing ideas.”
Collins, 81, has been trimming his sails in other ways, too. He retired years ago as an independent money manager, and stepped away from several other boards, including the Capital Research Center, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the Independent Institute.
Named after the famous writer Gilbert K. Chesterton, Collins was born in Manhattan and raised on a dairy farm in New Hampshire. He graduated from high school in Garden City, N.Y., then earned a history degree from Brown University and an MBA from Columbia University. In 1971, he moved to San Francisco where he met his future wife, Hawaii girl Linda Duncan, with whom he had two daughters. Linda, who died in 2018, is the reason Hawaii became his second home.
“We used to go to Hawaii every winter because Linda had a real affinity for Hawaii — Hawaii ways and all that,” he said. “So we would go over there, and then we said, ‘Maybe we should get our own place and we can stay there longer.’ So that’s what we did.”
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Mark Coleman: You started with the institute board in 2007. How did that come about?
Gil Collins: A man named Dick Rowland. I met him at a reception at the Outrigger Canoe Club, and he invited me to a meeting and persuaded me to become a donor. Then he invited me to be on his board. So I said, “Yes.” And it’s been a very comfortable relationship.
Q: Is there a lot of fiduciary responsibility as a board member?
A: Oh yes. Especially if you’re donating money. You want to see what’s going on, that it’s not all going to vacations in Bali or something like that.
Q: You were there when the board picked Keli‘i Akina to be president. How did that come about?
A: Yeah, what a great pick. Dick Rowland found him and persuaded him to take over the presidency. He’s a very dynamic man, as you know, who knows a lot of people in Hawaii and who has bought the Grassroot Institute to where it is today.
Q: How would you describe yourself politically or economically?
A: Well, I’ve been a conservative since Robert Taft, to be honest about it. He was the Republican senator from the state of Ohio. He was a very astute conservative.
Q: Besides Taft, who have been some of your leading lights?
A: Do you remember William F. Buckley Jr.? In 1965 he ran for mayor of New York City, which was very liberal; practically no chance of winning. And he had that famous comment (chuckles). Some reporter asked him, “Well what would you do, if you were elected by chance?” And Buckley said, “I’d demand a recount.”
After that, I saw an ad in The Wall Street Journal for a class at the New School in New York City. Buckley had a class there and it was limited in size. But I had my application in within an hour after reading that ad. So I got into the class and had a lot of chances to talk with him.
Q: Any others you recommend?
A: Yes.The Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, who had a weekly TV show, and was very instructive about faith and ethics. And Peter Drucker; he writes about management. He’s written about 35 books and I’ve read most of them. Another is Thomas Sowell. And I like reading about history, of course.
I want to mention one other thing, because it’s important to me. I’ve never been on its board, but I’ve done a lot of work with the Acton Institute, of Grand Rapids, Mich. They’re great. They’re international. Father Robert Sirico and Kris Mauren put it together. Kris a good friend of mine.
Q: What do you think the future holds for Hawaii?
A: Well, I said this all the time at Grassroot meetings, that the one-industry town, the tourist industry, is not going to be productive in the long term.
I would love to see Hawaii build an industry park where they could have an office set up for corporations that have offices in Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, wherever else, as well as doing business in the East: Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore. Hawaii is in the middle. It’s the only place where on the same day you can talk to working people in New York and Hong Kong.
Q: Would that be a government thing you’re talking about?
A: No. It would be private industry.
Q: Then what’s holding it back?
A: Well, nepotism. In the South it’s called the “good old boy network.” That’s sort of what happens in Hawaii. Dick and I talked about it a lot.
Q: The Jones Act would be a good example of why we’re not more of a transit center.
A: Let me just say a word about the Jones Act. In 1963, I was at Columbia Business School in New York City, and I had a professor in public relations, a retired shipping company executive, talking about the Jones Act. He said it should be repealed. This was 1963. And that’s the same thing that we’re talking about today. Nothing has happened in almost 60 years. It’s entrenched. And the state won’t change it until it’s forced to. Maybe this whole COVID-19 situation could be an impetus for change.
Q: Do you get involved in politics?
A: No, not at all, because it’s all about power, and achieving power. I much more like to discuss ideas.
Q: As an investment expert, what do you think about the stock market right now? The state Employee Retirement System is on pace for its best record since 2014 when it had 17.4% full-year return.
A: That’s great. But, you know, you have to live through a bad market. I’ve been through a lot of them, and they come out of the blue. When they happen, a lot of people get hurt badly. I would be very cautious here because there is much too much optimism.
Q: Why do you think the stock market is doing so well?
A: Well, I’ll tell you exactly what the reason is: very close to zero interest rates. You can’t get any money from a CD, so what are you going to do when you can’t get fixed-income money? You buy a stock like IBM, where you can get a better-than-a-5% yield. That makes the averages go up.
Q: Do you have any advice for people who are frustrated with the political-economic situation in Hawai?
A: Take a walk on the beach. I’m hoping those are open now. There are so many wonderful things in Hawaii.