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College of Business and Economics
University of Idaho
875 Perimeter Drive MS3161
Moscow, Idaho 83844-3161
Phone: (208) 885-6478
Toll free: (800) 960-3033

Richard Dahl

Richard Dahl

Mention Hawaii and most people will immediately think: “island paradise.” But for Richard Dahl ’73, Hawaii stands out as an island of opportunity.

Dahl was a young accountant, fresh out of the University of Idaho and working for Ernst & Ernst in Boise, when the company transferred him to Hawaii. At the time, the company had trouble getting employees to move there.

"It was in the early 70s and the economy was not good. Hawaii was pretty slow, and the sugar industry was breaking up,” recalled Dahl. “Plus, Hawaii, while it sounds romantic and glamorous to go there, it’s still 2,500 miles from the mainland so you’re a long way from home. All that didn’t matter to my wife [Barbara Bush Dahl ’73] and me. We thought it would be great.”

And they were right. After seven years with Ernst & Ernst, Dahl found new opportunities. He joined the Bank of Hawaii, and his 21-year career with the bank included eight years as president. The experience provided Dahl important insights into international business.

“Hawaii gets a bad rap as a sun, surf and sand environment,” he explained. “It is beautiful and it is a great place to live. But, the business community is extremely aggressive, and it finds itself trapped between two continents and two major business partners. You get up extremely early to do business with the U.S. East Coast, which is six times zones to the east, and at 2 p.m., Asia is just opening up and you’re working late. The world has become a global place – and Hawaii experienced this much earlier than other places because of the business that needed to be conducted.”

In 2002, Dahl helped broker a buyout of Dole Foods Company and then was asked to run the company. He served as president and chief operating officer until 2007.

“I learned how to grow bananas, pineapples, vegetables, flowers and all kinds of things,” he joked. On a more serious note, he added, “I’ve been very fortunate in my career to do extremely sizable transactions, make big deals, and to work with people all over the world – whether it’s Japan, Korea, France, Germany, Australia, Africa or India. When I left school, I felt that I had a great partner, a great education, and there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do.”

Dahl’s high-achieving business career almost didn’t happen. The Boise native enrolled at the University as an engineering major. But a drafting class, and being left-handed, was his downfall. “I told my instructor that I was having a hell of a time with drafting. He said, ‘You sure are.’” Then the dean told students the demand for engineers was at a lull, and if they weren’t dyed-in-the-wool engineers, they might want to think about accounting.

“It was good advice,” Dahl said. “And that’s what I found here at the University. I got really good advice. You go places to learn, but you don’t always get advice. Here, you always had access to instructors and they always were interested in you. I certainly enjoyed my time in accounting, and for that, I have to thank the dean of the College of Engineering.”

Dahl has returned to campus several times to share insights from his business career with University of Idaho students. He’s been involved in the College of Business and Economics’ Executive Speaker Series and presented the college’s commencement address in 2004. He serves on the college’s advisory board and provided financial support for the campaign to build the J.A. Albertson Building.

Now, Dahl has made a new commitment to the college: a gift of $250,000 to the College of Business and Economics Dean’s Excellence Fund. The funds will be used to help the college bridge the gap between appropriated funds and what is needed, in order to provide the very best educational experience for students.

“Everyone has different goals for their donation,” said Dahl. “But I’ve always known from sitting on nonprofit boards, especially educational, that oftentimes it’s very difficult to raise money for undefined purposes. So, when they asked what I wanted to give the money for, I asked, ‘What do you want me to give it for?’ I know the college will put the funds to good use.”

When asked his current employment status, Dahl laughed and said, “Unemployed. I think I’d be termed a private investor; that’s basically what I do now. I’m also an independent director on three New York Stock Exchange traded companies.”

The Dahls have returned to the mainland, and Richard says he’s cleaned out many of his aloha shirts from his closet, although they, too, are symbols of business lessons learned.

“When we first moved to Hawaii, it was coat and tie – and not a sports coat. It was a suit and white shirt and a subdued tie – and it was a long-sleeved shirt. That changed, interestingly enough, because the aloha shirt makers felt the business community should support their business. The business community agreed, and the banks were the major catalyst. They first went to Aloha Shirt Friday, and then Aloha Summer, and in ’78 or ’79 it went to aloha attire the whole time. But, that was really the only casual aspect of business. There is no time in business for tomorrow. Tomorrow – you’re left out.”