Tokyo. Hawaii, and Spokane, Washington. You won’t find many people who have visited all three of those locations, let alone lived in each one. But Alex Nakajima, general manager at Kapalua in Maui, has done just that.
Born in Tokyo Japan, Nakajima moved to Spokane with his family when he was 10 years old, staying for three years. The family then moved back to Japan, but he returned to Spokane for his senior year of high school before enrolling at the University of Oregon. “I played on the golf team there in the same era as Phil Mickelson when he was at Arizona State,” he said. “So, I knew how good you needed to be to succeed as a player.” Enter Al Mandle, the swing coach for Oregon. “He introduced the team to the business side of golf,” he said. “I was fascinated by that side of the industry and started to look for assistant professional opportunities.”
After graduation in 1993, Nakajima headed to Hawaii as part of his job search. “I heard Princeville Golf Club on Kauai was reopening the Prince Course that year,” he recalled. “The owners then were Suntory Liquor and had a lot of Japanese clients. They offered me a job as assistant professional, but I didn’t say yes right away. I visited the other islands, but eventually took the job and stayed there until 2000 working my way up to a management role.” During that time Nakajima became what he believes is the first Japanese national to become a PGA member. Then Troon contacted Nakajima with an opportunity in his native Japan. He and some colleagues opened an office there, with Nakajima operating cluster of courses eventually serving as the director of golf asset management for Goldman Sachs Realty managing $1.2 billion in golf investments.
By 2009 he had returned to the U.S. at Troon headquarters in Scottsdale. But after just a month, the general manager position opened up back at Princeville Makai. “I hit it off with the owner and moved there a month later to build a clubhouse and finish the course renovation,” he said. “That really started Troon’s portfolio of courses in Hawaii.” A year later the owner of Kapalua Golf contacted Troon, and Nakajima served as a go between the Japanese ownership and the current general manager there. “When the latter left in 2016, it was natural for me to slide over there,” he said.
His life experience bridging the Japanese and U.S. cultures have provided him with a unique perspective. “Some people as foreigners may feel they are a minority and they’re not getting their fair share of opportunities,” he said. “But I’ve never felt that. I am fortunate, but you also have to learn how to use your strengths. I don’t look at myself as a minority; I’m more of a mixed bag of nationalities, which is what the U.S., and especially Hawaii, is all about.”
Nakajima also knows well the difference between the way business is done in Japan and here. “When you have a business meeting with a Japanese client, they’re not direct,” he said. “When someone nods, it doesn’t necessarily mean yes. Sometimes that’s a maybe. Building relationships may take a little more time; but once you cross that line, the trust is there, and the relationship is deep and long. Some aren’t as patient here in the U.S., but hopefully I have contributed to building those types of relationships during my jobs at Troon.”
Being bilingual in a place like Hawaii is a baseline skill set, according to Nakajima. But there’s more to just knowing words. “A lot of people say they are bilingual, but unless you know the culture of each language or country, then you’re not a fully bilingual person,” he said. “For me, I could speak English, but unless I understood what things like Thanksgiving or Christmas were about, I couldn’t have connected to people in the U.S. the same way others could. But I listened, watched, and played sports here, and learned about the holidays. That is all part of who I am now.”