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A tech billionaire is quietly buying up land in Hawaii. No one knows why

A bronze statue honoring hometown hero and hall-of-fame rodeo roper Ikua Purdy in Waimea, Hawaii. Someone has been quietly buying hundreds of acres of land — stirring worries, speculation and a lot of questions among the locals.
Ronit Fahl for NPR
A bronze statue honoring hometown hero and hall-of-fame rodeo roper Ikua Purdy in Waimea, Hawaii. Someone has been quietly buying hundreds of acres of land — stirring worries, speculation and a lot of questions among the locals.

WAIMEA, Hawaii — A life-size bronze statue of a cowboy sits at the center of Waimea. The cowboy is riding a horse, lasso in hand, pursuing a wild bull. It's a monument to Ikua Purdy, a hometown hero, who was the first Hawaiian to become a hall-of-fame rodeo roper. This statue is meant to represent the spirit of the place here on Hawaii's Big Island, which is wholly different from the tourist-laden beaches of Waikiki.

Waimea is primarily an agricultural town with just three stoplights and around 10,000 residents. It has lush forests filled with guava trees and torch ginger, and it's known for being the birthplace of the Hawaiian cowboy, or paniolo. It sits thousands of feet above sea level, where misty winds often blow sideways and, on clear days, give way to expansive views of the island's three towering volcanoes.

Over the last couple of years, a mystery has been brewing in this small mountain town. Someone has been quietly buying hundreds of acres of land — stirring worries about rising housing prices and speculation among locals about what exactly is going on.

Waimea is a tightknit community that has a large Native Hawaiian population, and the people here say they don't want to lose that culture.

Mist lingers over the rolling hills of Waimea.
/ Ronit Fahl for NPR
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Ronit Fahl for NPR
Mist lingers over the rolling hills of Waimea.

I first heard rumors about the land buys when I was visiting my family near there in November. My grandmother grew up in Hawaii, and I lived here as a child. I started asking around Waimea, and everyone seemed to know who was behind the purchases: billionaire Marc Benioff.

He's the CEO and co-founder of San Francisco-based Salesforce, one of the world's largest software companies, which owns the popular messaging service Slack and is worth nearly $300 billion. He also owns Time magazine. Benioff is hard to miss — the 59-year-old stands at a towering 6 feet, 5 inches and is often seen driving around Waimea in his white Hummer pickup, sporting his signature look of a baseball cap with his curly brown hair tumbling out back.

Benioff lives in a beachside mansion down the mountain from Waimea. He built the $24.5 million, 9,800-square-foot home about 20 years ago and also bought dozens of acres of ranch land in Waimea around that time, according to public records. Since the onset of the pandemic in 2020, however, I found that Benioff has gone on a much larger — and previously unreported — shopping spree.

Salesforce CEO and co-founder Marc Benioff attends the 2023 Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho. He built a $24.5 million home near Waimea about 20 years ago and in recent years has purchased more land in the area.
Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Salesforce CEO and co-founder Marc Benioff attends the 2023 Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho. He built a $24.5 million home near Waimea about 20 years ago and in recent years has purchased more land in the area.

Hawaii has long been a place where the world's elite has flocked. And tech billionaires are now among the newest cadre of migrants to buy land in the islands. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns a sprawling beach mansion in Maui. Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg has plans to build a bunker on his land in Kauai, according to Wired. Benioff's former boss, Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, owns 98% of Lanai. And the list goes on.

The billionaires stand in stark contrast to the rest of Hawaii's residents — where on the Big Island specifically, median household income is around $74,000, according to county data.

What's different here is that rather than focusing on coastal mansions in gated communities, Benioff is buying property in a rural residential town. In the majority of instances, he's paid more than current market value, according to public records. For example, the longtime Mamane Bakery — known for its lilikoi cheesecake and mango-guava hot cross buns — shuttered after he purchased the land for more than 50% above the current market value.

I spoke with several longtime residents who say they fear that these land buys will add to already sky-high housing costs and that they'll be priced out of Waimea. Some people say a few of his neighbors had been approached about their properties, and Benioff himself says homeowners have come to him about selling.

While the people of Waimea understand that Benioff is behind the recent land purchases, hardly anyone seems to know his plans. Some guess he's building a Salesforce training center and moving in engineers; others say he's generously donating to the community and helping local schools. Most people just shake their heads.

"That's kind of how the rumor mill starts, right?" says local resident Mike Donoho, who works in natural resource planning on the islands. "When there's not clarity or disclosure about what the intentions are of someone purchasing a property or multiple properties, then there's that level of uncertainty. And with those gaps of information, people are filling in the blanks."

Imiola Congregational Church in Waimea. The median household income on Hawaii's Big Island is around $74,000, according to county data.
/ Ronit Fahl for NPR
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Ronit Fahl for NPR
Imiola Congregational Church in Waimea. The median household income on Hawaii's Big Island is around $74,000, according to county data.

Nearly all the 18 residents who spoke to me did so on the condition that I not use their names. They don't want to be seen as talking critically about Benioff; they say he holds a lot of sway here. One person told me that, in this small town, it stems from a culture of not criticizing people in public, or what locals call "no talk stink."

Most of them have similar sentiments about a single individual buying a lot of land in Waimea. As one person put it, "When you have the locals getting priced out of towns like this and more challenges with people moving over here, it just creates more competition in terms of trying to buy land. ... At what point does Hawaii not become Hawaii anymore, if no Hawaiians are here?"

As for Benioff, he has stayed silent on the topic. Until now.

"Everyone's seen the movie South Pacific. It's Bali Ha'i," he tells me in a sit-down interview. "This is a place that everybody loves to be. It's a magical place. It's a place that people come and transform and change, evolve. They experience God. They experience nature. They experience themselves."

ʻOhana, dolphins and Salesforce gets the aloha spirit

People in Waimea tell me about Benioff's land purchases, but I want to confirm them. Before speaking with him, I start combing through Waimea property maps and cross-checking the data with public records from Hawaii's Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs.

I find that since 2000, Benioff has bought at least 38 parcels of land through at least six anonymous limited liability companies, or LLCs, and one nonprofit. All of the property owned by the LLCs has the same mailing address — a P.O. box in the San Francisco Bay Area — and the same registered agent in Palo Alto, California. None of the documentation has Benioff's name, but he doesn't dispute any of it.

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The property totals more than 600 acres of land. He's bought 29 parcels, more than 580 acres, in Waimea, and nine others, about 25 acres, at beach resorts. One of his coastal properties surrounds an entire public beach. The combined market value of this land stands at nearly $100 million.

During the first 15 years that Benioff bought land in Hawaii, he mostly focused on beach resort property. When the pandemic started, he ramped up buying residential, commercial and agricultural land in and around Waimea. Since 2020, he has purchased 22 parcels of land here — a town where inventory is low.

Benioff has long professed his love for Hawaii, which he started visiting when he was young. Salesforce's origin story even begins with him swimming with dolphins off the Big Island in the late 1990s and having a vision of selling software as a subscription service over the internet.

"I came to Hawaii for the first time and fell in love," Benioff says. "I fell in love with the people, or what we call here in Hawaii ʻohana. I fell in love with the land that we call ʻāina. And, of course, I fell in love with the aloha spirit."

That aloha spirit is a big part of Salesforce's corporate identity. The word ʻohana, Hawaiian for "family," is a common refrain at business meetings, in company blogs and on social media. And Fridays at Salesforce have been known as Aloha shirt days, replete with company events that include hula dancers and Hawaiian drummers. More than once, Benioff has thrown a Hawaiian luau at the World Economic Forum confab in Davos, Switzerland, for the annual Salesforce party.

Danny Akaka Jr. and Anna Akaka address attendees during Salesforce's 2022 Dreamforce conference in San Francisco. Danny, the son of late U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, and Anna have been spiritual advisers to Benioff.
Marlena Sloss / Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Bloomberg via Getty Images
Danny Akaka Jr. and Anna Akaka address attendees during Salesforce's 2022 Dreamforce conference in San Francisco. Danny, the son of late U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, and Anna have been spiritual advisers to Benioff.

When construction got underway in 2014 for the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, the city's tallest building, Benioff had his longtime friends and Hawaiian spiritual advisers Danny Akaka Jr. and Anna Akaka bless the area. (Danny is the son of late U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka.) The Akakas have also blessed Salesforce conferences and other projects that Benioff has worked on.

"The Hawaiians always believed that whenever you embark upon a new adventure, whether it's a voyage or making a new canoe or building a heiau [temple], it always needs to be preceded by a blessing," Danny Akaka Jr. told me in an interview. "Marc also felt like that too — that whatever is done should be done in a way that's pono, that's good."

In 2022, Salesforce rented a 75-acre luxury retreat center in California for its employees to come together and bond. Benioff told The Wall Street Journal that his vision was to purchase a large property and build his own retreat-like ranch for his employees. One of the properties he floated was in Maui, but according to the Journal, he hadn't yet settled on a location.

As I continued to piece together Benioff's land purchases in Waimea, a colleague at NPR got an out-of-the-blue text from him. Word had gotten back to Benioff that I was poking around town. He wanted to speak with me.

A "seriously zen" billionaire known for philanthropy

Benioff's CEO persona isn't that of your typical cutthroat winner-takes-all billionaire. He's seen more as a socialite tech guru who hangs out with people like New Age author Deepak Chopra, Bono and a Buddhist monk named Brother Spirit. He hired actor Matthew McConaughey (who's also regularly seen around Waimea) to be Salesforce's brand ambassador. One of Benioff's books is even titled Compassionate Capitalism.

GQ calls him "seriously zen," Fortune says he's one of few CEOs who has achieved "rock star–level status" and Forbes calls him a "giant of generosity."

Benioff's current net worth is around $10.3 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. And over the last year, by NPR's calculation, his wealth has risen by an average of $9.5 million per day.

It can be hard to fathom that much money, says Rachel Sherman, a sociology professor at The New School who studies wealth. "Just like how much a billion actually is," she says. "It's not just a little bit more than a million."

Benioff is a well-known philanthropist. In the Bay Area, his name is plastered across the city. He and his wife, Lynne Benioff, donated $250 million to UCSF Benioff Children's Hospitals in San Francisco and Oakland. He has given millions of dollars to local schools, pledged $2 million to champion a homelessness initiative and has thrown his support behind LGBTQ+ rights. Salesforce, as a company, has donated hundreds of millions too.

Salesforce also paid $0 in federal taxes from 2018 to 2020, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. When asked for comment, a Salesforce spokesperson says the company "fully complies with all tax laws."

In 2018, Benioff and his wife bought Time magazine for $190 million. He doesn't shy away from publicity.

Yet, when it comes to Hawaii, Benioff is extremely private.

We speak for the first time in December on a Zoom call that lasts 90 minutes. Over the following days, Benioff texts me constantly, often many times a day. The primary focus of these texts is to draw attention to his philanthropy in Hawaii, which has almost all been anonymous. He adds me to several group threads with people who know about his charity.

He talks about donations to the fire department, which include massive trucks that can roll over the rocky lava terrain common in the area (Benioff calls them "monster trucks"). He has given money to public schools through the state's Department of Education and bought several homes for teachers at a local private school. He flew in 1 million masks for protection against COVID-19 during the pandemic. He works with the Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project, and there are island reforestation projects with a group called American Forests. He says he's also working on major health care grants with Gov. Josh Green.

Marc Benioff has donated to local schools in Waimea and the San Francisco Bay Area.
/ Ronit Fahl for NPR
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Ronit Fahl for NPR
Marc Benioff has donated to local schools in Waimea and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Benioff says he likes to find local organizations already doing the work and to give them what they need. He's ready to go public, he says. He releases his nonprofit partners from their anonymity agreements to speak with me.

Since the beginning, I'd explained to Benioff that I was working on this story after hearing from townspeople worried about what was happening with his land purchases in Waimea.

About a week after we first talked, Benioff emails to say he just published a news release about one of his land tracts called Ouli. "You inspired me with your idea to dispel the myths and fears," he later texts, referring to what I've told him was the purpose of my story. He tops off that text conversation with an angel emoji.

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The Ouli project covers 282 acres that Benioff and his wife bought and donated to the Hawaii Island Community Development Corp., which builds affordable housing on the Big Island. The organization has developed nearly 900 homes here over the last 30 years. The initial plan is to build about 40 houses on the currently uninhabited property in Ouli, but that number could grow. The project is about 6 miles out of town, and because of the terrain and scope of the project, it won't be done for several years.

Keith Kato, the organization's soft-spoken executive director, offers me a tour in his four-wheel-drive pickup. It's a clear day, and you can see the ocean in the distance and snow glistening off the top of Mauna Kea. He shows me another subdivision that his group built, which resembles what Ouli will look like — modest single-story homes on 10,000-square-foot lots. It's on the dry side of town, where the rainforest fades to grassland covering an ancient lava field.

"It's interesting that you have people who have that much wealth and that they're actually willing to put it to use in the community," Kato says. "So this was like a gift from heaven, so to speak."

"Hopefully we get some of the rumors put to bed," he adds. The mystery around Ouli is solved, but dozens more properties remain.

"I'm not a prepper"

In January, I pull up to a residential home that Benioff bought in Waimea in late 2020. It's a midcentury modern house made of redwood that sits on a hillside and has sweeping views of the town below and volcanoes in the background. Bird-of-paradise flowers flourish outside, along with monstera vines and an avocado tree. A wild turkey pecks at the grass. Benioff's Hummer is parked out front.

Benioff calls this his Waimea office, and I'm here to interview him in person. As I get situated, I meet two assistants — who are both named Kendall — and his two golden retrievers, Brandy and Honey.

Benioff speaks during a news conference in 2019. He is adamant that he is not building a Salesforce facility in Waimea.
Darron Cummings / AP
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AP
Benioff speaks during a news conference in 2019. He is adamant that he is not building a Salesforce facility in Waimea.

His artwork includes the famous anti-capitalist Liquidated Google print by French graffiti artist Zevs and a wall-size painting by the Brazilian graffiti duo OSGEMEOS. Benioff says the Brazilian artists are his friends. He also has an array of Hawaiian art, including a collection of antique lei niho palaoa necklaces that are made with an ivory pendant strung by thick cords of intricately woven human hair.

We sit down on a big white semicircle couch; Brandy and Honey join us. A Salesforce adviser tunes in from New Jersey via a Zoom call. One wall of this room is papered corner to corner with magazine covers and newspaper articles about Benioff. I bring up Zuckerberg and Ellison, who have famously purchased tons of land in Hawaii, and ask Benioff how he sees himself compared with them.

"Our philosophy has always been different, which is that we're really only here to have a home for our family and then to give," he says. "We don't have outsized properties. We have basically enough for ourselves."

"I'm not a prepper," he adds, when I ask him about a bunker (like the ones Zuckerberg and other tech billionaires have planned).

Benioff deflects the majority of my questions to talk about his philanthropy again. How he has donated millions to the fire department — his beachside home has nearly burned down. How his philosophy is to give unconditionally without expecting anything in return. How he has donated around $100 million in Hawaii and has been able to remain anonymous until now.

He's adamant that he's not building a Salesforce facility in Waimea.

"There's nothing owned by Salesforce in Hawaii. There never will be," Benioff says. "Unfortunately, let me tell you the reality of Waimea and Hawaii: We wouldn't be able to do it. There isn't enough land, and there isn't enough housing."

"So for people who say to me, and many have, 'Oh, I heard you're going to bring a Salesforce campus here — you're bringing over 50 people or 100 people.' They don't understand what's going on in this town and this state," he adds.

When I ask Benioff about the properties in the anonymous LLCs, things seem to take a turn. He starts speaking more quickly and fidgets with a piece of paper in his hand. He's reluctant to go through the holdings, and his adviser on the Zoom call jumps in to say we can discuss later.

He does give me some tidbits. He says he has a private ranch with 10 horses where he lets a local family run their cattle. He says that he has family living here and that he's starting a community meeting center.

A couple of days before the interview, Benioff texted the same NPR colleague again, asking for intel on my story. Then he called me and demanded to know the title of this piece. During that call, he also mentioned he knew the exact area where I was staying. Unnerved, I asked how he knew, and he said, "It's my job. You have a job and I have a job." During the interview, he brings up more personal details about me and my family.

I leave the meeting disconcerted and still unclear about what exactly is happening with his land in Waimea.

The following day, I drive around with a photographer to take pictures of the town and Benioff's projects. We go to the property he described as a community center and are confronted by one of his employees. The photographer explains we're there to take photos of the outside of the building. Shortly afterward, I get a text from Benioff. His employee seemed to think we were "snooping," and he says he's escalating the incident to NPR CEO John Lansing. Lansing confirmed he spoke with Benioff, without going into detail — the NPR newsroom operates independently, and the CEO is not involved in editorial decision-making. Benioff didn't respond to my question about the purpose of this call.

What's at stake

Hawaii has gone through major demographic shifts over the last few years. More Native Hawaiians now live outside the state than on the islands, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Kamehameha Schools' Strategy & Transformation Group, which studies Native Hawaiian well-being, looked at why they may be leaving and found that the state's high cost of living and lack of affordable housing are major factors.

Across the state, median home prices have risen by at least 22% from pre-pandemic prices, according to Redfin. In Waimea, it appears especially dire. Median home prices topped $1 million in January, up 87% from prices before the pandemic.

Tim Richards, a state senator and sixth-generation Hawaii resident whose family has lived in the Waimea area for the last 100 years, says the beginning of the pandemic is when things really changed.

"We saw an influx of people coming from the mainland who wanted to get someplace that was, I guess, more isolated," Richards says. "We saw a huge uptick of house sales and huge uptick of median price. ... And that poses a problem."

"What young couple can afford that? Seriously. The answer is nobody," he says.

As I tick through Benioff's property, I tabulate that 11 of the 38 land parcels are for philanthropy and centered on affordable housing. Those include a cluster for the Ouli project and five residential properties, which were gifted to a private school in Waimea in 2022. He says one parcel of land adjacent to Ouli, which is 158 acres, is also planned for philanthropic use.

Benioff also bought commercial property in town in 2022, which included the Mamane Bakery that shut down after he purchased it.

This is now the location of the community center that Benioff says he's establishing. When I visit, his employee refers to it as a Jewish community center and I see Hebrew writing on the wall, but Benioff says it will have many different uses. Although it's not yet finished, Benioff says the center has already been open for "all community use" since September and has served many different religious and secular groups.

The former Mamane Bakery was known for its lilikoi cheesecake. In 2022, Benioff bought the land  where the longtime bakery was located, and it closed shortly after.
/ Ronit Fahl for NPR
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Ronit Fahl for NPR
The former Mamane Bakery was known for its lilikoi cheesecake. In 2022, Benioff bought the land where the longtime bakery was located, and it closed shortly after.

Benioff's 24 remaining parcels of land, about 165 acres, are set aside for him and his family members. There's the private ranch with horses and about a dozen homes scattered across Waimea and down by the beach. He says his anonymity has been motivated by his desire to maintain his family's privacy.

So, the majority of Benioff's land buys haven't been about Salesforce or his philanthropy — but rather for personal use.

About three weeks ago, he texts me saying, "I just read this report and thought it would interest you." The report is by the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, a conservative think tank. It analyzes housing in the state and concludes that "regulatory barriers" are causing the housing crisis and "there is no evidence that outside buyers are the driving factor in Hawaii's high housing costs or lack of affordable housing."

I think back to that statue in the center of Waimea depicting Ikua Purdy roping the wild bull.

The statue's plaque tells the story of cattle first arriving in Hawaii in 1793, given as gifts to King Kamehameha I. But soon the cattle overran the land. "It was not long before they overpopulated and plundered the countryside from the mountains to the seashores," the plaque reads. It's hard not to think about the parallels to the islands' long history of newcomers arriving, and of today, with billionaires buying up the land.

I ask Richards about Waimea and what happened with the cattle. It was the Hawaiian cowboys, the paniolos, he tells me, who learned to subdue them.

"Waimea was and still is, in large part, a cow town," he says. But, he adds, if we don't pay attention to what's happening, "we will lose the fabric that makes Hawaii, Hawaii."

NPR's Daniel Wood contributed to this report.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 1, 2024 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier version of this story referenced records from Hawaii's secretary of state. The records are actually from the state's Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs.
Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr is a tech reporter for NPR. She examines the choices tech companies make and the influence they wield over our lives and society.
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