Leaving behind Salt Lake City, Utah, and saying aloha to the lush idyllic island of Maui in 2006, USPA Hawaiian Islands Circuit Governor Bill Kirton was unaware of the polo paradise he and his family would soon play an integral part in shaping. Prior to vacating the mainland, Kirton put his degrees in business and political science (University of Utah) to work, establishing himself as a successful investment banker and simultaneously embracing his entrepreneurial spirit in the cattle industry. A keen busniessman, Kirton liquidated all his assets in 2005 taking advantage of a steady market, deciding to embark on a new adventure offshore. Supporting the equestrian passions of his youngest son Johnny, Kirton found himself not only becoming a part of the polo community, but running the very club in Makawao, Hawaii, where he and his son saw their first game. Discovering the sport by happenstance and immediately investing his resources, Kirton selflessly reenergized youth polo one island at a time, setting into motion a wave of kids eager to pick up a mallet.
Tapping into the tourism industry, Kirton utilized his entrepreneurial skillset to open three local businesses: Paia Gelato, the Hana Picnic Lunch Company and Sand & Sea. Serving the island a taste of Italy in the form of gelato, Kirton’s family-owned authentic Italian gelateria and other businesses are situated on the edge of the Hana Rainforest in the small coastal town of Paia. Kirton not only caters to the needs of visitors, but additionally the interests of the USPA as part of the Finance, Nominating, Constitution and Junior Polo Committees. Sitting down with Kirton during the USPA Board of Governors Spring Meeting, he elaborated on the necessity of youth to the future of polo and how Hawaii’s cultural emphasis on ohana* may be the key for leveraging longevity in the years to come.
What attracted you to the role of Circuit Governor?
“This is my second term as Hawaiian Islands Circuit Governor. Before I took on this role my predecessor Chris Dawson asked me if I would be interested in serving as the Lieutenant Governor so I could come to the meetings and learn the process. This would enable me to make an informed decision if I would like to run for Circuit Governor.
The direction Dawson was heading, which encouraged me, was based on the question, ‘how do we ensure that people are playing polo in Hawaii fifty years from now?’ That thought really motivated me to look to the future and that’s what drew me in, serving and helping that cause.”
Bill Kirton at the 2017 USPA Board of Governors and Annual Member Meeting.
What is your equestrian background and how did you become involved in polo?
“Prior to getting involved in polo I ran and owned cattle feeding operations in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Nevada, so I owned a lot of horses to manage the movement of cattle. While I enjoyed horses for many years working in the cattle industry, I never understood the discipline of polo. I remember the first time I sat in a polo saddle I felt like there was nothing under me because I was so used to a western saddle!
My son Johnny [Kirton] has been interested in horses since he was little so we enrolled him in riding lessons in Hawaii. He learned to jump and was really focused and dedicated to that discipline until one day in 2011 we were driving home from one of his lessons and saw a sign for a polo match at Maui Polo Club. I pulled in and as I was paying he jumped up on the dashboard, looked out on the polo field and said, ‘isn’t that cool? I wouldn’t have to ride around in a little oval anymore.’
We bought two horses that week and hired a pro, but when the following Sunday came, there weren’t many kids around to play with him. I continued buying horses and I went to Johnny’s school [Carden Academy of Maui] and said, ‘anybody who wants to learn to play polo, it’s on my dime, so come out and play with us.’ A lot of kids took us up on that offer, so in no time we got a bunch of kids in his class to start playing polo. The first year we started free and the next year the participants had to bring a bag of feed to each practice as their tuition. Due to the growing popularity, after that, they had to buy or lease a horse because there were kids coming behind them who wanted to learn. Then Maui Polo Club handed me the keys to the club in 2013 and said they’d like me to become club president.”
“Often when you invite youth to play you see the whole family get involved, so one of the exciting things for me is to see families embrace polo like mine has.” – Bill Kirton
Bill and his wife Rachelle Kirton. ©Coral DeCoite
What is the biggest goal you hope to accomplish for the Hawaiian Islands Circuit?
“Player development and getting more families involved in polo is our biggest initiative. First you have to understand that Hawaii is a place where a lot of people grow up and leave to pursue higher education and experience the world. The teenagers like to use the term ‘growing up on the rock.’ They are very eager to get off the rock because in their minds they are isolated from the world. As a result we grow a lot of players in Hawaii that end up on the mainland so while the number of players in the circuit remains approximately 200 we are helping to grow the sport in other places. The players that we have developed are playing in other locations, in college or they settle to raise a family and return to polo later in life.
In Hawaii we’ve been able to grow polo substantially by focusing on the youth and consequently we have really strong youth programs. When you look at the long-term membership of polo you see a lot of families and generations represented. Often when you invite youth to play you see the whole family get involved, so one of the exciting things for me is to see families embrace polo like mine has. I’m hoping that we are growing long, deep roots for polo whether it returns to Hawaii or remains on the mainland.”
Talk about each of the three businesses you currently own on Hawaii.
“At Paia Gelato we make fresh ice cream everyday and because we are located in Paia at the rainforest’s entrance we get traffic from tourists who spend the day exploring the Hana Rainforest. Our most popular flavor of gelato is the Big Island Coffee Crunch which has Big Island coffee, cacao nibs and chocolate squares, but my personal favorite is the Chocolate Hazelnut.
The Hana Picnic Lunch Co. offers breakfast and our specialty is packed picnic lunches for people going out into the rainforest. We also have a giftshop called Sand & Sea in the same town where we sell all kinds of Maui-made products and souvenirs crafted by local artisans.”
Bill Kirton playing in the Kalipo Cup in 2014. ©Coral DeCoite
What have you already accomplished for the Hawaiian Islands Circuit that you are most proud of?
“It’s been really fun developing youth programs on additional islands besides Maui and watching that grow. There’s a group at the Mauna Kea Polo Club in Kamuela, Hawaii, (Big Island) that’s moving forward with an interscholastic team. I’m very happy that we were able to host our first Western Interscholastic Open Regional in Maui. We have always been active since the beginning of NYTS [National Youth Tournament Series] to host qualifiers and play tournaments on Maui.
We also started doing some Polo Training Foundation exchanges (Johnny Kirton and Connor Jenkins played in New Zealand) and all of this focus on the youth in the last five to 10 years has been something new. There was a lot of polo being played in Hawaii, but there wasn’t as much youth polo and its growth has been really satisfying to see.
Also, recently we had 60 youth players and families on Maui between West Coast teams, Big Island teams, Oahu teams, and our local Maui teams. It was fun to host a NYTS qualifier of that size and have that many people come to Maui to play polo.”
Bill Kirton’s son, Johnny Kirton (far right), was a part of the USA team which won the 2018 Junior Westchester Cup in Oxfordshire, England. ©United States Polo Association/Mark Beaumont
“The opportunities for growth that the USPA and Polo Training Foundation have created for youth are invaluable because they get to leave their home club and try their skills at a club of a different level. They are able to train and play in foreign countries, meet new teammates, and learn how to build a team together. Those are all great growing experiences for youth players.” – Bill Kirton
What has been the most rewarding aspect of focusing on building the youth?
“When I introduce youth players to polo and watch them score their first goal, I’m as happy, and cheering as loudly, as their parents because I feel so connected after watching them develop from leadline to walk/trot to canter/gallop to playing adult polo.
There were so many youth playing at Maui Polo Club when I first started running it that I had many of the members saying I turned it into a kid’s club. But as soon as the kids started playing adult polo those same members started vying to have those teenagers on their team because they were such good players. When I talk about player development it’s fun for me to see someone morph from learning to ride into low-goal polo and have the adult club members embrace them as they progress.”
Why are you so passionate about polo?
“I love the horses, but I truly love the opportunity polo creates to be on the field with my family and to invite others to play polo together as a family. To watch the whole rainbow of people experiencing polo at every level is something I enjoy.
I feel the family is so important to the future of polo because if the family isn’t supportive of them as they join the sport they will stop at some point for reasons such as expenses or the amount of work required.
Our approach in Hawaii has been to include as many people in polo as possible and work on initiatives that weren’t about us, but instead focused on the future of polo. It’s not about my game today, it’s about getting as many people as I can on horses, trying it for themselves and catching the spirit of polo. To make sure this happens we have to be willing to sacrifice our own time, money and energy.”
If you’d like to get in contact with Bill about your club or get the scoop about polo in Maui, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (808) 268-6540.
*Ohana in Hawaiian culture means family in an extended sense of the term, including blood-related, adoptive or intentional.MAUI POLO CLUB