Keiichi (“Kay”) Sugahara was born in Seattle in 1909, the second of five children of Japanese immigrants. The family moved to Los Angeles where Kay’s father, a descendant of the samurai warrior class of Japan, worked as a storekeeper. Kay was orphaned when he was 12 years old and moved to a Methodist mission. While working to help support himself and his siblings by stacking oranges in a fruit stand for $15 a week, Kay attended the University of California at Los Angeles and graduated in 1932.
The following year, Kay and two partners founded a customs brokerage firm to clear goods through customs for Japanese-American merchants. Kay also acted as a consultant to shippers sending merchandise to Asia.
After building successful businesses, Kay lost everything when World War II broke out.
After the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Kay, his wife, and their three sons were interned by the United States government, first housed in a one-room stable at the Santa Anita race track and then moved to the Granada War Relocation Center, known as Camp Amache, in Colorado. Despite his circumstances, Kay was a proud American patriot. He supported the United States during World War II by joining the Office of Strategic Services (“OSS” – a wartime intelligence agency of the United States and predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency). Kay disseminated anti-war propaganda in India for the OSS.
After the war, Kay moved his family to New York and continued his intelligence work, helping to secure tungsten for the U.S. government during the Korean War. He became a major player in U.S.-Japan relations and helped lead the effort to reestablish Japan as a strong American ally and trading partner. To help the U.S. State Department, Kay brought the Mayor of Tokyo to Washington, D.C., where the Mayor donated the cherry trees that still bloom there today. Kay became a prominent member of the Japanese-American cultural and business communities.
Kay founded Fairfield-Maxwell on May 23, 1957, to take advantage of a business opportunity that arose from his work on U.S.-Japan relations. “Fairfield” is the English translation of Sugahara, and “Maxwell” commemorates a wartime OSS officer who entrusted Kay with sensitive intelligence on the Japanese army.
The company’s founding is a perfect example of Kay’s philosophy of creative risk-taking. After convincing the largest fishery in Japan to convert operations from coal to oil, Kay created Fairfield-Maxwell to broker sales between Mobil Oil and unaffiliated (i.e. Japanese-owned) refineries at wholesale rates – an industry first.
Fairfield-Maxwell soon took advantage of other opportunities and expanded into Maritime-related activities such as the building, sale, and leasing of tankers and cargo ships, beginning with the launch of the Marion in 1960.
The company diversified further in 1974 with the acquisition of companies that would become Fairfield Geotechnologies, which operates today as a seismic services company for the Oil & Gas industry that utilizes proprietary node technology and invests in geophysical libraries.
In 1978, Fairfield-Maxwell launched Great American Lines to operate the Sunbelt Dixie, a first-of-its-kind refrigerated car-carrier that brought Toyota automobiles to the U.S. and returned to Japan with Florida grapefruit.
Kay appointed his eldest son, Kaytaro Sugahara, as President of Fairfield in 1979, and Kaytaro became the Chairman of Fairfield following his father’s death in 1988. The Sugahara family and Fairfield-Maxwell continued Kay’s opportunistic risk-taking. Under Kaytaro’s leadership, Fairfield-Maxwell experienced significant growth in the Oil & Gas services industry by assembling and licensing large data libraries.
In 1996, Fairfield-Maxwell expanded into the chemical tanker shipping business with the founding of Fairfield Chemical Carriers, Inc., now one of the leading operators of stainless steel chemical tankers in the world.
In 2013, Fairfield-Maxwell diversified away from its historical focus on Maritime and Oil & Gas with the acquisition of SpeedPro Imaging, a provider of wide format imaging.
Byron Sugahara, Kay’s middle son, became Chairman of the Board of Fairfield in 2017 and remains in that position.
Today, Fairfield-Maxwell continues to actively pursue opportunities in new industry verticals in addition to leveraging its deep experience in the company’s existing businesses.