Christine Camp


Original air date: Tues., Jan. 11, 2011


Living the American Dream


Korean Immigrant Christine Camp rose from poverty to create her own development company, the Avalon Group, of which she is President and CEO. Leslie Wilcox talks with Christine about the struggles of adjusting to America and growing up with “tough love” from her mother, which led to her running away from home at age 15. Christine also discusses working for several well-known companies where she gained the experience to launch her own business.


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I love this country. I love this country only in a way an immigrant can say it. I’m a first generation American, I came to America, I’ve seen what it’s like on the other side. And America is a beautiful country, and I love it for all that it stands.


Patriotism for the United States is sometimes intensified when your country of origin is a foreign land. Our next Long Story Short guest began life in South Korea, immigrated to Hawaii as a young girl, and grew up to become a successful real estate developer. The contrast between her life before, and after her move to Hawaii, is enough to make anyone believe in the American dream. Meet Christine Camp, next.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. At the age of thirty-two, Christine Camp launched Avalon, a real estate development company in Honolulu. Now, that may sound young, but by then, Christine Camp had experienced a lifetime’s worth of lessons. Her school of hard knocks education began at birth.


Tell me a little bit about your very early life in South Korea.


We had very little. We came from the poorer side of, I guess everybody was poor in those days in Korea, because we were a nascent nation in the sense that we’d just come out of the war. I was born in 1966, so it was a few years after the war, but still, there was very little resources.


How big was your family?


I have four siblings. There were five of us, and my mother and my father. And they were searching for a better opportunity for us. And they left the five children in Korea, and came to Hawaii for two years when I was I was only eight years old. From between the time, eight to right before I turned ten, my sisters raised us, and we lived with various relatives while they were setting up a home for us here.


Did you feel adrift at that point, with your parents away?


Well, it was very confusing, because I was fairly young, and no one really explained. My sisters are eight and six years older than I am; so older. And they were in their teens, and they really took care of us. Both of them dropped out of school to take care of the younger kids and studied from home. So we were home schooled, while we were waiting for my mother and father to bring us to Hawaii.


Now, when you say you were poor, what does poor mean?


Very little resources. I think my mom sent some money to help take care of us. But we didn’t have much meat. We ate mostly vegetables. We didn’t have running water. [CHUCKLE] And we lived in one room and the five kids stayed in one room in apartment house. It was part of a section of a house of our relatives. And there winters when we had to go to the pump house to pump water, because our well wouldn’t work. And we’d walk five blocks and down the hill on the mountainside to get water from the common pump well. That’s how poor we were.


Did you worry that your parents wouldn’t be seen again? Or were you looking forward to joining them?


No, we just didn’t think that it would take that long to get the immigration done. I think everyone thought that it would be just a matter of a few months, and it ended up being a couple of years. When I think back, I think of how resilient all of us were. Because I think for us, were hoping for a better life, and so we didn’t know what we didn’t have. Because the people around us kind of had the same means. And so we enjoyed our times, but without parents were a little difficult.


I can see a big culture shock coming, because your—




—parents did send the money for you to—did you all come over together?


We did. Five of us came here. And boy, was I sick on the airplane the whole time. [CHUCKLE] But we came here, and I remember smelling the air.


And you’re nine years old.


I’m nine years old, and smelling the air, thinking, my goodness, this is what Hawaii—I didn’t differentiate Hawaii as an island. I thought this was America, this is the big country. And I thought, wow, where are the buildings? I mean, this is not America. Korea is much more developed with high rises and everything, which I saw very little. But all the lush tropical jungle-like places. Because we came from concrete, not a lot of landscaping. And for me to see all these trees and flowers; oh, my gosh. It was amazing.


Could you speak English?


My name is. [CHUCKLE] My name is Hyun Hee Camp. Hyun Hee was my Korean name. And, I am hungry. I am hungry. [CHUCKLE] I am hungry. [CHUCKLE] And those were the only things that I could say. And I could say the ABCs.


When Christine Camp started classes at a public grade school in Kaimuki, she recalls that students threw rocks at her, and called her an FOB, or fresh off the boat. Picking up more of the language, and moving to a different public school in the same district gave her a chance for a fresh start.


And we moved to Wilson Elementary right before we ended the fifth grade year. And so I had an opportunity to recreate who I am, not be so foreign, and meet friends. And I made some really good friends, and I was able to blossom in there, and did very well in school. I had some really amazing teachers. In that school, I remember Mr. Kosasa, who basically spent extra time with me, letting me know what my assignments were. And that was my fifth grade homeroom teacher. My sixth grade homeroom teacher was Mrs. Hasegawa. And everyone didn’t like her, because she was really tough. And I was afraid of her; she had a reputation. But she was the one that made me feel so accepted, that I was smart. We had to write some poems for an English class. And I wrote about maile lei, and it was about maile lei, it’s long, it’s beautiful, and you can see the leaves, green leaf after green leaf. I don’t remember just precisely what I wrote. I think I must have had a lot of spelling errors. But she picked it out, and she said, This is one of the best poems I’ve read, and I’m going to read it out to the class. And she read it out. And it made me feel so special. It made me want to do more.


What were your parents telling you about how to behave in this new world?


Well, by then, my father was very ill, and wasn’t really cognizant of what’s going—he was dying of cancer. And my mom was busy working. So it was really up to us to kind of find our own way.


How were finances in the new land, after finances had been so rough in Korea?


When we first came here, we lived in what I thought was a mansion. It was a beautiful spot. It was a two-bedroom walkup. When I look back and I still see the building on Waialae Avenue, I think, Wow, we all squeezed in, five of us in a little room. And then my mom saved up enough. She felt that she had four girls, so she wanted us to live in a community where there would be no other Koreans, where we would be speaking English, and that we would have the best public education possible. So she found this house on Ainakoa. I mean, talk about every house was white. This one was brown from no paint. [CHUCKLE] On the hillside, dilapidated, with termites, but it was the only one she could afford; leasehold house. And we went there, we fixed it up, we spent all of our free days and nights working on this house.


That’s quite an accomplishment.




She was a—


It was.


—waitress, and worked different waitressing and minimum wage jobs with tips.


Koreans, they kinda help each other out. And I think Vietnamese, they’re the same. And Japanese, when they’re here, it’s the same. Koreans call it kei; I think Japanese, they call it tanomoshi. They put into a pool, they bid for the money, and they can have access to a pool of money. Ten, twenty thousand dollars, and there are twenty, forty people putting into this pool. And my mom was in one of those. And she was able to secure the down payment needed to buy the house, and she bought it on an agreement of sale. I’m not even sure if they have agreements of sale anymore.


And had to make the payments every month.


Right. And so, we were expected to help out. I worked from the time I was twelve years old. I worked as a babysitter. God, in those days you could babysit four kids, and people thought nothing of it. I was babysitting six, seven-year-olds when I was twelve years old. Can you believe that? [CHUCKLE]


I remember that. There were even certificates for twelve-year-old—






Yeah. I remember my first new clothes was for my father’s funeral. We didn’t have anything black, and someone said that we had to wear black. And someone gave us twenty dollars each and said, You guys go to JC Penney’s and buy clothes. And we didn’t even know how to shop at JC Penney’s, what to do, because we’ve never been in these stores for us. And so it was exciting, and sad at the same time.


Terribly sad.


It was so unfortunate that it was that time in which we had a chance to actually go to Kahala Mall. ‘Cause we’d been to Kahala Mall, and we went to McDonald’s, once every three months or something and had a hamburger. But to go into JC Penney’s to buy something; that never happened.


Christine Camp later excelled at intermediate and high school, held down several jobs, and became a cheerleader. But Christine’s mother, ever the disciplinarian, prohibited her daughter from taking part in extracurricular activities that would take her away from household chores. So, at age fifteen, Christine decided to run away from home.


And I thought, as long as I had all straight A’s, she should have nothing to complain about. But she did. And she was so tough, and my sisters were so tough on me. I was getting spankings all the time. And I felt that I could do better, I was making my own money. So I packed up my bags in a little pillowcase.




Yeah. [CHUCKLE] I said, I’m done with you. I ran away from home.


How could you make your own way at age fifteen?


Isn’t that amazing? I did. And I can’t … my rent was hundred and seventy dollars a month.

Where did you live?


On Harding Avenue, in one of these old Chinese schools that became an apartment house. Little sections of classrooms were apartment house, and I had a little apartment house next to the sewer line where the cockroaches gathered at night. [CHUCKLE]


And what about your neighbors; what were they like?


Six families. I have to say, I saw what I felt was to not have hope, to feel a loss in what our life would be. There was a welfare mom who dropped out of high school, had several children, and still within high school age. There was a woman who had two kids, and she was a prostitute. There were—it was just kind of like that. An alcoholic woman, another woman who couldn’t afford to eat regular food, and she was sharing her cat food, what I found out, and I would try to give her what I could. And the only bright light in that whole place were two college students who were a couple, and they were happy people. They were clean, and they were smart, and they had a hope of future. I mean, they had hope for their future. But I internalized this when a traumatic accident happened with me. I couldn’t afford electricity, so I didn’t have power, but I had a little gas oven. And these kids were running around without adult supervision, and I felt like I was the den mother. Whenever I had free time, I would have them come over to my place. And it was a child’s three-year-old birthday, and her mom was out. So I decided, I’m going to bake her a cake. And I’d never used the oven. Turned the oven on; nothing. It was a gas oven. And I realized, Oh, it’s a gas oven, I have to turn the match on. Turned on the match, and the whole thing blew up on my face. I had no hair on my face. Anyway, the emergency medics came, and they called the emergency and everything. And at that moment, while I was cooling off, they had ice on me, I’m sitting there, and I had an Aha Moment. All these images came to me of the people that were living around me, and the little kids. And the only bright spot that I saw were these students who had a future. And I felt that education was my future, I didn’t want to be there, and that I wanted to have hope. I didn’t want to lose hope like these people. And they’re wonderful people, but they lost hope for their future, and they weren’t taking responsibility for themselves. So I packed up my ego, packed up my things; I went home that day, the next day.


What was that reception like for you?


What was amazing is, my mom never asked me a question. I had called my sister and said, I’m coming home. And she didn’t go to work. She went to work seven days a week; she didn’t go to work. She was there folding laundry, she acted like nothing happened.


Through all of this, Christine Camp managed to graduate early from Kalani High School, and enrolled at Kapiolani Community College.


You’re going to community college, and working your way through school. Where did the idea of developer emerge?


The developer image; it comes from my first job, my first real job, my first fulltime job. All right. I think people say that, you have to have luck. And I’ve been very lucky so many times. And my luck comes in having my first job with a gentleman named Rex Kuwasaki. He has a development company, Arcade Development. And I went to work for him as his Girl Friday. And when he realized I can take on more, he gave me increasingly more and more opportunities to do different things, and he taught me so much. And that’s where I realized what an impact I could have in the community, and how meaningful it would be to be a developer, to create communities, from an idea on a piece of paper, to see buildings, to put people in homes. I just loved that idea. So I wanted to have my own company, and I wanted to be that, what he was doing.


So you worked for RK—










Rex Kuwasaki Development; yeah.


And picked up some very good basic—




—skills. And then, what?


Well, five years there. And Castle and Cooke was hiring, they had just gotten their zoning for Mililani Mauka. And they were hiring a brand new team, so I went to work for them. I started as a project coordinator in their planning engineering department. And did a lot of permit processing and planning with engineers and architects for homes. And I became such a budget cruncher, and I had such a love for affordable housing that I did a lot of affordable housing there, and had a lot of fun. So I did that for five years, and ended up being a senior project coordinator for the project department, and—


Okay; I’m noticing two five-year stints. Was that on purpose?


Yeah. I like five-year goals. I always believe that people need to see short-term goals, but you need to look out five years ahead. So that it gives you kind of a guiding light as to where one should go. So I had a five-year goal. I worked five years, and I thought okay, five years is enough. Went to work for Castle and Cooke, worked five years, and so it was to the month of five years, I went to work for A and B, Alexander and Baldwin as their project manager, and then ended up as VP of their development. And almost five years, but I found some opportunities where it made me want to leave a little earlier. So I think it was four years and ten months, or something like that.


What were the opportunities?


I found a couple of projects that I wanted to work on, that I thought I could do. Ended up becoming not a project, but it did give me the courage to move on to being my own developer, my own company, having my own company.


And how did you decide to focus your company?


I wanted to be my own developer, but I realized it was a lot harder in raising money than just doing projects. I had to not only do the planning and engineering, and design of the projects, the marketing of the projects, but I actually had to raise the money. And the capital was what was my obstacle in being my own developer. So I decided that I would have an advisory services company in leveraging my expertise. And that was a very profitable business. And then moved onto doing the projects. And I realized it was such a successful advisory services and doing brokerage, I wasn’t spending any time looking for my own projects. So I had to make sure I had a five-year goal to guide me again to say, okay, five years, I’m going to have my own projects. Right now, the mix was eighty/twenty; twenty percent of my projects, eighty percent other projects, other people’s projects. And I’m going to change that ratio in five years. And in five years, I was able to do that. I had my own development projects. And so I said, Okay, well, that’s good. Now what, for the next five years? And so I put some monetary goals. Like, if I could only make a million a year. If I could only do ten million, if I could only raise twenty million dollars. So those were kind of the goals that I put into place for five-year goals. And we finished our five-year goals. It’s been eleven years, and so we’re now looking at what we’re going to do. We, because our company has grown beyond just myself, and we are looking at our next five years.


Now, it’s very hard to do a five-year goal when a recession comes along, and just knocks the bottom out of budget.




Do you add two years there, three years?


Of course. I mean, the goals are just that; they’re goals. They’re not set in stone, and you don’t get depressed over it. You just adjust to the changing times. But there’s a guiding principle that carries you from one end to the other. As long as you have a goal in mind, I think it makes it easier for one to make a decision. ‘Cause isn’t it what it is; it’s always a series of decisions, how do you decide.


Do you have trouble deciding the decisions?


Never. I sleep well at nights. [CHUCKLE] Of course.


Because they provide the security of knowing, okay, here’s where I’m headed


Knowing where I’m headed, it makes it easier. But the last few years have been difficult decisions. I mean, to walk away from millions of dollars invested in a piece of property … difficult. To lay off half your staff … difficult. ‘Cause I felt that, the way I justified it to myself is, I had to cut off one arm to keep the rest of the body alive. And a lot of people say that. But cutting that arm off was so painful. Walking away from the millions of dollars was easier than laying people off. It was that difficult. Because I knew it was their livelihood. I knew they had a mortgage to pay, and family to support. And so it was really, really hard.


So you chose to name your company Avalon.






My love of books. I love reading books, and I love two genres. I have a hard time with nonfiction, but mystery novels and mystical fairytales. And fairytales, King Arthur stories fascinates me.


Now, Avalon was where King Arthur pulled Excalibur out of the stone, isn’t it?


Well, no; it was the Isle of Avalon where all the power came. And remember when he died, he went back.


Oh, and he recovered there.


And Isle of Avalon, they took his power back, they took the sword back. So the way I saw Avalon, aside from the fact that it starts with an A, so it will be the top of the alphabet [CHUCKLE]—


That’s a good one.


But we live on an island, as Avalon. But really, what it was, it was about king makers and the source of power; source within. And I liked that. And the recent books, the recent renditions of this fairytale, there’s a mist of Avalon where all power comes from the priestesses, which is the women. So even more so, I thought, very apropos. And that’s why I named the company Avalon.


During election years, some developers try to cover their bets. They give equally to all political candidates in order to be in the good graces of the eventual winners, whoever they may be. Christine Camp has other ideas. For example, she openly and enthusiastically supported Mufi Hannemann, when he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010.


You’ve had some leadership positions in government. You were—




You were heading the Police Commission, you—


I was.


You’ve been active in different political campaigns. Must be a little tricky, when you’re looking for approvals as a developer.




And you are also wishing to participate in government. I mean—




—those are tricky currents you have to navigate.


Absolutely. A lot of people said, Are you nuts? You’re a developer, and you’re supporting a certain candidate. And I always believed an election is just that. You have to make a choice. You vote. And if you really believe in something or someone, then you need to stand behind it. And people who are elected need to understand that it was just an election. Now that they’re there, we as the constituents will stand behind them because they are our elected leaders. But during the election period, I don’t believe in kind of walking the middle line all the time. That’s not America. America is about making choices, to protect your freedom, and protecting your views.


Any issue coming up that you’re scratching your head about how to solve?


One thing that really affects me is the homelessness. I’m a developer, and yet, it’s so difficult to develop homeless housing first; I believe in that. I was homeless for a few days. I actually slept in a park when I ran away from home. And I’ve been poor, and I was that close to being homeless. And when I opened my own business, and when I didn’t have enough cash flow to pay the payroll, I thought about being homeless. We’re that close to being homeless, a lot of us. And there are so many people in such vulnerable positions, we’ve gotta do something. We’ve gotta do something.


But why doesn’t it ever get beyond, we’ve gotta do something? I mean, it just never seems to materialize into something that sticks.


‘Cause people don’t—can I just say. I cannot understand why people say this is a state problem, but yet, they want the funding to come from the people who are buying homes, or the funding to come from the developers. They don’t believe that this is a state problem. If this was a state problem, it should come from our tax base, not from people who are buying homes to stay away from being homeless. It’s adding to the cost of buying homes, to sheltering these people. By taking it from the developers when they’re doing affordable housing, or just adding more housing stock so that it becomes affordable, it just adds to that burden. It ultimately has to be paid for by everyone else. Why do we think it’s so expensive? So people are scratching their head thinking, we’ve gotta do something, and yet, there’s no funding from the general fund. Of course we’re not going to solve that problem.


What’s your current five-year plan?


My current five-year plan is actually looking at—I created a company, a holding company, Avalon Group. And we’re expanding in our development services business, but we’re also buying other companies, and really believing in Hawaii, and growing other businesses. So the next five years is really diversifying, and creating the next layer of managers. That it’s not about me, but it’s about having managers manage the projects and companies.


What does your mom say? I mean, I know your mom hasn’t been a big talker. She’s a doer.


She’s a doer.


But now, she’s seen you make this wonderful transition to American life, and be extraordinarily successful as a professional, and a mom. And what does she say?


She still treats me like I’m thirteen years old. [CHUCKLE] She wants to comb my hair, and [CHUCKLE] make sure that I’m wearing the right color. No, she’s extremely proud of me. She’s very thankful. She took care of me, so now I take care of her. And she helps me raise my son. And it’s come full circle.


What happened to that leasehold, termite-ridden house in Ainakoa?


She sold it. But I remember the Aha Moment of when I thought, I’ve finally made it, is she was buying the leasehold into fee, and she didn’t have enough income to qualify for a mortgage. And I remember co-signing her mortgage, and thinking, Wow, I really made it, I’m co-signing a mortgage for my mom. And so that was …


That’s worth more than money.


Yeah. I remember how proud she … I’m choked up now, ‘cause I remember seeing her, and I’m feeling, wow, I did it. I really did it. And she was so proud of me.


Christine Camp’s mother has reason to be very proud. Her daughter is active in community organizations, and has received awards for achievements in her adopted country. At the time of this conversation in 2010, Christine is busy with a new accomplishment. The business owner says she’s keeping a work-family balance as the single parent of a two-year-old son. No more marathon weekdays, and no more long weekends at the office, she says. Family life does not keep her from continuing to set those business goals, though, five years at a time. Mahalo, Christine Camp, for sharing your story. And thank you for listening, on Long Story Short. For PBS Hawaii I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.


I live in the present. A very insightful friend told me, Christine, if I look at a life’s matrix for you and how you look at the world, your past like this, your future like this, and the present is like this. And I think I live in the moment, and it makes me happy, and doing what I believe is the right thing to do, making decisions that allows me to go to the future. As long as I have a peg, and I can see it, that’s my five-year goals, I know where to go.


Jack Cione


Original air date: Tues., Apr. 1, 2014


He was an entrepreneurial showman, best known in the 1960s through the ’80s for staging risque spectacles in Honolulu nightclubs. On this episode of Long Story Short, Jack Cione, now retired, reflects on his colorful business life in Honolulu, which included highly publicized arrests. He freely and gleefully admits that it was he who called the news outlets when police arrived. Women would become some of his best customers – at luncheons featuring nude waiters.


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So, when you were born, you had a different name than the one you have now.


Yes. [CHUCKLE] Jackie Cioni. Real Italian. C-I-O-N-I.


Traditional Italian home, Catholic?


Oh, yes; Catholic, a little town right out of Chicago, where everyone was Catholic. I remember one time, I dated a Jewish girl. My family had a fit, because, they were very, very [CHUCKLE] strict. You were Italian, you went to the Italian church. You only associated with Italians. And in that little community, there was the Polish church, the Irish church, the Italian church, the Lithuanian church. [CHUCKLE]


And you stuck to your people at your —

— own church.






The families in those days kept to tradition.


And … I’m fast-forwarding to what you did in later life. How did that go over with the traditional —


Well, I —


— Catholics —


I left. [CHUCKLE]





I left my Italian community at a very young age. I had an uncle that belonged to the Al Capone gang in Chicago, and … I loved his way of life. Expensive cars, and fancy clothes, and eating in fancy restaurants.


What did your family think about his lifestyle?


Oh, they didn’t. That’s when they disowned me. And I didn’t speak to my father for years. At — when I graduated high school, I left the Cioni family. [CHUCKLE]


How old were you when you gravitated to your uncle?


Fourteen. I was a piano player. Boogie – woogie was real popular then. And so, he got me a job in a nightclub in Chicago, which —


Which was many miles away.


Eighty miles. It’s right — we were — lived in the suburb, a small farm town.


So, you commuted?


And stayed with my uncle, and played the piano there. And of course, met all the Mafia gangs. At that time, one of the big ones they owned was Joe Louis. Which is very funny. Because I had that whole story in my book. I met Joe Louis when I was very young. And then he became world champion. In 1960, he was broke, ‘cause all his wives took his money and all his friends. And he was working for Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas as a host. And so, a choreographer there wrote a show for him, starring Joe Louis and His Lovelies. And he called me and he said, I want to rehearse the show; can we use your nightclub, the Forbidden City? I said, Sure, bring ‘em over. And it was Joe Louis and his chorus girls, and Freda Payne singer. And so, they rehearsed, and they opened the show at the Forbidden City.


This is the one in Honolulu that you started?




Not the Las Vegas one.


No; my nightclub. They were breaking it in and gonna take it to Caesar’s Palace. So, when I saw Joe, we brought back old times, how I knew him and my uncle. I said, Joe, you can’t do this show in Las Vegas, you’re too big of a man to let these girls with red sequined boxing gloves punching him, and all that kinda stuff. I said, you’re too big for that. The public will laugh at you. Well, he did the show here, and he got bad reviews. Some of the press liked him. I don’t know whether you’d seen him then.


No, I didn’t see it.


No. [CHUCKLE] Anyway, he didn’t do the show in Vegas. He took my word, and he stopped it. And then, of course, he passed on. But that was the last time I had seen him.


What else appealed to you about your uncle from the Al Capone gang? Was it just the money? Just the access to —


— His way of life. He had the big Packard with those white – wall tires on each side. [CHUCKLE]


And you were fourteen years old. I mean, you were just a kid.




Playing at nightclubs —


I did, yeah.


— ‘til — what time did you go to sleep?


Well, I changed my age. I was … I was twenty then. Everybody thought … ‘cause I had a mustache at fourteen. I didn’t look like a high school student. And I was making seventy – five dollars a week. That was good money in —


A lot of —


— 19 — [CHUCKLE] —


And how did you keep up with school when you were actually working in the city?


Yeah. Well, I didn’t keep up with school. That was the sad part. I remember one day, a teacher said to me, Jackie Cioni, you’re gonna be a bum. You’re gonna be a bum if you don’t learn Algebra and English. And I said, Get out of my face, honey. I make seventy – five bucks a week; what are you making? Schoolteachers [INDISTINCT] made thirty – five dollars a week.




And so, I got expelled. They kicked me out of school. But the principal was building bleachers for the football team, and he needed a show to raise money for the bleachers. And so, I was working at this nightclub across the street from the Oriental Theater, and there was Les Brown and his orchestra, and they had a girl singer by the name of Doris Day. She had not made Sentimental Journey yet. They were recording it, but it had not been released. And so, I said, Doris, you’ve gotta come to my high school. She said —


High school?


I remember her saying, Your high school; are you in – I said, Yes, I’m in high school, and we’re raising money; would you come and sing a song or two? And she did. She brought her trio with her, and we did the show, and we raised money. See, when they worked at the Oriental Theater, they used to do four and five shows a day. In those days, they showed the movie, and then they have a stage show.


Oh …


And the movie and a stage show. So, in between shows, she would hang out at the bar where I was playing. So, she knew I played the piano.


So, at fourteen, you were very worldly wise.


Yes; I was making money and living a good life at fourteen. School was not part of my life, that’s for sure.


So, you were just trying to get out —




— and continue to make money.


And that’s when my father disowned me; yeah.


Did he actually disown you?


Oh, yeah. He wanted nothing to do with my Uncle Mike and the way of life that I was living. So, I carried on and made my money, and did my thing.


How about your mom saying, What happened to my little boy?


Well, they moved to Arizona, because of health reasons. And I did help drive them to Arizona. They had a trailer, and they went to Tucson, Arizona. And we were all living in the trailer; my sister and I, and the two of them. Can you imagine, four people in a trailer with – oh, in the desert of Arizona in 1946? [CHUCKLE] It was horrible. So, I changed my name to Cione; C-I-O-N-E. I followed the Dione Quintriplets; they were popular then. They were in the paper all the time. First time somebody gave birth to five babies.




And they were so cute, and everybody would say, Dionne. So, I thought, Why not Cione? So, I carried it on; Jack Cione.


And you stayed in Arizona?


No; I went to Hollywood. I had saved a lot of money playing the piano.


How much did you save?


Oh, I think I went to Hollywood with about a thousand dollars. And all my clothes, and I was gonna become a movie star. That’s my second repotting. And so, when I got there, I stood in line for auditions. And I thought, This is a ridiculous way to make a living. I did one movie, Good News, with June Allyson and Peter Lawford.


What’d you do in the movie?


I was a dancer.




Yeah; I was a dancer. I didn’t want to play the piano anymore. The piano, by the way, kept me out of the service, too. I was with the USO and – at the time my draft came up. Bob Hope picked our – I had a band called The Jolly Jacks, and he picked the band to go on tour with him. And I said, I’m being drafted, so he got me out of the draft. And I toured with the USO then.


That’s how you spent the war?


That’s how I spent the war; yeah.


Oh, amazing.

First time they came out here, by the way, was with Bob Hope’s show. We played Pearl Harbor and … Kaneohe and Schofield.


And after doing the USO tour, you stayed in Hollywood?


Straight back to Hollywood, trying to become a movie star. But it didn’t work. But I met … I met lots of movie stars there.


You sound like you were a real streetwise —




— young man.


Yeah; I met Eleanor Powell and Dorothy Lamour. Oh, that was funny with Dorothy Lamour. They were filming the Road Show with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, and, of course, I knew Bob Hope from working with him. And I said, Dorothy, I wrote to you when I was in high school, and you sent me a photograph, To Jackie Cioni, with all my love, Dottie Lamour. She said, You still have it? I said, Yes, I still have it. That was the end of that. But —




— Dorothy used to come here every winter, and stay at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. And I had the nightclub in Waikiki called Le Boom Boom. And she used to come into the club. And so, one night, I said – she said, Do you still have that picture? I said, Yes, I do. So, I brought it, and she autographed it again, and we took a new picture. And I have that. Which I think is a wonderful story, because she used to come to the club every year and spend lots of time there, until she passed away.


Mm. All these relationships that stretch over —


A relationship —


— [INDISTINCT] areas.


— that I met when I was young —




— and came back when I was… old. [CHUCKLE]



So, when you – so, you’re in Hollywood and you’re deciding, I don’t want to be auditioning, what was the life plan then?


Oh, one more story which I think is very funny. In Hollywood, I used to get dressed up every night and go to Ciro’s, Mocambo —




— and Earl Carroll’s – those were the big nightclubs, and sit at the bar thinking I was gonna be discovered. But one night, I sat at the bar, and Van Johnson and Peter Lawford were at the bar. And so, I start talking with the. We met, and his friend Keenan Wynn came in, and the maitre d’ came over and said, Your table is ready. And I thought, Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if they invited me. But the three of them just got up and left me sitting there. And I was very disappointed. But when I opened my Dunes Club here in Honolulu, I was buying acts, and I bought Van Johnson. [CHUCKLE] So, I brought him over here, and he worked at The Dunes. And I had brought that story up; I said, You know, you … blew my mind when you didn’t ask me to have dinner with you and … the other two. And he remembered the story. [CHUCKLE]


Oh, he really did? Ah …


But I thought —


So, you made an impression.


I thought it was funny that he’d end up working for me at The Dunes.

How many nights did you spend sitting there, waiting to be discovered?


Used to go every night.


For how long?


Oh … mm, thirty, forty minutes in each bar.


For years?


Oh, no; for how long? No, I gave that up … and the year was 19 … 1948. And I moved back; I had no place to go. I spent all my money. I moved back to Phoenix with my mother and father. Which was not too happy. But I got a job then at Arthur Murray Dance Studio.


Because you could dance.


Yeah; ‘cause I could dance. And I met my first wife.


Who was a dancer? Student?


Who was a dancer; yeah, she —


Teacher or student?


No, she was a teacher. And we both worked there at Arthur Murray’s.


Doing ballroom dancing, and what other kind of dancing?


Oh, that was ballroom dancing. That’s another story. [CHUCKLE] We went to New York and worked … thought we were gonna work for Arthur Murray. But the studio in Phoenix blackballed us, and the studio in New York said, We don’t have an opening right now, but we’ll have something later.


Why did they blackball you?


Because we left the Phoenix studio.


Oh, I see.


And we were their best dance team they had. And so, they thought by blackballing us, we’d come back to Phoenix. So, instead, we got a job with the Fred Astaire Studio, and I worked for Fred Astaire. And I became—in the daytime, I’d go to audition for Broadway shows. And I auditioned for the Arthur Murray Show. [CHUCKLE] And I became Kathryn Murray’s dance partner.




We’d rehearse in the daytime, and I’d teach dancing at Fred Astaire’s at night. But that was so funny. [CHUCKLE]


And she knew that?


And – no, she —


Oh, she didn’t.


— didn’t know that. [CHUCKLE] But the show …




We left New York because my wife became pregnant, and went to Phoenix, and I opened a dance studio. And they sued me. Because —


Non – compete.


I had a contract. Right. But I was underage when I signed the contract. [CHUCKLE] And my first wife said, I married a child. I said, Yes, you can be

picked up for rape. [CHUCKLE]


[CHUCKLE] So, you got in trouble with your wife, but you got out of the lawsuit.


She didn’t know I was so young. But, we got out of the lawsuit. And then, my studio just bloomed; we were big, big, big. I ended up with, fourteen studios all over the State of Arizona.


So, from an early age, you were good at earning money. But now, you’re good at making money. How did that happen? What was that transition?


Oh, I had a good business sense. And …


Where’d you get it?


It just came natural, I guess. I opened the one studio, and I was doing all the teaching. And pretty soon, we had too many students, and my wife was pregnant, having the baby. I had to hire teachers and more teachers, and more students, more teachers. And then, my sister got involved, and she was just sixteen at that time. And —


How old were you? Twenty-six? She’s ten years —


Oh, I was —


— younger?


Let’s see; that was 1948 … I must have been nineteen.






So, already, you’re married and you’ve got all these —




— dance studios?


Uh-huh. Well, the studios took ten years, but … I stayed in Phoenix ten years. And we made all these studios, I got a divorce, she got the Tucson studio. I kept the Phoenix, Scottsdale, and all the rest of ‘em. And then, I start selling them off to teachers who would run the studio and pay me a percentage of their gross. And so, I had all these studios.


Did you figure out that business model? ‘Cause that’s smart. That’s ongoing revenue; right?


Yeah, it’s ongoing revenue.




[CHUCKLE] And so, I did the same thing here in Honolulu with nightclubs.


So, how do you think you had the wherewithal to be so adult in your sophistication when you were a teenager? I mean, when you were doing an adult’s job on the piano.




And then, you …


I just —


— [INDISTINCT] businesses.


I just liked to make money.


And you’re marrying an adult.


I’m marrying an adult. Yes. It all fit together pretty good.


You didn’t have to really think about it at all?

No; I wouldn’t want to change a day of it. It was a wonderful life. I must say, the Lord was very good to me. I worked with the rough element. Nightclub business is not an easy business. But I stayed the straight line, and did it as a business. I don’t drink; I never did drink. [CHUCKLE] And so, I always said people want to buy me a drink. I said, I’m in the business to sell this; I don’t drink it.


So, throughout the time you operated nightclubs, and made a good living off alcohol, you never drank?


Never drank.


Not ever tempted? ‘Cause a lot of people get in trouble; they don’t think they’re interested —


Oh, I’d have —


— and then they’re exposed —


— a social drink —


— to it.


— you know, like a martini once in a while. But I was never a drinker.


What was your passion about running nightclubs?


Doing shows.




And, directing shows, and producing shows. And so, that opened a whole new

field for me.


Okay; let’s back up. Because right now, we’re still in Tucson, and you’re …


We’re in Phoenix.


I’m sorry; Phoenix, and you’re … getting passive revenue from the individual sale of you —





— studios. And then, what happens?


Well, I did a first television show. Had a weekly live TV show, which got me into producing dance numbers. In fact, Wayne Newton was on my first show. He was … twelve years old.


Could you tell he was gonna be a star?


Oh, yes. He had lots of talent. And he also worked for me at The Dunes here.




[CHUCKLE] Later … I started producing shows, and then I produced them in nightclubs. So, I had a show at the Guys and Dolls, which was on the south side of Phoenix, and I had a show on the north side of town called The Sundown. And then, I personally appeared at the Westward Ho Hotel in the fancy Contra Room. Was the equivalent to our Monarch Room here. And my sister and I became a dance team there … so, I was into producing shows. And sent a show to Las Vegas at the El Rancho, and then I was into tap dancing and dan – and doing all of these shows.


And your talents as far as dancing and piano; they’re all self – taught? Who taught you how to dance?


Yeah. No, I studied some tap.




When I was in Los Angeles, I took tap.


Because you were a budding —




— actor; right?


I was in a class with Vera-Ellen and Donald O’Connor. And Peggy Ryan.




Do you remember Peggy?


Yes; she was married to Eddie Sherman.


Eddie Sherman; right. We were in the same dance class. And … Vera-Ellen; we thought we were gonna team up as a team.


Wow. So, lots of people flowing through your life, lots of different ways to make a living.


Right. Can we stop a minute?




Well, can we go back to your first wife? So, you—how old were you when you proposed to her?


I think I was about eighteen.


Eighteen; and how old was she?




And she didn’t know you were a teenager.


No; ‘cause I was twenty – I was twenty-four. ‘Cause I changed my age.


Oh, I see.


So, Arthur Murray’s thought I was twenty – four.


Was that ever a point of friction between you, that you hadn’t told her how old you really were?


Not; not until we won the court case. [CHUCKLE]




‘Cause I was only eighteen when I signed the contract.


Yeah. So, that turned out to be your saving grace —




— actually.


M – hm.


Okay. So, here we – so now, you are – where are we now? You were selling your dance studios.


Yes; I told my dance studios. Well, while I was dancing in the Contra Room, that’s where I met my second wife. She came in one night for dinner with … a party of eight people. She had just moved to Phoenix; she was from Dallas, Texas. And … I met them – after the show, we’d always go around and talk to the customers. So, I said, Hello, I hope I’ll see you again.


Did you say that to everyone?


Well, to her. I shook her hand and said – I said, I hope you’ll come back again. And … three nights later, she came back again. This time, she brought her friend. He’s the baseball player, Dizzy Dean and his wife, Pat Dean, which they were close friends from Texas. And so, after the show, they asked me to join them, and that’s how we became friends. And in talking, I found out that she had a daughter that was eight years old, and my son was with me at that time and he was seven years old. And I said … How about going to the State Fair, Sunday? Take our kids; wouldn’t that be fun? She thought that was our first date. So, we took our kids to the fair, and from then on, it … turned into a romance, and we got married.


What made her a keeper?


What made her, what?


What made her a keeper?


A keeper?


Fifty years; that’s … that’s a keeper. [CHUCKLE]


I’ve been ma – yes, we’re celebrating our fifty – eighth wedding anniversary.








[CHUCKLE] I’m an old man now. [CHUCKLE]


What made her the one?


Well, she was such a lady. My first wife was a dancer. And it was an entirely different type of personality. My first wife was in show business, and I was in show business, and … my other wife was not in show biz. She used to manage Elizabeth Arden’s main [INDISTINCT] in Scottsdale, Arizona. And I used to teach dancing there, too. That’s where we had all the celebrities from Hollywood used to come there and try to rejuvenate. Like, Greer Garson, Rosalind Russell, Bette Davis. We even had Mamie Eisenhower. And they would all take down – the dance lessons from me. I personally there. So, it was —


And you liked the idea of being married to somebody who wasn’t in the showbiz




— realm.


Right. And then … we just hit it off beautifully. And so, we got married, and we were on our honeymoon. We … was gonna do the Orient. We did Japan and Hong Kong, and Australia. And we were at Fiji and the plane was going to Tahiti, and I said, I’m so hungry for a hamburger. In those days, the restaurants were not good, even in Tokyo and Hong Kong. And the plane was announced, All aboard for Honolulu. I said, Why don’t we change our tickets and go to Honolulu?


For a hamburger?


[CHUCKLE] Well, to finish our honeymoon.


[CHUCKLE] I see.


And so – because we – we were – told everyone we were gonna be gone two months. And so … we got on the plane to Honolulu, and we stayed in the Hawaiian Village Hotel for a while. And then we said, Why don’t we … get an apartment. So, we got an apartment, paid a month’s rent. And while we were there, we said, Why don’t we get a job. We liked it here so much. So, we both started looking for a job. Well, I couldn’t find anything, but she found a job at the Biltmore Hotel. She was secretary to the manager; worked right in. And one night, we went to the Forbidden City, ‘cause we had dinner across the street at the Fisherman’s Wharf.


On Ala Moana Boulevard —


Oh, yeah.


And Forbidden City was —


Across the street.


Right – yeah, where Ward Warehouse is now.


Right. And we were in there, and there were six customers. And all these Japanese girls in the show. And so, the manager came over and talked to us; Chinese man. And I said, How can you pay the rent with six people in here? And the show was a god awful show.


What kind of show was it?


Kabuki dancing.




Japa – in that period, there was the Oasis, the Ginbashi [PHONETIC], the Forbidden City, the Ginza. It was all Japanese hostesses. There were no Korean hostesses then. [CHUCKLE] And they would dance. And so … I just told him how bad his show was, and he said … Do you want to do a show for me? I said, Yeah, I’ll do a show for you, I have nothing to do. He said, How much is it gonna cost? I said, I’ll do a show for you for nothing. I just need something to do. Well, that gets into a very involved story because … the lady who was his partner was the mistress of John Wayne, who had his boat parked across the street by the Fisherman’s Wharf. [CHUCKLE]


So, how did that get involved?


Well, that got very involved because it’s so funny. And meeting John Wayne, I told him, I don’t know what we’re gonna do with our son. And he said, I have the same problem. I said, I have a ranch in Arizona, five hundred acres, and I wanted my son to take it over. Pat said – or John said, Where is it? I said, It’s right outside of Phoenix. He said, I’ll take a look at it when I’m back in Hollywood. So, he had to get out of town. I did him a favor here. And … he bought the ranch for his son, Pat.


He bought your ranch for his –




–son, Pat.


[CHUCKLE] And the story; when I took the check to the bank, it was so funny. The cashier said, Is this John Wayne, the actor? I said, Yeah. And you’re gonna cash it?




I said, Yes, I think so. [CHUCKLE]




That was, I thought, very interesting. That’s how I got in —


So, even in Honolulu, you’re running into celebs.


Yes; yes. So … I did a show at the Forbidden City. And I did two shows that made a lot of money. One was Black Bottoms, the first time —


Black Bottoms; could you explain?


Black Bottoms, an all Negro show.


Ah … and what happened to the Japanese dancers? Uh-oh. Bye —


They were—




— his waitresses; yeah.




And then, I did an ice show. First time we had an ice show at the Forbidden City. I called it Nudes on Ice.


So, you put in an ice skating rink?


Yeah; it was about twice the size of this table.




Portable. And two skater friends of mine from the mainland. I brought them over and said … Come and skate; a paid vacation, two weeks. Airfare, hotel, meals. Oh, yeah, we’ll do that. So, they came over. And I had the Japanese girls and … and I used them as showgirls, and the girl skater would come out and skate. And then, they’d – the boy would come out and skate, and those Japanese girls. And I talked three of the Japanese girls into going topless.


Now, this is – you’ve just punched through an envelope, because you weren’t doing this before; right?


No; no. [CHUCKLE]


You were doing regular —




— choreography and dancing —




— and show tunes. All of a sudden, you’re doing naked stuff?


I just had them open their kimonos to add a little more to the show.


And what were the skaters wearing?


Oh, they wore regular —


Regular —


— ice skate – yeah, they were … professional —


So —


— skaters.


— now, by opening the kimono, you’ve just —

But it was —


— taken a step into a different —


Nudes on Ice; and it was such a sensation.


Wait. Nudes on Ice; so they weren’t wearing regular skating clothes?


No. The skaters wore clothes, but the three girls that stood there [CHUCKLE] on the ice —


Oh; I see.


They were the nudes on ice. [CHUCKLE] That was my hook. Every show needs a hook, you know.


Yeah; because you’re a marketer, too.




So, now you’re really kinda dealing in a different kind of venue.


Right. And there were no nightclubs having any nudity. It was against the law.


And when did you – now, you already lied about your age, but now you’re talking about breaking the law.


Well, there were no laws. Hawaiian dancers were topless … in King Kalakaua —


Throughout history. [CHUCKLE]


Right. And so, what was the law? What was the – what was the big deal? So, the next show I did was complete nude show. I brought burlesque in. It wasn’t nude; it was just topless. The girls then had to wear pasties and …




— silk bras. But it eventually evolved. And every time we would do that, they would come and arrest me. And —


You’re saying this like this is, you know, just part of doing business. But I mean, you – and what was the charge? Was it lewdness, open lewdness?


Lewd and lascivious conduct.


How did you feel about that?



Well, they’d arrest me, and I’d say, Excuse me, can I go to the restroom? And I’d run in my office and I’d call the TV and the newspaper, and I’d stay there until they got to the club.


So, you’re actually enjoying this.


Oh, loving it. And the next morning, it was in the papers and it was on TV.


Was that part of being a showman?


Yes. And business increased. People would see that. Oh, look, arrested, nude. We gotta go see that [CHUCKLE] at Forbidden City.


And how did your new wife think about this?


Well, [CHUCKLE] she didn’t particularly like it. But it was making lots of money. And so, we opened that club, then we opened another one. I ended up with twelve bars here. And —


And how many arrests?


Oh, gosh; I was arrested so many times, but not once conviction.


Because as you said, the laws hadn’t caught up with this business activity.


Right. We went topless, then we went bottomless, and then we went totally nude. And then, of course, my biggest hit of all was the naked waiters out at The Dunes. And that just happened by accident.


And not only – I mean, I think people who weren’t aware of this era would be surprised to learn that not only were there naked waiters, but … your customers were touching these guys.




And I mean, there was a lot of touching going on.


Yes; on the waiters. The females went wild. All these years, I was doing the shows for men. We used to have a businessman’s lunch at The Dunes.


Back when three martinis were tax deductible; right?


Right. And it was all businessmen.




And the show was a striptease show. And these secretaries said, We’re so tired of coming with our boss; why don’t you put a naked man on stage for us? And I just happened to say, Well, why don’t you get me a reservation for fifty ladies, and I’ll have a naked man for you. That’s how it started.


And how many – did you get a reservation for fifty?


Oh, gosh; they called about two weeks later. They said, We have your fifty; you’re gonna have a naked man? And I said, Yes. Well, by the time the two weeks came, they had two hundred reservations. That filled up my room. [CHUCKLE] They kept out my men customers. The ladies took all the seats.


And did you have your naked waiter in line?






I didn’t have any.


How do you hire a naked waiter?


In those days, this was now 1973 … and there were no such a thing as Chippendales and men strippers. But I had a beach house in Haleiwa that I was renting to five surfers. And they were behind on their rent. So, I called them and said, You guys gotta pay the rent, or you’ve gotta come in and do me a favor. They said, What is it? I said, Well, you gotta come to The Dunes, Friday, and you’ve got to drop your pants on stage. Oh, hell, yeah; we’ll do that.




And so —


And nothing said about, I need you to be good serving people.


No, no.


‘Cause you will be a waiter now.


I had waitresses.


Oh; and were they topless?


All topless. Don’t you remember? That was the —


I didn’t know you combined them. Okay.


Well, this was new. I felt —


So, topless women, bottomless men.


Well, at that time, the topless waitresses were the draw for the male customers. And I thought this woman secretary was doing this for one night, one day, Friday afternoon. So, I got her the naked men. I didn’t know it was gonna become so famous. Those women stayed all day. We had the biggest bar business I ever did that afternoon. They all drank, drank, and the surfers were enter —




Paraded, without their pants. And [CHUCKLE] the waitresses were mad, because the ladies at the table would say, Get away, I want a naked waiter, I don’t want you. And they weren’t making any tips, and the surfers were making all the money. So, when I saw that, I thought, Oh, this is a goldmine. So, in a week’s time, I told the gals; I said, We’re gonna have waiters every day.


Instead of waitresses?


Instead of waitresses.


Because the women were the ones who were paying more money.


Yes. And so —


As clients.


That’s how it happened. And then, the publicity went … outstanding.


Along with the publicity of, Wow, look what happened, you gotta go see this, I’m sure there was also this drumbeat from citizens saying, What is this guy doing, it’s so vulgar, it’s so lewd, it’s just …


All —


— horrendous on society.


— the churches … all the churches. And there was a gal here, I’m sure you interviewed her. Her name was Jerri Mann [PHONETIC].


Oh, I don’t remember. I’m sorry.


University of Hawaii. She wrote editorials to the paper every – every week. And she was down on it.


And fact is, you’d come from somewhere else, and brought this vulgar stuff to Hawaii; right?




How did you … justify that?


Well, we just continued it. I had the naked waiters in the daytime, and the strippers at nighttime. And … soon opened another spot in Waikiki.


So, it didn’t bother you, all the —




— criticism.


And we’d get arrested, and they had no charges. The Liquor Commission was then in charge. And they had vice squad in those days. The vice squad would come in and see it, and they’d say, Oh, what’s this? Nothing. But the Liquor Commission would do all the complaining. But they lost every case.


Did you spend a fortune on legal bills?


No, I had a wonderful attorney. He —


Who was your attorney?


Myer Symonds. He’s —


I recall his name.


— dead now. But he loved this type of work, and he took every case and won it. And then the Liquor Commission start making the rules. They forbid the waiters to walk around on the floor, which the rule said, Hey, you have to be on a platform, eighteen inches off the floor to work nude. Meaning, you have to be on a stage. But I built a platform behind the salad bar.




Eighteen inches off the floor. [CHUCKLE] I put the nude waiters behind the salad bar.


You must have had law enforcement just ready to —






So, they couldn’t do anything with that. It was eighteen inches off the floor. But they couldn’t walk around on the floor.


So, among all of this – I just sense that your guiding force is money and showbiz. But you weren’t really into the flesh stuff of it all?




Or the –




Or the drinking, clearly.


No. And of course, with all the national publicity, we opened a waiter show in Waikiki, we opened a waiter show in Los Angeles, and one in San Francisco. And again, I sold them as a franchise. I let them use the name, and I helped them put the show together. So, we had four shows going at one time. And we made every national magazine. The London papers, the German papers; they sent reporters with their photographers to take their own pictures.


I would have thought, say, the women’s lunch, that would have been kind of a … you know, one-occasion affair for a lot of women.


That’s what we thought.


But was it repeat business?


Five years.


And people keep coming back?


Oh … unreal. Four hundred lunches, Monday through Friday.


And where was that lunch place located?


At The Dunes.


Which was, where?


Nimitz Highway.


Nimitz Highway.


Out by the airport, right next to The Plaza Hotel. It’s torn down now; it’s a car lot. But that was the biggest attraction we ever had. And I give all the credit to Sophie Tucker. You remember her?


I do remember Sophie Tucker.


Because when —


I’m sure everyone in Honolulu does.


When we bought The Dunes, we made it a fancy supper club, and we played Pearl Bailey, Van Johnson, Kay Starr …


When you say you played them, you mean you played them —


They —


— their audio?


They worked there.


Oh, they came in and performed there.


Yeah; that was the – the place to go for dinner and see.


So, that’s a classy joint.


Very classy. But … it was Sophie Tucker who told me when she worked there; Young man, there aren’t fifty-two stars on the books to fill this room fifty-two weeks a year. You’ve gotta come up with a gimmick if you want to make money in the nightclub business. ‘Cause all that time, I was playing these stars and paying them ten thousand dollars a week. Unheard of —


So, your gimmick was nudity.


Gimmick was nudity. And from then on, it just went. Girls in the cages, the first Twist Bar here in town, doing The Twist. First sex change, local boy from McKinley High School. Sandra and her Donkey. Oh!


Sandra and her Donkey? I think I missed that one.


[CHUCKLE] You missed that one. You never heard the story about Sandra?


No …




Do I want to hear it?


[CHUCKLE] We’ll put it in, but you might want to cut it out.




That was a story. When people would to go to Cuba or Mexico to see Senorita and her Donkey.


No; tell me about. What —


Oh, it was —


Why did they go see her?


Because she would perform a sexual act with the donkey. It was —




— quite famous in the 50s. Everybody; it was cocktail conversation. And so, I took a local stripper, Sandra, and I rented a donkey from Waimanalo. And we did the stage with the bales of hay and a barn. And Sandra danced Donkey Serenade, hung her clothes on the donkey, kissed the donkey, laid on the bale of hay. But nothing ever happened. When people would see that, they’d come out and say, Jack Cione, that’s the dumbest show I ever saw. And I’d say, You should have been here last night; the donkey really went wild. They’d come back the next night to see. [CHUCKLE]


So, marketing was very much a part of what you did.


Marketing was my business; yeah. My partner counted the money and stayed in the office. I did the marketing and the frontend of all those clubs.


And you went to the police cell block.


I did the —


On behalf of the business.


Yeah. He said, When they arrest you, you’re going, not me.


But you know, it’s – you – sounds like you grew up fast. At fourteen, you’re playing in nightclubs. And now, it sounds like you’re a kid in an adult business.


Well, I’m in the business that I learned when I was playing the piano in the bar business.


It’s what people really want.




So, you got to know some of their baser desires.




And you mentioned there were unsavory people, kind of on the fringes who were involved.


And instead of paying … Kay Starr or Redd Foxx ten thousand dollars a week —


You hired a donkey.


A hundred dollars a week for the donkey, and two hundred for the stripper, and packed the place every night. [CHUCKLE]


What are some of the things that happened as a business owner on the edges there that surprised you? Any surprises about running the business with authorities … with businesspeople, with people you hired?


No. It was – it was – I had great employees.


What kind of competition did you start to face? Were there copycats?


No. I had twelve bars; there were no copycats.




I had The French Quarters on Maunakea Street, The Show Bar on Hotel Street, The Dunes out by the airport, Casbah Lounge, the Forbidden City, Soul City —


Le Boom Boom.


Le Boom Boom at the International Marketplace. The Clouds Hotel, Little Dipper, the Money Room. I had all these strip shows going on. And I only had one club, and the manager of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel … said, Can you come and do something with my show in the Monarch Room?


To pep it up?


Yeah. So, I went and redid their show. That played two years. And in that show, I did a Hawaiian show. Real Polynesian, which never knew anything about, but learned. It starred Ed Kenney, Beverly Noa, Marlene Sai.


Oh, that was big time.


Mottie Ing [PHONETIC].




Al Harrington was my … knife da — with a knife —


Fire dancer?


Fire dancer. And Jack Tahiti Thompson, who owns – they still own the business, was my Samoan slap dancer. Kimo Kahoano —




He was …


Your emcee?


No; one of the boy dancers. He was just a young kid.




And so, that show played there to great reviews. It was called Her Little Island. And so, after that, I always wanted to do another Polynesian show, which I did at Le Boom Boom. When we bought Duke’s, and Duke’s was, a club that … had Don Ho and … Martin Denny and all those stars, and I bought it and put a review in there featuring Prince Hanalei.




The shock —


Not – not —


— of Waikiki.


Yes. Now, he was famous. I remember he was known for being able to make tassels —




— twirl in opposite directions.


Standing on his head, on fire. And when I put him in to headline that show, the tourists …


And where were the tassels attached?


On his back side.




And the tour company said, Oh, Jack, we’re not gonna support that show. I said, Bring your customers. So, the first night, they loved it. It was such a hit that the so – show sold out every night. And in those days, we were doing two shows a night; a dinner show and a second show. Today, everybody does one show a night.


But you could sell out two.




What happened to Prince Hanalei? He was the talk of the town.


He died. He passed on.




Yeah; very young. But he was a great act. And then, I made copies of – Follies Polynesia, it was called, at the Le Boom Boom. It stayed there. But I sent a second company to Las Vegas, and to Lake Tahoe, and to Hong Kong.


Were you working all the time? Sounds like —


All the time.


This is – you were working at night, you were doing business deals —




— during the day.


And so, all of those shows, you see … somebody else was running them, but they were all bringing income.


And what did this do to the powers that be in town, the ones who were supposed to make sure that, you know, citizens, you know, aren’t bothered by an unsavory element? Did you run into trouble with – obviously, the police were on your case, but what about politicians?


No; no, the politicians agreed that this was something the town needed. Honolulu was ready for this.


Who said that?


Oh, I’m not gonna name their names, but the politicians were no problem. They could see that there was a need for this. We had military here, a large population of military. So, this is a tourist town. If you saw it in Las Vegas, why wouldn’t you see it in Honolulu?


And what about as a nexus for organized crime? We had local organized crime in those days. This was the 60s, 70s, and by the 80s I think things were changing. But local organized crime who were getting kickbacks at other places. Did they get them from you?


Never bothered us; no. Never bothered us. I thought we were approached once, but when they found out that the … money would be too hard to get, because it was run as a business. They preyed on mom and pop bars.


Under the table payments.


Yeah; where the owner of the bar would put the money from the cash register in his pocket, you see. But my businesses all had managers and we had to show the tally every night. And if you took money out of the register … no, I never had any trouble with them.


They didn’t say, You know, we’ll provide —


You know —


— security —


— who I had trouble —


We’ll provide security for you, Jack; just send a check over to me —




— every week.


I had my own Samoan security.


But it doesn’t matter; they could have still billed you for security.


No; didn’t do that … the biggest shakedown I thought I had was at the Le Boom Boom Club. The bus drivers that would bring the tour groups into your club … and they would bring fifty, a hundred, two hundred a night in those days. And so, I had … one bus driver said … You like the numbers I’m bringing you? I said, Yeah, it’s fine. He says, You know, I can take them to the Al Harrington Show. I said, I know that. He said, But for a dollar a head, I’ll keep bringing them here. I said, Where am I gonna get the dollar? He said, Out of your register. I said, I can’t, it all goes to the books, I can’t just go in there and take a hundred dollars out because you brought me a hundred customers. They were – then another one tried the same thing. They were the ones shaking me down.


And that didn’t work?


And besides, the tour companies were charging twenty-five percent of the ticket for them.




Now, they’re up to forty percent, I hear.


Oh …


That’s why there are no shows in Waikiki.


Because of all the feeders off the shows?


All feeding off the shows. Right.


Why did you stop doing shows?


Because of that.


What was the biggest cost factor that made you stop?


When they were asking thirty percent.


For delivery of —


Of —


— customers?


Yeah; for a dinner and a show ticket. That mean I would have to raise my price. And it – and it’s ridiculous.


M-hm. Can I ask you in general terms, how much money did you make from all of this? It sounds like —




— you had this burgeoning empire.


Well, I’m living at Arcadia now, which is very expensive.


After having lived at Diamond Head in a house you owned.


Yes. [CHUCKLE] Well, we were in the house business. My wife and I used to buy old houses and decorate them, and sell them. That was her hobby. And I sort of participated in it, too. Arcadia is very expensive. Wonderful place to live, but very expensive.


I know there were eyebrows raised when you applied to live in Arcadia, because it’s a very distinguished place with retired judges —



Retired attorneys, and … did you – what was that like? What was that application process like for you?


When I first moved in, it was a shock, yes. I wasn’t sure that it would last, but it did. And I started the Follies, and we did a little show there using the … residents. It was called School Days, and we dressed them all up in their little kindergarten clothes and did silly jokes, kiddie jokes. And sang Sesame Street songs. [CHUCKLE] And so they all loved it, and the show grew. I’m doing one this year; this is the ninth year. We’ve lived there now ten years. And this is the ninth year of the Follies. We’re calling it Mardi Gras Follies. I used to do Mardi Gras Follies at Pearl Harbor.


That’s right; twenty years. It was a great show.


Twenty – twenty years, we did it out there as their fundraiser. And they made a lot of money on that show. And now, we’re doing it here as a fundraiser, ‘cause we don’t sell tickets.


No skin showing?


No skin showing.




And we have a cast of thirty-five this year.


All from the Arcadia?


All senior ladies. We’ve got one in there is ninety-five years old.


Is she dancing?


She – she … has trouble walking, but she wears the costume, and …




And we added some from Craigside. You know, Arcadia has another place called Craigside. So … the casts are from both places.


Are you still enjoying the shows?

Oh, love – I love doing it. Yeah. It’s a lot of work, though. You – they don’t realize how much work it really is. But I have a good assistant, and I have good costume people, good light person. And so, I’ve got a crew now.


And so —


So, just to clarify, going back. Because the law are different now, and people are used to different rules in place. What … when you had naked waiters, when you had strippers, are you talking about people wearing skin-tone tights, that kinda thing, or G-strings? What kind of nude waiters are you talking about?


No; my waiters took their clothes off. They worked in the nude. I had them wear butcher aprons; that was fun. So, they looked like a waiter. Tied the apron in the back, you know, the butcher apron. And when they come to the table, the ladies would lift up the apron, and the waiter would say, Uh-uh, that’s gonna cost you money.


And how do you tip a naked waiter?


And then they’d teach them how to tip a naked waiter.


And how is that? How do you do that?


They’d take the five-dollar bill off the table, and roll it up … hook it around, and lift up the apron and …


And that was part of their entertainment.


That was part of the entertainment. That’s why they’d stay all afternoon.



But it went – and so, that’s a form of touching, but it went to full – on touching too; right?


No, that’s about all they did to the waiters. They’d be … strict about that.


The waiters would have to control —




— the lady’s action?


See, we did a show on stage, so that was basically what you came to see, is what you say, a naked waiter became a stage show. And when you came in, we charged you a cover charge, and we tied a yellow ribbon around your finger to show that you paid. And when our star would come out, he would dance to Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around That Old Oak Tree. And so, when he was totally nude, he would say, Okay, ladies, this is your chance; would you like to come up and tie your yellow ribbon around my oak tree? And they would line up, and it would take thirty, forty minutes for everybody to tie. That was the show. [CHUCKLE]


Wow. And you were taking it all the way to the bank.


All the way to the bank. Yes. [CHUCKLE]


What was happening in other cities around the world, or around America? Was the same kind of —


Yes; it was —


— nudity going on?


It was all – right. It was a phase that … I think the general public was ready for nudity. It no longer sells. Who’s interested? You can see it on television, you have videos. We didn’t have those in the 60s and 70s.


So, all of the laws that have to do with stage shows and … contact with nudes, and nudity; those all developed right after you came on the scene and —


That’s right.


— probably because you came on the scene.


Right here in Honolulu; yes. If you looked at the Liquor Commission laws, if you were to open a bar and wanted to do nudity, they would give you these rules and regulations. The other thing, if you think about … I remember in nineteen-thirty … mm, six or seven, there was a movie called Gone With the Wind. And Scarlett O’Hara said, Rhett, what am I gonna do, what am I gonna do? And he said, Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. Ah! That shocking. Do you remember that?


I do remember that.


Oh, my; that’s all we talked about. He said, damn, in the movie.


So, very different context. But still, nudity, I mean, that was – you were a pariah.


Yeah. Well, so then it – it progresses, you know. There were several movies. Remember Deep Throat?




Big money. Blue Moon, and all these movies start coming out. Now, who cares? [CHUCKLE]


How did you know people would go for exactly the kind of entertainment that you were offering?


I didn’t. It just happened by accident. When I put those surfers on the stage and they dropped their pants, I didn’t know that that was gonna last five years. I thought it’s a – a gimmick today, it’ll be over tomorrow. But the ladies said, We want more, more, more.


And then, you were very good at packaging that and franchising —


Then I start —


— it.


— hiring waiters.




You know, I remember … you had to find beautiful bodies. And the secret was, the man had to like women. Because the women sense that. And so, I went to Los Angeles to Gold’s Gym. And guess who was running Gold’s Gym? Arnold Schwarzenegger.


Oh, I think he likes women.


Yes. And so, I talked to Arnold about holding an audition at the gym. And when I opened the show in Waikiki, I brought five … musclemen from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gym. Arnold was gonna come over at the time, ‘cause he was managing the gym. But he had an audition for a movie, and he didn’t want to – and that’s how he became famous. But he – he supplied me with my five waiters at the Merrie Monarch.


Did you personally inspect all the auditioning people? The topless women, the —


Y —


— nude guys.


Well, in the Los Angeles show when we did it, we hired there, ‘cause we didn’t want to bring a cast from here. So, we ran an ad in the paper. Men wanted for a new musical, have to work nude, must be well endowed. And must be able to wait on tables. And so, I did the audition at the theater and we had three hundred men show up. And so, I explained to them what we were looking for. And I said, If you’re not well endowed and if you don’t enjoy the company of women, please don’t come up on the stage and waste our time, ‘cause that’s what we’re looking for. Well, these men would line up, twenty-five at a time, and drop their pants. And I thought, My gosh, they never been in a gym before, had never been in a shower with other men; they all thought they were super studs.




And so, [CHUCKLE] out of the three hundred, we hired eight.


That’s a tough rejection —


A tough —


— on a job interview.


— rejection. Right. [CHUCKLE]



So, as you look back on that career – I mean, you were materially very successful, you resulted in change of law. But it’s – and you’re a very good showman. Everyone talks about how you’re very good at choreographing and pacing. But it’s kind of a weird thing to be known for, isn’t it?


Yes; because if they don’t know me, they think I’m just another nightclub freak that features nudity. But I did it strictly as a business. I raised my children, and I have five great – grandchildren, by the way. And I’ve always been a member of the church, even though they fought me tooth and nail. But I said, Can’t make donations to the church if you don’t let me make money. And … I never drank. And sort – sort of lived just – it was a business to me. I was in it as a business.


You were asked once, you know, who’s been influential in your life, and you – the first person you named is your uncle, who was a member of the Al Capone gang. And another you mention is a bishop, a pastor, a priest. It’s a wide range there.


Yes. He was the pastor of the Waialae Baptist Church.




And I opened a show at the Monarch – Merrie Monarch Restaurant on

Beachwalk and Kalakaua. That was Spencecliff restaurant. And that night, when I went to the club at six o’clock … there were about fifty women in robes with a candle, and a man with a cross hanging on his back, standing at my front door, telling the customers not to go in, that this is a sinful show. And it was his church group. I couldn’t believe that they would have the nerve to do that. But it was the most wonderful thing that ever happened.




It was opening night. The press covered it. We got worldwide press on it. This is a tourist town. It made papers in – Des Moines, Iowa [CHUCKLE] read about it.


So this is the pastor who was influential in your life?


Well, no.



He did that, and … later on, I saw him at a charity event, and I thanked him for doing that. I says it was that opening that I never thought of staging anything like that.


And he’s … he’s thinking.


And he said … Well, good. Anyway, we became friends. We’d have dinner together every now and then. And he started out with the idea to convert me. I said, You don’t have to convert me. I am a religious man. I was born and raised Catholic, but I’m not Catholic now because I don’t believe in what their beliefs are. But I believe in Christ, and I follow Christ. And so, we became friends. [CHUCKLE]


So, that was true all the way along? While you were doing nude shows, you were —




You were following —




— Christ?


Yeah; but then he left. I think he moved to Texas.


M-hm. So – and you remain religious and —


I —


— and a —


I still —


— Christian?


I go to church now; yes. My wife hated to go to – we used to go to St. Andrews Cathedral. And she did volunteer work there. But I said, when we go to church on Sunday and we’re sitting there, the people behind me, since I’ve had my picture in the paper so much, would say, There’s Jack Cione, look at him. Wouldn’t you know, he has lots of nerve to go to church. So, I st – felt guilty about it. So, I didn’t go for a long time, until the last ten years now.




Since I’m out of the nightclub business. It’s twenty years since I’ve been out it. And – but people still talk about it.




It was like [CHUCKLE] a volcano eruption.


[CHUCKLE] It was kind of like that —




— [INDISTINCT] time in those days. In more recent years, you’ve continued to do shows, and you’ve had beneficiaries, charitable …


Yes, I —


— groups have received your —


Twenty – five years with Pearl Harbor. We did the Mardi Gras Follies, which was a charity fundraiser. I taught tap dancing at the Waikiki Community Center for ten years. And now, I’m at Arcadia, and our show raises money by selling ads in the program, and we have a boutique. And we give that money to Arcadia for the people who need help in staying there. They outlive – we have people that are a hundred and five years old.


Who’ve outlived their money.


Outlived their money; yes.




Takes a lot of money to live at Arcadia. [CHUCKLE]


How do you feel – I mean, you’re in your mid-eighties now? You’re eighty – six.






Coming up in March. [CHUCKLE]



What does it feel like? I mean, do you feel like the same guy?


No; I’m getting older.


How does it feel different?


[CHUCKLE] It feels different; believe me.


Physically, or are you’re talking about in another way?


I have allergies I never had before. My voice is different; never had before. My knees are giving out; can’t dance anymore. I can still direct a show, but … yeah. You notice … I still have my teeth. [CHUCKLE]


You mention that you father disowned you and was just – thought you would be a bum. Did you ever get close to him again?


Oh, yes. We became very good friends. He worked with me in my dance studios. And then, when I had all the nightclubs here, I moved he and my – him – my mother and him over here. And he changed his name to Andy Cione, which made me very proud that he did that. And yeah, we became very close and very good friends.


But it took … decades.


Years; yeah. But yeah; in the nightclubs, he’d stay up ‘til four o’clock in the morning and work the cashiers and … have breakfast with me.


So now that you don’t do the breadth of activities you used to do, how do you spend your time?


Right now, the next five months, we’ll be working on the Follies.


Is that pretty much your fulltime volunteer —


I’m having —


— gig?


— another chill.



You talk – well, let’s go back a little bit to … when you were getting criticized in the press, you were getting arrested … you has this … this, Hey, I’m making money on, this attitude. Did any part of you care that you were being criticized? People thought what you were doing was terrible for society.




And there should be laws about it, that you were escaping.


[CHUCKLE] I always remembered, Clark Gable saying that in Gone With the Wind, when he’s told Scarlett, Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.


You truly didn’t give a damn?


I didn’t give a damn what the press was saying, as long as the public was showing up and supporting it. If the public didn’t support my clubs, I would have closed them. But all of the clubs were very successful, and we sold them, and new owners took over, but they all folded up one at a time. So, it was a period that the public was supporting this. I don’t think it would happen now. If I would open a nudity now, I would be very skeptic. The young generation … they’re not obsessed with the nudity. It’s people my age that were raised – and your age, that were raised that it’s naughty, don’t do that, musn’t do this. And that’s what you believed in.


And that’s why Forbidden City was so attractive —


It —


— to your customers.


Right. An – and it was a free stall for them to learn something new about life. Life is – for us, it’s a banquet and most fools are not enjoying it.


So, you didn’t ever go home and say, Oh, this really got – this guy I respect out there is criticizing me for what I do. No?


No; never did.


No hesitation, no —


I —


— second thoughts?


I always had … the public on my side. And I thought, as long as I have support from the public, then I must be doing something right.


But is it an accident that you weren’t doing this near your hometown? Would you have done this in Chicago …


Oh, Chicago; yes.


Even though your family was right around the corner over there?


Well … part of my family would not have … been in favor of it. My little down, Spring Valley, I would have never done it. Because the public there would not have accepted it.


But anywhere the public would accept it, you’d feel —




— fine about it.


Right. And I – I felt like it’s – it’s needed. And that’s why today, I don’t think it would go over. The young public is not interested. Who cares about … Sally standing, or Sally Rand dropping her fan? Who cares?


Mm. You used the word repotting. What does that mean?


Repotting, sort of, I’ve taken that on as that’s what I’ve done in my life. When I was a youngster, I played the piano, and then I went from that into dancing. So, that was my first repot. And then, on to Hollywood for another repot, and then to Arthur Murray’s ballroom dancing, another repot. And then, family man, and then dance studios, and then divorce, and new wife, and a new business. All those years, I’ve repotted.


Always reinventing yourself.


Reinventing myself; right. And that’s the name of my new book that I’m writing, and should be out this year. It’s called Repotting Can Be Such a Bitch. It won’t be on the Times Bestseller List, but my first book did sell fifty thousand copies, right here in Honolulu.


Well, it did have the word naked in the title. [CHUCKLE]


That’s right. But you know, for a book to sell fifty thousand copies, that’s a lot of copies.


That’s true. When you say it can be a —


Why was repotting so hard? It seemed pretty easy, the way your life flowed.


Well, as you live it, you know, there were some ups and downs in it. It wasn’t all gravy. I made money, I was broke, I made money, I was broke.


Because of when you sold or tried to sell businesses —




— or when they didn’t work out? So, you did know what it was like to …




— just go through a rough time.


And I know what it was like to be poor. Living in Spring Valley, I didn’t have indoor plumbing in our house until I was in the eighth grade.


Wow; that must have been a stark contrast when you – then you were – then you were —


I know.


— at your uncle’s house with all the —


A contrast.


— doo – dads.


And have you ever been in the Chicago area in January and February, and using an outhouse? [CHUCKLE]


How broke did you get?


That’s broke. [CHUCKLE]


But what about when you were an adult? I mean, when you were —


Well —


What was the —


— when I went —


— brokest time?


When I went to Hollywood.




‘Cause I – all the money I made playing the piano … I spent it all there.


Did you lose faith in yourself at any time?


No, but I didn’t know what I was gonna do. You know —


So, it wasn’t – repotting wasn’t a no – brainer?


No; right. And at that time, I looked for a job, and … got the job with Arthur Murray’s. I would have taken any job.


So, isn’t it interesting to see how that job led to this, led to that?




And if any link in the chain didn’t happen, what would you have done?


Well, I don’t know. Well, the Lord looked after me. [CHUCKLE] So, here I am.




And he’s given me the chance now to do another show. And this will be the ninth one. I hope I can do the tenth anniversary show at Arcadia. [CHUCKLE] This is my ninth one coming up.


And it’s a lot of work, I know. It’s – your mind – you have to really be able to multitask over a long period.


And it’s more work, because I’m working with amateurs, people that have never been on the stage before. So, it’s not only writing the show; it’s teaching them.


I’ve heard you’re patient, which kinda surprises me.


Yes; I’m very patient. You have to be, when you’re working with seniors. [CHUCKLE]


Mm. Thank you so much. This has been just a joy. Really appreciate your time.


You’re welcome.


Yes; we sold fifty thousand of those.


That’s terrific.


Can you imagine? That’s the way it is.



Layla Dedrick


Original air date: Tues., Mar. 3, 2010


Leslie Wilcox talks story with Layla Dedrick, Pacific Business News’ 2009 Young Business Leader of the Year. Layla is C.E.O. of Bella Pietra, a natural stone company, and she runs her business on values that are part of her Hawaiian heritage: Kuleana (responsibility), Malama (caring for), and Kupono (doing the right thing in the right place). She talks with Leslie about her journey from her childhood in Waianae, to attending Kamehameha Schools, to teaching special needs children, to running a highly successful business with her husband.


Layla Dedrick Audio


Download the Transcript




My parents’ business; they owned a gas station in Maili, right on Farrington. So we were either at home, in the service station, grease monkeys running around, and right across the street was the beach. And that was our playground. So my memories of Maili are very much about the ocean, and that is still a really strong connection for me.


Born and raised on Oahu’s ruggedly beautiful Waianae coast, Layla Dedrick grew up in a family business. Before she turned 40, she would establish her own business and win recognition as a business leader. It’s her second career. First she was a special education teacher. She says that special-ed background has helped her tremendously in business…because she knows how to set clear expectations and give positive feedback. Layla Dedrick’s “Long Story Short” is next.


Aloha mai kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of “Long Story Short”, we’ll meet Layla Dedrick, C-E-O and owner of a natural stone company, Bella Pietra…and the 2009 recipient of the “Young Business Leader of the Year” award, from Pacific Business News. Layla Dedrick is a graduate of the Kamehameha Schools and the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and she’s a former public-school teacher. With her husband Andrew, she founded Bella Pietra in 2001. The first year out, their business brought in revenues of 600,000 dollars. By 2008, the revenues were up to 11 million dollars. At that point, the economic crisis slowed things down. Through it all, Layla Dedrick looks to her Hawaiian upbringing and she remains committed to doing business in a culturally correct way.


I think one of the other things that I think about Maili is a kind of…not just natural, but a ruggedness in the natural environment, as well as the people. It’s a hot, dry place by climate, economically has been and still is depressed. So a very kind—I think resoluteness about that affects how you grow up there. Our family business being very public—I mean, it was a service station and repair, so everybody in Waianae at that time literally drove through my family business. It made us very aware of the role that you play in the community. It’s real easy to look at Waianae and see the negative, but I learned from early on that you need to be a positive influence in the community in however you choose to do that.


You mentioned the community was depressed economically, and your parents owned a business.




That must have been tough for them to operate the business and they must have been asked for credit a lot, is my guess.


I still remember to this day an old cash register, the kind you punch the buttons and, cha-king, and it opens the drawer. And in one of the drawers that didn’t have dollar bills in it was an old beat-up Casio watch and a little, very small, tiny diamond ring back sitting the drawer. And those were collateral that they had taken from people who say, Well, you know, if I don’t fix my car, I can’t drive to town and go to work, but I can give you this, can you fix my car. And my parents would do that, and they’d put it in the drawer, and they were supposed to, you know, come back and pay cash. Those are the kinds of things they did, because they knew that’s something little they could contribute.


Did you always hang out at the service station? Did you work there?


I did. I’m the last of six children. We stood out a little bit in the community, because there were all these hapa Haole girls working in this dirty, grimy service station and pumping gas, and fixing tires.


Can you fix a car these days?


Not anymore. It’s more computer than car nowadays. But I did pump gas and help my mom fix tires, and that kinda thing. It was great life experience.


Back in the days when—


For sure.


—gas was pumped for the customer.


That’s right. Yeah, no automated anything.


After attending Maili elementary, Layla Dedrick enrolled at the Kamehameha schools, like her older sisters before her. Just getting to the Honolulu campus in Kapalama was a daily challenge.


Was it a bus ride for you?


It was a bus ride.


That’s a long—






Up at four-thirty, five, at the bus stop before six behind Tamura’s Supermarket with Clancy the bus driver, who was the bus driver for my sisters. And that was—it was a long ride in the dark in early morning. And then getting home at four-thirty, five-thirty in the afternoon. That was a big change, having pretty much grown up all of my days, my social activities and schooling in Waianae. Soon, I think maybe about my tenth grade year, started to get an inkling of, I better not waste this. You know—began to see the opportunities that Kamehameha offered. And then just fell in love with the whole experience, academically, involved in sports.


You did sports even though you had to take this bus ride home?


Well, from tenth grade, I started driving.


I see.


So my mom’s rule was, if you want a car, give me a reason that you need a car. If you’re just gonna go to school and come home, ride the bus. But I was starting to be interested in sports, swimming and water polo and with sports, again, leaving home at four or five in the morning to get in the pool at six. Practice after school, getting home at seven o’clock at night, just enough time to sit down and wolf down a dinner with Mom and Dad, and then hit the books. So high school is a blur, but very fond memories.


Did you become less of a tita?


[chuckle] I hope so. [chuckle] I hope I can—


At Kamehameha.


I hope I can—there’s a lot of great qualities about the tita-ness…self reliance, not being afraid to speak up for yourself, that helps me, I think, on a daily basis, try to cut through kind of all of…when you’re running a business and have lots of employees, and work with the public like we do.


Any drawbacks to the tita background?


Yes. [chuckle] How candid do you want to be?




Let’s see. I would say, delivery, how you say something has a huge impact on how it’s received. And so that same quality of wanting to cut to the chase to help solve a problem doesn’t mean that you get to be rude…


What about—you were one of six kids, and—




—sometimes you’ve gotta fight for position. I know sometimes people say the youngest has it easiest.




But on the other hand, it’s a group, and sometimes you get put aside. How did you—




—handle that?


I would say that but truly, I was really, really blessed, because I think I had the best of both worlds. I was the youngest, but there’s a big span between me and the other five.


So there was not a lot of sibling rivalry.


Not sibling rivalry. I had more than one mom. I had my mom and my sisters, who all helped take care of me. My mom had me when she was almost forty-three, which is late.




And so I have the perspective of kind of the older generation, her values. But then I also have the values of…most of my siblings are Baby Boomers. I was actually spoiled, would be a good word. But in a good way, in that I was showered with love in a healthy way.


You did a newspaper article I read, and you introduced yourself in the article in Hawaiian style. You—




—began with your genealogy.


M-m. Yes, and that’s important to me, and something that’s become really clear as a business owner. ‘Cause I’ve been challenged more than I ever dreamed as a business owner. And introducing myself through my genealogy, when I think of myself in those terms as a kanaka maoli, it helps me remember that I am not just me, that I am part of a long line of strong, intelligent people, through all of my ethnicities, whether Hawaiian or Chinese, or Caucasian, and that part of Hawaiian cultural beliefs are—is that literally, your ancestors, your kupuna are literally standing ready to assist you. And so how can I be anything but ready to go forward when I think of who is standing behind me saying, Go, imua, go forward.


Who’s standing behind you right now?


Oh wow. I can’t talk about that without crying. Sorry. [SNIFF]

Besides my most immediate ancestors, my father who’s passed on my mom is—still blessed that she’s with us, um, their parents. That’s who I know… but when I think about my Hawaiian background, I see these images of um, kind of these outline of people linked hand-in-hand. And for me personally, that’s their energy, their mana, their soul.


I am linked through to them through my genealogy and they are there for me as a point of nurturing for me, to give me the strength to go forward. Modern day Hawaiians are plagued by so many ills, physically, spiritually, mentally, the land and our food, and all of that. And I wish there was a way for us as a people to come together and harness that energy that I feel. Because there’s lots of reasons for Hawaiians to complain, be divisive.


Because of all the losses of—


Because of all the—


—of history.


Because of all the losses and the current state of our people, and to want to point fingers, and blame, and et cetera. And you can spend a lot of energy doing that, and maybe that’s part of the process of healing, people feel that they need to go through that. But I feel it’s time to move on past that, as a people, not just Hawaiian people, but until we move past what dis-unifies us into what unifies us, we will never have the resolution of our ills that we are looking for. And whether your chosen cause is land rights, or sovereignty, or control over kalo. As long as those issues are divisive, our move forward will be stunted.


And you feel that your reliance on ancestors helps you—


I think so. Because—


—go forward?


How could this people, quote, unquote, technologically illiterate people get on a boat, and sail thousands of miles to a place they’d never been before, right? This little speck in the ocean, and then sail back, and come back again. How could they build a civilization here in these islands.


The most isolated islands in the world.


Exactly; the most isolated islands in the world, by some estimates in the millions, healthy, strong…




Totally sustainable; there’s one. That’s a strength that to me, we have yet to duplicate now. We’re not sustainable. We rely on imported foods, and our quality of life and all those things, that how could you not look back at your ancestors and say, they offer something to me today to make a positive difference in our life. It would be dishonorable for me to not use that as a strength, because they came a heck of a long way, metaphorically and physically. So they, must have had something right.


Let’s talk a little bit about your college years.




Had you decided what you were gonna do with your life?


Oh, no. I wish I was one of those people who…I meet people who knew, they had this passion from when they were little that they were gonna be a teacher, or be a nurse, or write, or they knew how they were gonna contribute to the world. I was clueless, made lots of kind of fits and starts. But, when I was in college, I had been in college for a year, my freshman year on the mainland, because that’s what you were supposed to do after high school, right? You’re supposed to go to a good college. But it was not really where I wanted to be. So I took a year off, and did a volunteer year at an international school in Vancouver, Canada. Met some incredible people from all over the world, one of the best life experiences I’ve had. Came home, I’d said I would take two classes that I would never want to take. So I took an accounting class.


Why would you do that?


Because I wanted to challenge myself. So I took an accounting class, which I was totally right about, was not gonna be an accountant. That one, I had right on. Didn’t want to be an accountant. And then I took a political philosophy class. And I fell in love with philosophy. Ended up getting my undergraduate degree in political science. Had a wonderful time.


Could you tell how you were gonna use that? Did you see a profession—






Not at all. And that was another thing, to the consternation of my mother. What are you gonna do with that? You know, my mom, get a good job, make sure her daughter’s secure. But fell in love with the whole idea. And what I learned about political science and again, breaking down a preconceived notion, is that it’s not about going into politics. Political science at its heart is about how do we govern each other with justice and fairness, and how do we create a framework and a structure called society that helps humanity move forward and become a better race of people. And that was fascinating to me, because I thought, that’s why we’re here.


After pursuing her passion for political science, and receiving a bachelor’s degree from the U.H. Manoa, Layla Dedrick earned a teaching certificate to work with special-needs children. She continually calls upon her teaching experience as a business owner and operator.


Was that your answer to your mom, who said, How are you gonna make a living with this?




And you got a special ed certificate? Or were you—


That again, was why did I do that. I needed a job, really. I mean, you graduate with a political science degree, I knew I wasn’t gonna go into politics, I wasn’t gonna get a law degree, which is kind of the next common thing to do. I wasn’t gonna run for office, that’s not me. I had previously done education classes, ‘cause for a while, I thought maybe that’s what I was gonna do. Which actually ended up being an excellent place, because then going back and getting my special ed certification kinda helped me tie together a lot of the different things I had learned in my exploration. The things that I learned in that special ed program, it’s a lot about classroom management. Besides the particulars of learning about disabilities and ADA law, and all of that, it’s about classroom management and how do you manage such disparate abilities and needs. I use those management skills every day at work, because some of the things I learned as a classroom teacher are not just what special ed students needs, is what people need. People want clear expectations, they want to know what you want. You’re the boss, what does my boss expect of me. They want clear guidelines on how to get there.


As Layla Dedrick and her husband, Andrew, established and grew their natural stone business, she met company challenges with a distinctively Hawaiian view of the world. She instilled the native values and responsibilities of kuleana, malama, and kupono in the workplace.


You said that you wanted to do more than sell your—




—product. But why did you choose, one, to start a business, and two, to sell stone?


Yeah. M-m. To start a business; that’s interesting.  My parents were small business owners; maybe just that experience. My husband and I have been together since I was eighteen years old; that’s when we met. And this year, I will have been married eighteen years. And from when we were very young, always kind of knew that we wanted to be entrepreneurial someday. And so why stone? I wish I had some really deep answer that was very meaningful. [chuckle]


Or family background in masonry?


No. I wish, but I don’t. When we were both in college, we both needed jobs to support ourselves, and my husband went to work as a sales guy, just took a sales job in a company that did lots of different products from plumbing products to Jacuzzis, to metal strapping. And one little, tiny division that was just kind of a—they were dabbling in stone. Some little twelve-by-twelve marble polished tiles, like five colors or something. And he took that product and that became a major part of that company, grew that division. And so he had the particular knowledge of that product, and then with my management background, organizational background, decided that that is what we would do. That was in 2001.


Was that before 9/11?


One month before 9/11, we opened our doors. And so that was a scary time.


How did you do it? You just hunkered down and held on?




How did you handle it?


Very interesting, and I have no statistics, but 9/11, other than the initial kind of constriction, nobody doing anything for the first few weeks, I think within three months after that for Hawaii in particular, I think turned out to be a great opportunity.


People were cocooning weren’t they?


People were cocooning, and at that time in the economy, a major part of our business was high end luxury. When we first started out, that was a big part of our market. And because after 9/11 the foreign investment was now very scary, people with disposable income were now wanting their luxury home, their vacation getaway in Hawaii, instead of a villa in France or a villa in a bungalow in Bali or—


Right; the safety [INDISTINCT].

Safe. It was still the United States, but it was exotic, and it was beautiful and the weather was fantastic.   So 9/11 for us, the bleeding was short. It was fast, but short. And now, I mean, us like everyone else, long term difficulty, and I think, knock on wood, slow but steady recovery.


How do you strike a balance? I mean, because there’s always something more you could be doing in—




—any one phase of your life. When do you decide to push yourself away from the table, or whatever else you’re doing?


Yeah. Continual struggle.


Always balancing?


Always. And what today’s balance looks like may not look like what tomorrow’s balance is. So today’s balance maybe requires that I’m physically at the office for eight, ten, twelve hours sometimes. Tomorrow’s balance might be I’m on a field trip with my kids, and I’m not at the office. Very fortunate that my husband and I are able to trade off duties, et cetera, with the business and with kids and made a conscious effort when we had kids that we would try to err on the side of them and family. Not just them, but us as a family unit, and he and I as a unit.


Even though when you own your own business, that may be tougher than ever.


It is.


Especially now, in this, as we speak, there’s a deep economic downturn.


Yes; the decisions I make and how attentive I am to the health of my business direct impact on the people that come to work for me every day. And that’s a huge responsibility, and that more than anything else is, what’ll keep me up at night. If I have, twenty-five plus employees that choose to come here every day, and that is humbling to me. I’m like, wow, they choose to come and spend most of their waking hours with me? Well, my husband has to do that. [chuckle] But nobody else has to do that. My kids have to do that, nobody else has to do that. ‘Cause it has to be more than about stone. I have to have a reason for coming to work every day beyond the particular widget. And that’s something that I kind of shared and bounced ideas off with other people in the business community is beyond what particular service you provide, what are you doing?


It’s not just what, it’s how.


Exactly. It’s how, and then you have such a wider impact in the community when you think of it that way. Our product, it’s not gonna change the world, it’s not like I’m an ER doctor saving lives. I’m not a kindergarten teacher that is setting a stage for a child’s development through their educational experience. I sell a product that you could take it or leave it. I mean, to be really honest.


And it’s high end, so it’s not necessary.


It’s not a necessary. It’s not a discretionary product, right? So then for me, my business, besides wanting to provide a quality product with good customer service, there has to be a purpose to Bella Pietra and why it exists, beyond are you gonna use this stone in your kitchen or this one. It’s really about the guiding principles focus on how Bella Pietra fits in the community, and some of the wording from those guiding principles is about a standard of excellence in our interaction with all of our stakeholders at Bella Pietra. And our stakeholders include the obvious ones, our customers, our employees, our vendors, what business is next door to us down the street, because how we conduct ourselves in our business, affects our neighborhood. So that’s our hood over there at Pier 21. So a standard of excellence…our values are three Hawaiian words kupono, malama, and kuleana. So malama, how we take care of each other, how we take care of our clients, and how each individual in the company takes care of the company. Kuleana, doing your job every day to the best of your ability, and realizing how your kuleana and whether you do it or not affects somebody else’s kuleana. And then kupono, doing the right thing, in the right place, at the right time for the right reason.


Layla Dedrick is a part Hawaiian Maili girl who grew up to become a business owner and operator. She uses Hawaiian cultural values and her background as a special-education teacher, setting clear expectations, to run her natural stone company, Bella Pietra. In 2009, she was named outstanding “Young Business Leader of the Year” in Hawaii. Thank you, Layla Dedrick, for sharing with us here at PBS Hawaii. And thank “you” for joining us on Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


In high school, I wasn’t in the popular group. I wasn’t a cheerleader. I wasn’t exceptionally outspoken. I wasn’t in student government, wasn’t a song leader at Kamehameha, all of the kinda high profile places. I was kind of a little bit of the sports, little bit geeky, little bit kinda fringe person. So I don’t think that they were expecting anything this high profile.


Hoala Greevy


Original air date: Tues., Feb. 2, 2014


On this episode of LONG STORY SHORT, my guest is Hoala Greevy, founder of one of the earliest locally owned email spam and virus filtering companies, Pau Spam. The son of Hawaii community activists, Hoala is intent on his career and dedicated to his business, sometimes working so late he sleeps in his office. Later in life, he intends to be part of the solution in addressing social issues affecting Native Hawaiians. Many Native Hawaiians believe children grow into their name. Hoala’s Hawaiian name, which came to his mother in a dream, means “awakening” or “new beginning.”


Hoala Greevy Audio


Download the Transcript




The earliest career I wanted was when I was in Kapahulu, and they had the trash day, and those garbage guys were pretty cool. So, taking out the trash, that was the first job I wanted to have. ‘Cause they’d be whistling and running, and the compactor’s coming down, and they’d be throwing stuff right at the right moment. I remember kids would come out, and I wouldn’t be the only kid watching them. So, I guess in a way, that’s what Pau Spam does, is take out people’s garbage.




Hoala Greevy discovered his passion for software development in college, and at age twenty – four created Pau Spam, one of the first locally – owned computer spam and virus filtering companies. Hoala Greevy stays on the forefront of the latest technology while saving some time to pursue other interests. Hoala Greevy, next on Long Story Short.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Hoala Greevy is a successful entrepreneur and businessman. He’s a strong believer in public schools, and a proud graduate of McKinley High School in Honolulu. His young life was also shaped by his two parents, Ed Greevy and Haaheo Mansfield, who were community and political activists.


Your father was known for being this wonderful behind the scenes photographer who was the only person with a camera, using it well, at really just touching moments in community activism protests. Save Our Surf, for example.


Yeah. From what I understand, he made friends with Uncle John Kelly, and he noticed when he was at these meetings and rallies that he was doing all the talking, but no one was taking any pictures. So, that was their bond. He’d take the pictures, Uncle John would do the talking, and then … yeah, my dad just has this knack of disappearing in a crowd. Which I don’t know how he does it with five cameras. [CHUCKLE]


But he was always there. It was a labor of love, he was working; he wasn’t just attending a rally.


Right; yeah, hobby. He had a day job. A lot of it was Save Our Surf, protecting all these spots from development. And then, out of that, kinda spurring the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. And then, they started helping out these other groups of people. And then, yeah; so, in some circles, my dad is regarded as the documenter of the Hawaiian renaissance of the 70s and 80s.


Did your parents tell you much about meeting at the Stop H – 3 rally?


No. But there’s a picture in my dad’s book. They went into the Wilson Tunnel, I think in 1975, 76. And they were just cleaning the walls, but of course, there was letters behind it, and so that one of their clever marketing techniques about a rally they were gonna have at the Capitol. Stop H – 3 rally, Capitol, three o’clock; whatever.


Oh, they put it right in the tunnel.


Yeah; so they were just cleaning off the walls, and …


But they didn’t clean some parts of the walls.




I see. Did your parents explicitly give you life wisdom and rules for life?


My dad is an artist; he’s very much an artist. And my mom is very practical, Hawaiian, loving. And they’re both very supportive of whatever I chose to do. Except football; they wouldn’t let me play football.


You are one of those people who’ve done very well professionally, having gone to public school all the way.


Oh, yeah. I’m a big fan of public schools.


Starting with Hokulani School.


Yeah. Went to Hokulani, and then Washington, and then McKinley.


Washington Intermediate had some town tough guys, and so did McKinley.


Yeah, yeah. [CHUCKLE]. So, I learned in college, all you needed to do was ask: You know what is search take? And people who went to private school, for obvious reasons, don’t know what that means.


Search take; no.


Yeah. So, you’re in the cafeteria, and the bull walks up and he’s like, Eh, I like dollar. And of course, Oh, I no more. And then, the guy: Oh, what, search take? Oh, hold on a second. [CHUCKLE] But I thought that was just normal stuff.


How often did that happen to you?


Freshman year, quite a bit. And then, it was good to play baseball, I guess, and kinda keep out of that.


They didn’t bother athletes?


Yeah, ‘cause their friends would be on the football team, or whatever, and like, Eh, no bother that guy, he’s on the baseball team.


So, in that sense, athletics was an escape and a passion?


Yeah, yeah; I love baseball. So, that was my thing in high school.


Did you worry that you wouldn’t get to go to college?


No, I figured I was gonna go. My parents were pretty adamant about that. And I was lucky enough to get a scholarship, so that’s why I got away to Portland State in Oregon.


Hoala Greevy’s parents encouraged him to pursue his dreams. A gift from his father at a young age turned out to be an inspiration for his future career.


How did you begin your journey with computers? When did it start?


My dad got me a Commodore when I was kid.


How old were you?


Ten, I think. And then, so that was cool.


Big, hulky thing?


Yeah; yeah, yeah. Five and a quarter disc. And then, when I got to college, when I first logged in on that, what, ninety – six – hundred baud modem, and I was in some friend’s room, and just connecting on the Internet was just … I just knew it. I was like, Wow, all this information, all these people … wow.


So, in college, that’s when it really got sparked as far as what you could possibly do with it.


Yeah; I was sitting in a computer science class in Portland State, and they had a job posting board. And someone wanted a small utility app that was almost identical to the homework we just turned in. And I couldn’t believe no one else had called, or maybe they had. So, I followed up as soon as I could, and I don’t know, four or five days later, I met the guy in a Safeway parking lot with a three and a half inch disc. And my friend Andrew Lanning [PHONETIC], he says, You know, in business you can have it good, fast, or cheap. So, he got it good and fast, but it wasn’t cheap. [CHUCKLE] He wasn’t too happy about that, but that was fine.


Because you valued your work, and you charged big time?


I thought it was; for college, yeah, it was a pretty good crip. And he popped it in his laptop, it worked, he kinda mumbled about signing the check. And then, that was it. So, to me, it was solving a problem and being creative about it. So, that was kinda neat.


But that’s so interesting to know that meeting in a Safeway parking lot, you valued your work, and you said, This is what it’s gonna take to get you this.


I could tell he was motivated. So, I guess maybe the salesman in me came out.


Were you making it up as you went along?


Yeah, pretty much. [CHUCKLE]


You weren’t quite sure what you were gonna charge?


And then, I split it with my buddy back home, ‘cause he had a compiler that I needed. So, I had the code, he had the compiler, and we split the profits. So, it was fun.


So, that was the first business transaction.


I guess; yeah. And then, just kept doing stuff like that. Staying up late, sleeping at the office, all – nighters, things like that.


You’re in college, still, at this point; right?


Oh, even out of college, sleep at the office, for sure. I think it’s maybe a subconscious thing that if you’re sleeping at the office, then you must be doing something right. [CHUCKLE]


[CHUCKLE] You’re ready anyway; right?


Yeah; yeah.


So, whatever it takes, you’re gonna do it. If it takes sleeping over, you’re gonna do it.

Yeah. I remember reading in the late 90s, this reporter was doing a profile on the two Yahoo cofounders. I think it was Jerry Yang. He would routinely sleep under his desk in a sleeping bag, and I just thought that was kinda neat. This was in the late 90s, so when Yahoo was on a tear.


How did you get the resources to start business? Did you go seat of the pants at first?


Yeah; just bootstrap. Yeah, I don’t know. Just make it happen.


You didn’t major in business.


No; geography. [CHUCKLE] Hard one; the hard major.


And why was that?


I just wanted to get out of school. I was a computer science major, and then I figured that was gonna take me about seven years to get out. I was on scholarship. I was like, Nah, let me just take something I like. And then, I just studied in the computer labs, and still pursued computer stuff, but just took something I liked, just to graduate.


What excited you about software? Were you trying to do any particular thing, or just go wherever it went?


Oh; I just thought it was a way to express yourself and be creative, and solve a problem, and help people. And I still feel like that. I mean, I think it’s just getting started. We’re in the midst of a huge mobile adoption that’s just getting started. And that’s really exciting.


What kind of a mind do you need to be a really successful software developer?


Naïve. [CHUCKLE]


Thinking it can be done, and then having to work.


Yeah; forcing it.


And sleeping overnight to make it happen.


Yeah, I guess so. Shoot; I mean, there’s a lot of different types, I think.


Well, what are the problems you wanted to solve, and did, with your development?


Well, I worked at an email company in the Bay Area. I moved back home in 2001. I was doing some Linux consulting, which at the time was really hard to explain to people. It still is. It’s an open source operating syste And then, the few clients I had were complaining about the same thing over, and over again, viruses and spam. So, I just sat down and pulled a few all – nighters, and came up with Pau Spam. And then, used that as a subscription – based model to help people out, and restore productivity to business.


And how rare was that contribution you made and that business that you created? I mean, because a lot of businesses have fallen by the wayside; but not yours.


Oh; yeah, I don’t know. I guess no one’s really put the stamp out on spam. It’s still a huge problem. Probably ninety – four, ninety – five percent of all email on the Internet is rubbish. So, I guess, just got lucky in that regard that it’s still a service that’s needed.


Well, you’ve had to keep upgrading and working on opposition, and competition.


Yeah; sure. It’s constant cat and mouse, upgrades, features. For sure.


Do you like that?


Yeah; it’s fun. I mean, it’s always changing, it’s never boring.


It sounds like you’ve found an area that will always require work, and so it’s great job security if you can keep up with demand.


Yeah. We’re seeing some changes on the landscape the last couple years, so definitely gotta think ahead and plan for what’s next on the horizon. And I see that as mobile. I mean, without a doubt.


I just read a stat, and this is 2013 as we’re speaking. But mobile video use exploded by thirty – seven percent last year.


Oh, yeah. And I think the amount of Smartphones on the market was one billion last November, projected to be one – point – eight billion this December. And then, five billion by 2015. Seventy – five percent of all mobile usage is a game or a social network. People check their phones every six minutes, or a hundred and fifty times a day. And you’ve got this wild adoption of Smartphones, with no end in sight. I mean, I just don’t see any stop to it. I think it’s super – exciting.


And people are saying, I don’t need a personal computer anymore; I can do this on my phone.




Do you like that, working in a field where it’s just changing all the time, and you’ve really got to be on your game all the time?


Yeah; it’s a lot of fun, for sure. I mean, we’re seeing now with apps that people use, it’s impossible to advertise your way to the top. So, what they do is, they create a habit for you. And so, the top apps have actually created habits out of people. So, when you ask someone, What do you when you’re bored?, a lot of Millennials, they’re not gonna say TV or call a friend, they’re gonna say, I’m checking an app on my phone, that’s what I do when I’m bored. What do you do when you need a laugh? There are some huge shifts in human behavior, all within the last four or five years. So, that’s pretty exciting, I think.


And are they going to the app store and just looking at whatever there is, or are they looking at some other means to find like the ten best apps? Or do they go word of mouth?


Facebook, word of mouth, the viral effect, stuff they see on You Tube. Yeah; it’s pretty interesting right now.


You’re very lucky to have found out in college what you wanted to do. It doesn’t happen to very many people. Some people go their whole lives, and don’t know what will really jazz them in terms of a career.


Yeah; I did get lucky, I guess. I mean, we have this app called DareShare that we released in June, which is a spinoff company. And it’s an app that gets people to do silly, funny things and share it. And that excites me to no end. I mean, we’re in forty – three countries right now, we’re trying to grow our user base. And to express yourself to all these people out there, and hopefully a lot, lot more. I mean, that’s really fun.


It must be hard to talk to non – tech people about what you do, because it is, quote, technical.


I think on the general level, people can relate. Especially for what we’re doing now with DareShare and being an app, and something silly and fun and new. I think it transcends boundaries and language, and culture.


That’s interesting, that you do one really practical and necessary thing, Pau Spam, and then this is silly. But you could argue it’s necessary to have a joke and to blow off stress.


Yeah. To me, mobile, ferality, silly things, photo sharing, those are really big macro trends. And I think DareShare is greatly affected by my interpretation of macro trends going on right now in the world. So, it’s a scientific approach to being funny and silly, is what we’re doing.


That sounds kind of just like you.




Scientific approach to being silly. [CHUCKLE]


In addition to his passion for developing computer software that will make people laugh and protect people from unwanted email, Hoala Greevy has another side to him, a hobby that probably would have pleased his great – great – grandfather, who was an expert fisherman.


Your middle name, I don’t know if there’s an okina, but it can either mean king or fish.




Is it fish?






Moi; fish.






And you have become a fisherman.


Yeah; I got into it. Yeah. I enjoy kayak fishing, for sure. Yeah.


Oh, I’ve seen some crazy videos on You Tube with people hooking huge things, and being dragged in the kayak.




Real dangerous, especially getting it onboard.


Yeah, yeah, yeah.


With a gaff.


That’s the lure, man. That’s who’s hunting who? [CHUCKLE]


What kind of fish are you looking for?


Oh, well, on a kayak, you can almost catch anything the guys on a boat are catching. But, when I first started, I was like, Man, what’s the biggest, baddest fish in the water? It’s marlin, right? So, I’m like, Okay, I want to get that.




So, I kinda chased that fish for about three years, and I got lucky, and a couple years ago, I caught a couple, and that was exciting.


Don’t they have bills? I mean, you know —




That could just stab you, it could go right through you.


It’s the only fish with a weapon of its own, so that was a big, big lure for me to hunt one of ‘em.


And they go deep, they try to drag you under; right?


Yeah; aerials, turn you in circles, all kinds of stuff.


And you don’t have a lot of protection. I mean, you’re in a kayak.




Out far.


Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, it just feels kind of primal. I don’t know what you want to call it, but definitely you versus the fish. Yeah; there’s no boat to anchor you down or anything. If it wants to take you, it’s gonna take you.


Have you rolled over, or had a real close call?


Oh, that still happens. But when I caught those marlin, I got lucky, I didn’t huli. So, just stabilized the best I could. Yeah.


And they’re wiggling, they’re flopping around next to you in the kayak?




Oh! What other things have you caught? What other kind of fish have you caught?


I mean, the mahi, ono, the usual stuff.


And mahi are strong, too.


Yeah; they’re good fighters, and they give you the aerial display, and it’s kinda neat. And then, I got lucky this year. It’s an ugly fish, but I got the State record for the fine scale triggerfish, or hagi most fishermen call it.


What does a triggerfish look like?


Ugly, trigger, big gross thing. And I just got lucky and … I don’t know. State record, and I submitted it, and it became a world record.




For that particular fish.


And how big was it?


I think it was about fifteen or sixteen pounds. So, kinda big for that.


What was the challenge in getting it in?


[CHUCKLE] It was so ugly.




I didn’t know quite what to do with it. [CHUCKLE] Yeah; not a good – looking fish. But I figured, just bring it in and see what happens.


Was it good eating?


No; no, no. My friends ate it, and they got sick.


Oh! But you got a world record.


Yeah. So, yeah, I don’t know if it’s any consolation to their stomachs, but yeah, I got the world record.


So, it’s obviously dangerous, but nothing has happened to you that scared you out there?


No; I mean, it’s humbling, but I haven’t had any close calls yet. We carry radios, our phones, I have an EPIRB emergency locater. So, we try our best.


So, what happens to you if you go over?


Yeah; you gotta try your best to stay with the kayak and your paddle. But I don’t know; I guess that’s part of the mystique, I guess, is maybe harkening back to olden days, and guys paddling out on their canoes, and stuff.


Do you feel something Hawaiian from your Hawaiian side about that?


I do. I mean, we have more equipment, sonar, fish finder, bait well, things like that. But, a lot of the spots are the same, the techniques are very the same. A lot of it involves catching opelu, which is, kind of a family fish.


That’s really different from what you do for a living.


Yeah, I guess so. But to me, the water is an escape, and humbling, playground, vast, infinite. Kinda neat. You feel so small and nothing.


In addition to his affinity for fishing and the ocean, Hoala Greevy feels a deep connection to the Hawaiian culture in other ways as well. Many of his Hawa iian values come from his mother.


Why is your name Hoala?


Well, my mom had a dream, and I don’t know what was in the dream, but they said, Hey, name your kid Hoala.


And what does it mean?


Awaken, or new beginning. So, it’s either a family member, a dream, or something happening at the time of birth; those are usually the three ways people get their names.


Yours is a dream name.


Yeah; and I think what I do after business will be the realization of that name. Why would a person like my mom have that dream? And if you’ve ever met my mom, she’s a pretty interesting and special person. Why would she have that dream? How do I go about realizing the meaning of that?


But interesting; you don’t think it’s in the tech field, especially.


To some degree, but I want to create something that outlives me. So, yeah; I think that’s something special.


Let’s talk about being Hawaiian.




What does that mean to you?


A vibrant, beautiful past, a troubling present, and an uncertain future. That’s what it means.


Do you think tech could help, will help?


Yeah. I mean, I think it can help in a lot of ways. But I’m so focused on — yeah, I don’t know. I think that’s down the road.


That’s not where your passions run?


No; later. Later, I’d like to do stuff. But right now, it’s business and hit that homerun, and then go hit another one. I mean, for sure; business is definitely where it’s at right now, for me.


How many hours a week do you work? Do you have any idea?


No. Probably not as many as you. [CHUCKLE]


I don’t know about that. I’m not sleeping at the office.


[CHUCKLE] Yeah; I don’t if that’s a good thing, still. But, I think there’s a lot of good and a lot of troubling things about being Hawaiian now. And so, I’d like to help out with that. My mom’s a social worker, right? So, you see or you hear about stuff, and there’s a perpetual cycle of poverty, and how is that in Hawaiian culture. And it’s like, you got the self – medicating drug abuse, you got issues at home, not going to college, and it kinda spins upon itself and perpetuates through generations. And I don’t know if I know the answer to that, but you know, I’d like to help out with that at some point. For sure.


So many causes.


Yeah. I mean, incarceration, diabetes, domestic violence, drugs, alcohol. I mean, I don’t even have to look farther than my own family to see all of that. And I think ninety – eight percent of every Hawaiian out there, if they really think about it, it’s all right in front of them.


You have a passion that you’re deferring to better the condition of Hawaiians, if you can.




What are your thoughts about quality of life today? You keep your business here because of quality of life.


Yeah. I mean, I think, shoot, since maybe the recession in 2008, I think a lot of the middleclass has gone down to a notch below that, especially on the Hawaiian side. We see this a lot with other minorities on the mainland. It’s a larger class teetering on the poverty line. So, like the disappearance of the middleclass, I think is a definite reality in a lot of Hawaiian families. And then, we see the wealthy side getting exponentially richer. Which I don’t know if you can fault people for that, but within the last five years, there’s been a big vacuum, I think, in the middleclass.


And that’s a cause for concern; right? And also, not having a college degree really affects people’s ability to work in an era where it’s the knowledge era, it’s the information era. And that means tech.


Yeah. I’d really like to make an impact on people’s going to college, for sure, once I get some other stuff done. For sure. [CHUCKLE]


Competitive business and hardcore fishing now, activism and altruism later. Mahalo to Hoala Greevy, founder of the computer spam and virus filtering system Pau Spam, for sharing his story with us. And mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.


For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.


Are you still close to people you went to school with?


Yeah; more so my college friends, I guess. But, I still keep in touch. I’m still very, very into McKinley.


I know you’ve participated with the McKinley School Foundation, which is just an awesome supportive fundraising arm of McKinley.


Oh, yeah.


Or supportive of McKinley.


We created our own Class of 1994 Scholarship. We have a two – year and a four – year category. The amounts aren’t big, but it’s a good start. And I think that our society, college is the equalizer. It’s your ticket out, so the more people we can get in college, I think it just helps society as a whole.


Richard Ha


Original air date: Tues., Nov. 11, 2008


Richard Ha, Visionary Farmer


On this episode of Long Story Short, Leslie Wilcox sits down to share stories with Hawaii Island farmer Richard Ha.


Never heard of him? Well, Richard Ha isn’t your average farmer. He’s been called a visionary farmer. An innovative small business owner, Ha offers his employees profit sharing, has found a way to generate electricity on his property outside of Hilo, initiated an adopt-a-class program at Keaukaha Elementary School, advocates native Hawaiian practices of ahupua‘a and writes a blog on his website.


Interested in hearing more about him? Then tune in for an engaging conversation with Richard Ha, a visionary farmer, on Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.


Richard Ha Audio


Download the Transcript




Aloha no, I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. Welcome to another Long Story Short. Today we get to meet a man who wears many hats: visionary farmer, Vietnam veteran, college graduate, innovative small business owner who offers his employees profit sharing and who’s found a way to generate electricity on his property, community activist who initiated an adopt-a-class program at a local school, and Hawaii Island grower Richard Ha.


Farmers, in order to be successful, need to understand complex issues of diversification, sustainability, resource management, land use and planning, even global economic cycles, as well as farming. Hawaii Island farmer Richard Ha even follows the worldwide price of oil, advocates native Hawaiian practices of ahupua‘a and writes a blog on his website. Interested in meeting him? So was I. Let’s start our conversation on the farm. Richard Ha is a farmer partly because his father was. But his father only became a farmer when he received 40 acres of farmland outside of Hilo through the GI Bill.


What kind of farming did he do to start off with?


Well, I remember him growing tomatoes, and cucumbers; and small kid time, we would go pick the tomatoes and have tomato fights. [chuckle]


So much for that harvest.


Yeah. [chuckle] Yeah.


And had he been trained in farming, or was he picking it up as he went?


No; he didn’t have any training in farming. It was pretty much, you know, back then I think a lot of people understood about farming and gardening, and it was kinda second nature. It wasn’t difficult to do.


They were closer to the elements, weren’t they? They noticed the cause and effect of the winds, and that kind of thing.


Oh, yeah. Tutu folks were taro farmers down at Maku on the ocean. But what I remembered about that time was that they had few pigs. But the big deal about it wasn’t that they had few pigs in the pen. There was a stone wall around the property, and they’d leave the gate open. And what would happen is, the wild pigs would come in. So they—


And they’d catch them?


Yeah. [chuckle] Yeah.


When you saw your dad farming, and you were playing with tomatoes, did you think, I want to grow up and be a farmer?


No. Actually, what happened was I ended up wanting to go into business or into having some kind of organization to be in charge of. And the reason that happened was because Dad used to tell stories when I was about ten years old. We had this kitchen table that was like a picnic table; bench and everything. And he would tell stories about impossible situations; you know, a business situation—he had all kinds of different situations. And it would come down to—he came up against a stone wall, there was no way to figure it out, and he’d pound the table, and the dishes would all fly, and he would say—boom! “Not, ‘No can.’ Can!” [chuckle] I remember that pretty clearly.


Not, ‘No can.’ Can!




It’s about problem solving and the will to overcome the problem.


Yeah; it was just a given that you just don’t come up to a problem, and look at it and say, Oh, that’s it. You know, there was always a way around it.


Was it hard working the farm in those days? Was that a tough way to make a living?


The chicken farm was really tough; yeah. And the reason for it is because he had too many chickens for the Big Island, and not enough volume to supply Oahu. So he was caught in between there. But yeah, it was kinda tough.


So would you say you were middle class, poor?


Oh, I thought we were—later on, I found out we were real poor. [chuckle] But at the time, you don’t have a concept of being poor, yeah? But yeah, later on, I found out we were actually pretty poor. I think you’re pretty poor if your mom is making pancakes, and then you can’t—I don’t know which is baking powder that would make it rise, and get fluffy. We didn’t have that. [chuckle]


Were you conscious that you didn’t have what you needed?


You know, not really, except for maybe Christmastime. And at Christmastime, my aunts from uh, Oahu would send us toys. And that was something you looked forward to all year long. You know, and it may be just little toy plastic soldiers. You know, so we didn’t have very many Christmas presents, but that was extremely, extremely valuable to us small kids.


Well, normally, what did you use as toys?


Make your own.


Like what?


Make sugarcane rockets. Cut the sugarcane leaf, and peel it back a little bit, fly ‘em as far as you can fly ‘em. [chuckle]


Make swords out of, you know, the hedge, and fight sword. All kinds of stuff like sling shot.


And that was good fun, right?


Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I don’t know if anybody was any happier having anything more than that, actually.


Richard Ha’s father didn’t teach him, “If can; can. If no can; no can.” He taught him, “Not ‘No can.’ Can!” – meaning that every problem, no matter how impossible it seems, can be solved. And Richard embraces that can do, make do with what you have attitude. Although he was raised on a farm, Richard didn’t go into farming until much later. Straight out of high school, he went to college to study business.


Well, actually, you know, I didn’t know what I was going to do, exactly. I knew kind of that I’d like to get into business, and so if I was going to college, it would be good to major in business. You know, so I went to college, and I spent two years, and I finally flunked out. Just too much things to do, people to see; stuff like that. [chuckle] And it was at the time when uh, if you flunked out of school, you would get drafted and go to Vietnam.


You flunked out?


Yeah; flunked out. And got drafted, went to Vietnam. But then, you know, I had the opportunity to apply for officers candidate school, which I took. And I eventually became an officer. Yeah. So then you have to really get serious, because you know, end up in Vietnam—you know, in the situation where it’s life and death. And what I learned in Vietnam was really important to me in later life. I was an artillery officer attached to a infantry unit. And the rule was—and it didn’t have to be spoken; leaving someone behind is not an option. Not even a consideration. It’s, we all come out, or nobody comes out. Kinda like that. And it’s a good lesson.


Did you ever have to take a lot of risk in order to make that happen?


Some. You know, more than you’d like to. But you know, it’s just something you have to do. It’s not—you don’t even weigh it. Yeah.


And when you were in Vietnam, were you concerned about what you were hearing from the U.S. about the objection to the war, and the protests against the war?


No; uh, actually, you know, I looked upon the thing as a patriotic thing to do and just assuming everybody was doing the right thing. And so my main concern was the people we were you know, responsible for, and we had to take care of each other. And beyond that, I didn’t go there.


In a sense, well, you were leading a group meant for business. You know, life and death business.


Kind of, you know, yeah, when you think about that. Yeah?


Did you have any close calls, personally?


Actually, yeah. And probably because of what Pop taught me. The situation was like this. We were in a rice paddy, and we were coming to this village. And then we got incoming sniper fire. So we all ran into depression. And I looked around; I said, Holy smokes, this is not a place to be. So I grabbed the radio operator; I said, Let’s go. So we jumped up and ran about fifty feet or so, and bullets flying and everything like that. And a few seconds after that, a grenade landed just where we left. But it was kinda like well, Pop taught us a lot of lessons, and it had to do with survival. Just do what you gotta do, and plan for the future, and if it—you know, make decisions. You gotta do it, do it now. Kinda thing like that.


And not no can; can.


[chuckle] Yeah; absolutely.


So you came back alive from Vietnam.


M-hm. Yeah; and then at that time, I had some time to grow up. There was six years in the military as an Army officer. You know, things are pretty serious. It gave me a lot of time to think about going back to school. And going back to school, I knew I wanted to go into business. But this time, I figured, I’m gonna major in accounting, because accounting will help me keep score.




And then, that’s what I did. And it worked out pretty good.


You liked it?


I like keeping score. I never did work in accounting.


You didn’t?




But you liked learning it.




But what were you gonna do with your accounting degree?


You know, actually, I didn’t really know. I just knew that I had an accounting degree, if there was anything came up, I was gonna do it. But it just so happened, Pop asked me to come back and run his chicken farm. I said, Okay, well, I don’t have anything planned; I’ll do that. So I came back, helped him run the poultry farm. And in the course of that, met the supermarket people, learned how marketing and that kind of stuff worked. And—


And you learned from the ground up on that end, right?


Yeah; yeah. Didn’t have—I mean, we raised chickens when we were little. But the business end of it, it was different. You know, and with accounting degree, it helped me to analyze stuff. And so what happened was, we had forty acres, and twenty-five of it was in the chicken farm. So we had some extra land. And so we needed to find out what could we do with no more money, ‘cause we—I only had a three hundred dollar credit card, back when it was hard to get a three hundred dollar credit card. [chuckle] So started doing some research, and found out that there was about six million pounds of Chiquita bananas being imported into Hawaii. So I said, Ho, man, if we could get into that, we should be able to do okay. So we started trading chicken manure for banana keiki, and started two acres. But you know, we didn’t have a tractor, we didn’t have anything; just had my Toyota Land Cruiser. So we’d make lines by driving down, knocking the California grass down, get a sickle, cut a hole, get a ‘o‘o and shovels, and planted bananas. That’s how we started. [chuckle]


Wow. Hoeing by land cruiser. [chuckle] Was that a success the first time out?


Well, you know when you only got two acres and you’re actually working in the chicken farm, there’s not that much risk. You know, it was all labor. You know, so it wasn’t too much risk. But what it did was, it helped me learn.


At what point did you have your own farm?


Well, yeah; that was my dad’s farm, and we made it into a four-way corporation with my brothers. And then from there, I went to Kapoho to lease some land over there. And that’s when it started; maybe two years after we started the first banana farm. And then when the sugar plantation started closing down, we were able to move closer into Hilo at Keaau. So we moved the farm there. So there was little bit more soil. And the time we got into big business was, I had an Opal station wagon. It’s a small, little thing; maybe you can hold five people. And as long as our employees were only five, that was fine. But as soon as we went to seven and eight, we went into big business. Because it was communication, people were thinking you know, that they weren’t getting the right information because they weren’t the car with me. [chuckle] And then we started realizing, you know, you want to be good to everybody, you want to be liked and all that; but the best you can do is be fair. And once I realized that, then that was pretty important. Yeah.


And then you got two vehicles. [chuckle]


We got two vehicles, and we got more workers—


More land?


And more land. At Keaau, we ended up with—expanded to three hundred acres. And by then, we became the largest banana farm in the State. Yeah, but you know, we were still basically local boys.


Local boy Richard Ha is more than just a farmer. He’s also a blogger, operating a website he updates several times a week. He recently gave the keynote speech at a local college graduation. And he orchestrated a community effort to help students at Keaukaha Elementary School. Located on Hawaiian Homelands with an underserved population, Keaukaha faced federal action under the No Child Left Behind Act – until a new principal, Lehua Veincent, stepped in – and invited in – community support.


Keaukaha Elementary School; a Hawaiian Homelands community, and a school that was in the academic basement for twenty years. You adopted a class there.


Yeah. What happened was, I volunteered to be on this thirty-meter telescope subcommittee on the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board. And so when you talk about telescopes, you automatically talk about the culture; Mauna Kea. You need to talk about the culture. If you talk about the culture, and you end up at Keaukaha. It’s a seventy-five-year-old Hawaiian Homes community. And so that’s where I ended up. Yeah, so I went over there, talked to Kumu Lehua about telescopes, and had to learn a lot about the culture. I didn’t know as much as I do now. I was mostly worried about farming. But you know, the more I got into it, the more I needed to learn. But so talking to Kumu Lehua, I invited them to come to our farm to—you know, just an excursion. And in the course of the discussion, you know, I asked him, Where else you folks go on excursion? He says, We don’t go on excursion. And you don’t go; how come? Too much money; three hundred dollars for the bus, we cannot afford that. So what we do is we take walking excursions around the school in the neighborhood. I couldn’t believe it. I thought every kid went on excursions. But they didn’t. And then what was ironic was, here I am on the thirty- meter telescope subcommittee, and you’re standing in Keaukaha, you look at the mountain, there’s hundreds of millions of dollars of investment up there. You look back at the school and the community. So you know, there’s nothing here of tangible relationship to that. And but whatever the case; we decided, this no can. We had to do something. So the simplest thing that came to mind was adopt a child thing.


It’s amazing. This is a Homelands community that really is right in Hilo, right a walk away from Ken’s House of Pancakes. But um, they had been kinda shut out, and they felt like they didn’t have anything going for them, and the school was in disarray for many years.


Yeah. But you know, Kumu Lehua is a special guy. What he did was, he brought the community together, and tied the community and the school together, and then the relationship with the business community made the community and the kids see the bigger world. They’re part of a bigger thing now.


We’ve talked with Kumu Lehua at PBS Hawaii, and uh, we know he looks at everything through a prism of pono. You know, what’s—




— not who’s right, but what is the right thing to do at this time.


Yeah. Yeah; and he’s real consistent that way. And it’s a wonderful thing.


Do you hear young people say, I want to be a farmer?


More and more nowadays, because I think a lot of people are starting to see that this is a serious business. We’re about feeding people. Yeah.


Yeah; and they can really identify with hunger, and with the need for food. You’re a Hawaiian who knows the issues. The community has been split over the use of the mountain, which is a considered a sacred mountain for astronomy purposes. What do you think; what are your thoughts on that?


Well, you know, I think with the oil crisis coming up now, the world has changed. You know, several years ago, when the oil—our supply prices started going up, and we didn’t really know what was going on. But after researching it a little bit, we found out it was related to oil prices. As the oil prices went up, fertilizer, chemical, everything else went up. And so we started looking around; gee, now—and I went to the Peak Oil Conference in Houston, and we found out that the world oil supply is not gonna be able to keep up with the world demand. And if you think about that a while, then you realize all these different things will follow. You know. Planes are gonna have a hard time flying, people gonna have less discretionary income, fertilizer costs are going up, and all these different things. So we needed to kinda change the way we’re doing business. So as soon as we came back, as soon as I came back, we actually had thought about making our own electricity, but when I came back, it was like, Boy, we gotta get going soon.


We have to.


No more choice; we have to.


How are you gonna make your own electricity?


Well, we have a flume that runs through our property, and it was for the plantation. Yeah; and for those who weren’t around during the plantation days, it’s a water line. It’s a waterway, Yeah. And what they do is, they take water from the stream, and just divert it to where they want it to go. And in lot of cases, it was to throw the sugarcane in and run it down to the mill. So it was one of those kinda flumes that we have; and it just was sitting there. So we got a consultant, and sure enough, we could put in an eighteen-inch pipe about this big. And we could generate enough electricity to power fifteen forty-foot reefer Matson containers. So that’s quite a bit. Which turns out to be about twenty-five percent more than we use. And our electricity bill now is fifteen thousand dollars a month. So we’re gonna be able to pay for all that electricity, and still have twenty-five percent extra.


What are you gonna do with that?


Well, we’ve got all kinds of plans. We’re thinking that with the excess electricity, we can do a plug-in thing so that our workers could plug in their hybrid cars in the future, as a benefit for working for the company. That was the first thing we thought of. Another thing is, because fertilizer prices are going up, we want to take the waste bananas, feed it to fish, use the fish waste, run it through a biofilter, convert it into fertilizer, fertilize the plants, and pump it back up with free electricity. And then even, you could fool the plants into thinking it’s winter, when it’s summer. [chuckle]


Wow. And so pretty soon, you won’t have a fifteen thousand dollar a month electricity bill?


Yeah; that—



That’s on the way?


That’s true. Now, all the farmers and everywhere on the island in the State face the same situation, rising fuel and fertilizer costs. And everybody’s talking about food security. Now, how do we do that? And uh, the answer is, if the farmer can make money, the farmer will farm. So it doesn’t get much more complex than that. So in an effort to figure out ways to help farmers make money, we went—you know, with the help of the Department of Ag, and the legislators, and a bunch of people, we pushed through legislation so that farmers could get cheap loans, low interest, long term loans for renewable energy projects.


And does that mean your problems are over?


Oh, no.


Your challenges are pau?


No; no, no, no. We know that one day, the boat not going come. Like, you know, you talk to a lot of the Hawaiian people; it’s a given that sooner or later, there will be supply disruptions.


What is the stat I heard, that because we depend so much on imported food, if we don’t get a barge in for ten days, we’ll be virtually out.


Oh, yeah. Yeah. We’re talking about probably seven days worth of food supplies. But if there was a hint of something disrupting the supply, people would just go down and clean the stores out in two days. My thought. So it’s a tough place to be. So what we need to do is we need to have more farmers. We need to support farmers more, we need to have more food security. So that’s really what we’re reaching for. Now, the objective is to feed people. So now we have to have a calorie— we have to have the concern about what is the mix of calories. So that’s why we’re thinking of doing aquaculture for protein, and leasing land to other farmers so they can do what they’re good at, and we do what we’re good at. We all bring everything down to the farmers market, and people won’t have to travel as far.


Are you confident that local people will buy local produce, even if it’s more expensive?


Well, you know, it’s really what we need to do, to support our local farmers. Because to be food secure, farmers gotta make money. And come the time when we feel like this is really a serious situation, it’ll happen. I’m confident it will.


Do you think we’ll be motivated to do the right thing, go in this direction, without first a disaster? Usually, we learn from disaster. Usually, we’re not really good about looking ahead and saying, Let’s prevent a disaster.


You know, actually, I’m pretty optimistic that it’ll start happening. As a matter of fact, I see it happening already. You know, so it’s just gonna be a matter of time. Yeah; I’m pretty optimistic.


Farmers, by their very nature, plan. They plant and plan. And then plant again. So it’s only natural that Richard Ha would consider the future as much as he does. And it’s refreshing to see his optimism and activism looking toward Hawaii’s future.


Sustainability means basically surviving for the long run. And how we look it at is how it affects our workers, our community, and the environment. So our workers, I just mentioned a little bit about, you know, every Thursday, our workers can come and just pick up all the different things we grow; bananas and tomatoes, and whatever. You know, as much as they need for their family. And we have profit sharing, although it’s been tough the last few years. We have profit sharing, and we want to look, you know, toward—whatever we can do to help them with the food side of it end. Because it’s hard for us to raise our workers’ salaries, because we can’t raise the price; everybody’s having a hard time. So we have to figure out other ways to help our workers.


Do these look like particularly bad times for you? I know that tourism is down, and I mean, everybody’s talking about soft economy. How is it affecting you? Flowers have had it rough lately, anyway.


Yeah. It is pretty tricky. But you know, we always plan five, ten years out. We’re always looking for where we need to be in the future. And we already know that this is happening, it’s gonna get worse; so we’re already moving in that direction. So I think we’re gonna be okay.


What do you see yourself doing in ten years?


You know, it’s hard to say what it’ll be; but I’m pretty sure it’ll be something. What, I can’t imagine now. Because we always end up doing something that’s new and different. Yeah; so I expect that it’ll be something new and different, but it’ll be something, for sure.


And it’ll be in farming?


I can’t even say that. [chuckle] Yeah; I don’t want to just say one particular thing. But it really has to do with where our society is going, what our circumstance will be. And it has a lot to do with alternate energy, I think.


How that’s gonna shape our future?


Yeah. Yeah.



Well, like it or not, the future’s on its way! And the best we can do is prepare for it. Mahalo to Richard Ha for growing our awareness of what the future holds and showing us what one farmer is doing to prepare for it. Mahalo to you for joining me for this Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii, looking forward to seeing you in the future. A hui hou kakou!



I read a review of your fruit that said that, if you’ve gotten used to these cardboard tasting tomatoes that you buy at some places, you gotta taste Richard Ha’s tomatoes ‘cause they’re just full and juicy, and …




Is that true?


Yeah; it is.


[chuckle] I suspected you—




–you were gonna say that.


And there is a reason for it. We actually test the fruit every week for sweetness. Because it’s about value to the customers. And so what we try to do, if you think about value, really, it’s about taste for tomatoes. So that’s what we do. We spend a lot of time monitoring that. So; yeah. [chuckle]


Rachel and Lorraine Haili


Original air date: Tues., Mar. 26, 2013


Leslie Wilcox talks with Rachel Haili and Lorraine Haili Alo, the second generation of the family behind Haili’s Hawaiian Foods. Growing up, their mother encouraged her six children to take pride in their Hawaiian and Chinese heritage. Rachel and Lorraine recall childhood memories of gathering and preparing food with their parents. The sisters say their family’s teamwork, along with business savvy and determination, have contributed to the success of Haili’s Hawaiian Foods, now in the hands of younger sister Lorraine.

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I know that there’s other native Hawaiian business owners out there, but our claim to fame is that we’ve been in business for over sixty years. And my mom and dad always stressed that you’re Hawaiian, you and your sisters are Hawaiian, and you need to make us proud.


Food keeps us connected with our cultural traditions, and an enduring example is the culinary legacy of Haili’s Hawaiian Foods. Rachel Haili and Lorraine Haili Alo, next on Long Story Short.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha mai kakou, and welcome to Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Since the 1950s, Haili’s Hawaiian Foods has made mouths water for steaming laulau, chicken long rice, poi, and delicious poke. Founded by the late Rachel Ching Haili and husband, Peter Davis Haili, the family-run enterprise continues to offer authentic and hard to find traditional Native Hawaiian dishes. Growing up in this Hawaiian-Chinese family meant that every family member was expected to contribute their time to help with the family business, located at the Ala Moana Farmer’s Market across from where Ward Center stands today. The second generation of Haili’s to take over the business are Rachel Haili and her sister, Lorraine Haili Alo. They’re Daughters Number 4 and 5 from a family of six girls. They credit the continuing success of the business to family teamwork, determination, and the business savvy inherited from their mother.


Yeah; my father was the silent partner. Whatever my mother said, it was, Oh, okay, honey.


My mother was pure Chinese, and my father was pure Hawaiian. So, you had these opposite personalities. My father was happy-go-lucky, and very outgoing. My mother was outgoing too, but in a different way. And my mother was very task-oriented. But they were both very family-oriented. Like, even though they were busy working, they always made time for us on Sundays. We’d all get into our station wagon. We had one of those green banana station wagons.


It was a Woody.


A Woody; yeah. [CHUCKLE]


With the wood panels.


Green, with wood panels. So, our job was, while they were working in the morning, we had to get baskets of clothes ready, baskets of food ready, so by the time they came home, we loaded everything up and we went to our auntie’s house in Kaaawa. And we’d spend the day there with our cousins. We’d go on a boat to catch squid.


Was the squid for the restaurant, or for fun?


For the store. [CHUCKLE]


Oh, so you were gathering supplies.


We were just talking about that. I remember being in the boat with my dad, my younger sister and I, and he’d have the squid box. And we’d be sitting in the boat watching him dive down there. And we were like five, six years old, we don’t really know how to swim, but we’re in the boat with our dad, and we’re just kinda looking over, watching him go down for squid and come back up with it. And you know, it was these long tentacles moving around. Yeah.


To make squid luau.


And raw squid.


Raw squid.


Back then, yeah, it was a lot of raw squid. And then, we’d have to learn how to dry it too, so we’d have to learn to pound it. So, even though we enjoyed the beach a lot, we also had to learn to go pick limu. Because that was another thing we needed for the store.


The store went seven days a week, so we never really had family vacations, how people would pack up and fly, and go somewhere, go to the outer islands. It was always a Sunday outing with our parents, so we never really felt like we were being deprived. Because my mom and dad always had time for us. I remember my mother and father taking us to, like, roller derby and wrestling on Wednesday nights. We did a lot of fun things. My mom would just close the business down at five o’clock in the afternoon, be home in time. She’d call us and say, Okay, we’re going to wrestling tonight, or we’re going to the roller derby.


Oh, how fun.


If you want to go, have the rice cooked.


Live action.


Yeah; yeah.


At the Civic Auditorium?


Civic Auditorium.


They used to have the football games at the stadium over on Isenberg. Back then, we had to make our laulau’s at home. So it was the same thing. My mother said, You folks have to get everything ready, because before we can go to the football game, we have to make all the laulau’s. So, after school, we’d come home like on a Friday night. Okay, you set the tables up, you start washing the luau leaves, you start cutting the pork.


How many did you have to make?


Five bags of taro leaves every —


That’s a lot.


You know, that’s like twenty-pound bags. So, that’s a hundred pounds —




— of taro leaves that we’d have to —


And back then, you had to peel all the taro leaves too. So, it was like, Okay, we gotta get organized or we can’t go to the game.


Your reward was the game. Did you resent doing all that work?


No, ‘cause we had to do it.


It was just part of — that was us, that was part of what we needed to do.


And it was fun too, because we’d have friends come over and help us. We’d have our cousins come over and help us.


And aunties, and everybody knew their —


And we had cake afterwards.


— position at the table.


And so, what happened on school days? I mean, you went to Kamehameha, and you went to Punahou and Kamehameha, right?


On school days, my sister Carol and I, it was after school, we got on the bus and we went straight down to Ala Moana Farmer’s Market. And we needed to be there — when we were teenagers. When we were little, we went to school right across the street from our house. We grew up on Gulick in Kalihi. And we’d come home, and we’d have to do our chores at home. Take care of the dog, sweep up the yard, get the garage ready because everybody’s gonna come home and make laulau’s tonight, and we’d have to have the rice cooked. We had chores to do.


And then later, you would go to the store.


Later, yeah. Later, when we were teenagers, we didn’t have time to participate in club sports, or do things after school on campus. We just needed to get down to the store to help our mom and dad close up, clean up.


It was very clear that it was a family enterprise.


Oh, yeah.


And everybody got counted in.




And Saturday and Sundays, there wasn’t any beach time or hanging out time with your friends. I needed to be at work.


And that was life? You didn’t say, Just one time, I want to go hang out at —


Oh, we tried. [CHUCKLE]


Didn’t work?


It didn’t work. [CHUCKLE]


Well, when I was boarder at Kamehameha Schools, so I lived on campus. And then Saturdays, I got to come out for the day. And I went to the market and worked, because that was what I was supposed to do. And I didn’t resent it. It was good. And then, plus, I was like, really popular because I got to go out and bring all the food in to my friends who didn’t go out from the outer islands. So, it was no resentment. It was fun.


The Haili family’s first business venture was a bar and grill called Family Inn. As the matriarch watched her family grow, she decided a liquor business was not an appropriate setting for her daughters. In the late 1940s, she started a fish market that evolved into something else. Established in the 1950s, Haili’s Hawaiian Foods became a kind of second home for the Haili family, and a fixture at Ward Farmer’s Market. Among the many vendors offering an array of food items, Haili’s specialized in traditionally prepared Hawaiian cuisine, and it was one of the first places to offer poke to go.


My father’s specialty was aku, because he was Hawaiian. Way back when, aku was like a rubbish fish. People didn’t eat that; that was like the lowest thing, and it was very cheap. So, he specialized in that, because he learned to do all the different things, like dry it, make it raw, or they could fry it. So, before, you couldn’t go to the store and buy one pound of poke; you had to buy the whole fish. And then, the vendor would clean it for you, and they’d prepare it how you wanted. So we’d have this lady come in from Waimanalo every week. She’d buy three twenty-pound aku’s, and that was for her family for the whole week. And she’d say, Okay, cut one aku for me for frying. So he’d cut it all into steaks. And then the other aku, I want you to cut for drying. So he’d have to cut it. And then she said, And then make me poke on the last aku. Well, my father got to where he was so busy, we couldn’t keep up, and so we had to learn how to clean fish. Then, he figured out, well, let’s just pre-make some of these things. So, he’d have a batch of fish already cut in chunks, so people could come in and say, Okay, I just want poke, I don’t want fish for drying this week. That’s how it kind of evolved. And then, people would say, Oh, I want my poke made with shoyu.


And so, that wasn’t available other places at that time? ‘Cause now, we see it in —


It’s so common.


In every supermarket, grocery store, anyplace.


We’d buy all these different other kinds of fish, and he’d say, Okay, make some of that for poke. And we’re like, Oh, you can eat this for poke too? And he’d say, Oh, yeah, the old Hawaiians, this is how they ate it. You put a certain kind of limu. The combinations with the fish were different. So we had to learn how to do all of that. But nowadays, most people just eat the aku and the ahi and the swordfish. But back then, you did the oio, the awa, you know, the uhu. And so then, he’d have to learn how to do all these different things. Like save the liver from the uhu to mix in with your poke.


When I was little, I would watch my dad clean the aku. And then, he’d save the head for aku palu. And back then, people would use the eyeballs of the fish, and the stomach and the intestines, and the heart of the aku, and the liver. And I would be like, How can anybody eat that? [CHUCKLE] But anyway, all along the intestines, there would be like, little … pockets of the fat of the fish. And that was a delicacy. And my dad would take the time to clean it, and just slide all of that out. And he would keep it in a jar in the refrigerator, and he’d only bring it out when his good really, really good friends came, which was Pops Pahinui, and all of the guys from, Refuse. They would be off of work early in the morning, and they’d come over and they’d talk story with my dad, and he’d bring out this jar of fish guts.


And they would love it.


Yeah, they would love it. And they’d be playing music out in the back, and my father would be sneaking out in the back. And my mom is like, Where’s your father? [CHUCKLE]


And at the time, was Gabby Pahinui a renowned …






— slack key guitar guy?


No, not yet.


And singer.


He was already, a known —


With the locals and his friends, he was like the person they all paina’d with, and stuff.


But he hadn’t gone viral yet.


He didn’t go viral yet.

Wow. Who else came to the shop, that other folks would know?


Auntie Lena Machado. Well, my father’s grandaunt is Clara Inter Haili, also known as Hilo Hattie. And she was always there at the store, coming by to say hello.


What did she like to eat?




Ake was her favorite.


What is ake?


It’s raw liver; raw beef liver. And we’d have to flush all of the blood out, and then you de-vein it. Then you salt it, and you mix it with kukui nut and some limu, and chili pepper, and you ate it like that. So somebody’s really Hawaiian if they can eat ake.


That’s a lot of work, too.


Yeah, it is.


It’s very time consuming.


De-veining it.


Yes, it’s all done by hand, so … my mother was an expert at that.


Do you still do that?






You still do that at the shop?


We still do that; yes.


Wow …


There’s no machine that does that. [CHUCKLE]


And how many people ask for it?


A lot. There’s a lot of people that come in and ask for it. That’s one of our specialties that we still do.


Because a lot of people don’t serve it anymore.




Because of the labor.


It’s a lost art, actually. Not even my children know how to do it.


We make loko too. And not to waste all of the kalua pig when they kalua the pig, so we’d have to learn how to clean the liver. Yeah; and then you saved the blood from the pig also. And then, you had to cook it up with the kalua pig. So that’s like one thing that not too many people eat, that we still do also. And the naau, we still do that. It’s the …


The pig intestines. But now, everything needs to be certified.




We’re culturally certified, so we don’t have any homemade or home slaughtered pork, pork parts.


Organs; yeah, You buy it and you cook it.


I see.


Everything needs to come in from the mainland. We’ve seen a lot of government regulations put on the foods that native Hawaiians are used to eating, so the generation now, they’re missing a lot of the traditional ways of preparing things. But I think health wise, and for the safety of everyone, something needed to be done.


People who love Hawaiian food don’t know some of these Hawaiian foods, because they’re not available in any quantity elsewhere.


Yeah. Like dried fish. Before, on the Big Island, all of the dried akule, everything came from the Big Island, milolii, akule, opelu. Now, there isn’t any, so a lot of the fish that needs to be sold, it’s imported fish from Asia, and then you improvise.


So, you buy the dried fish, and then you do all —


Right. You buy it frozen.


Yeah; you buy it frozen, and then we dry it. Process it in our way. Yeah.


In our parents’ generation, my dad would buy by the pounds. And back then, it was called kau. The Hawaiian way of measuring was the kau.




K-A-U; yeah.


And what was that?


It was like, so many pieces of dried opelu or dried akule was one kau. So, when you ordered it from the fisherman, you’d say, I want three kau’s of dried opelu. And they knew what you were talking about.


Rachel and Lorraine Haili’s mother was of Chinese ancestry, and she encouraged her children to take pride in their Hawaiian and Chinese heritage. After the birth of each of her six children, the matriarch would visit a Chinese temple to ask the fortuneteller to bestow a Chinese name on each daughter, according to the time and day of her birth. All of the girls were given Hawaiian names as well. The Haili family continues to honor this practice.


‘Til today, we still do a lot of the things that my mother respected and taught us to do. You know, like, we still go to the cemetery for Ching Ming, and we do it for my father, my mother, my sister, and my aunties, just because it’s something my mother taught us that we should do for our ancestors.


Do you think your children will do it?


My children, yeah. They’re very involved with the cultural things that we do.


So, you’re pretty sure that’ll be continued.






I think so.


Lorraine is very culturally in tune. She’s a grandmother, and for a young generation grandmother, she wants to be called Popo, you know, which is the Chinese name for grandma.


So, my grandchildren call me Popo, and my grandchildren are multicultural. They’re Tongan, Samoan, Hawaiian-Chinese, and then, my granddaughter is Hawaiian-Chinese, Caucasian. And it’s like a melting pot at home.


Now, why did you choose Popo? Is that because your mom was Popo? Because you could have said Tutu, or Puna for Kupuna.


Puna; right. When my first grandson was born, I said, No, I waited this long, and my children grew up with a Popo. My mother was Popo to all of the grandchildren.


But your father was not Gung Gung.


He was.


He was Gung Gung?


He was Gung Gung.


He was a Hawaiian Gung Gung.








He was Gung Gung. And that’s what my grandkids call my husband.


Oh …


Gung Gung.


In the late 1960s, Rachel Haili had just graduated from college in Ohio. When she returned home to help run the family business, her mother, at age forty-eight, had suffered the first of a series of debilitating strokes, and only a few years later, Rachel’s father died at age fifty-three. Rachel took on the job of supervising her sisters and the other relatives who worked at the store. It’s now her younger sister Lorraine’s turn to carry on with the family business that presents challenges each year.


When I was young, I always said to myself, You’re going to study really hard, and you’re going to go away to college, and you’re going to get a good job. You’re gonna be like a college administrator or something.


You’re never gonna de-vein another liver in your life.


I’m never gonna clean another aku. I’m never gonna do that again. And, it turns out, I had to come back and do exactly what I had said I wasn’t going to do. But, luckily, my family had prepared me for that. They had taught me how to do everything that was necessary to run the business, and then I think going away to college, I learned to be a little more independent and to make decisions. And I had been taught all my life that family is first and you need to take care of your family, so it was a no-brainer for me.   I had to get everybody set. I thought, well, by the time my younger sisters graduate from school, I can go back to school. And time just kinda went along, and I was enjoying doing what I was doing, and it just flowed. So, by then, I was like forty, and I was like, well, do I want to start from the bottom all over and go get a job and work for somebody else? I had already worked for myself.


And look who’s running the business now.


I’m glad she has —


It’s my turn. [CHUCKLE]


I think it’s so wonderful that one sister has passed the baton to another, and now, you are the only sister working in the shop after six did.


But I also have my nephew, Kaulana, who is the son of our youngest sister, Carol. And so, he’s stepping in and learning the ropes. And then, my children come in. My two sons are firefighters, by the way, so they come whenever I need help. And my daughter teaches, she’s a schoolteacher, so she’ll come on weekends or special events. And all of the other grandchildren, whenever we need help, they all step in. And business now, it’s so different as far as the way things are done. There’s no garage laulau making nights. Everything needs to be on a schedule. You have employees, you need to make sure that you have all your materials and supplies there when your employees come in, otherwise it’s wasted time. And time is money when you’re running a business, so that’s what I need to get my children to understand.


And you’ve learned all that on the job. You’ve seen all the transitions.


That was the difference; we learned it on the job.


Well, I chuckle now, because back then, I used to tell Lorraine these things, and she’d just say, Yeah, yeah, yeah. Or I tell my sister them these things, and they say, Yeah, yeah, yeah. And so now, I hear Lorraine almost echoing me.


And the kids are saying, Yeah, yeah, yeah. [CHUCKLE]


Yeah, yeah, yeah. [CHUCKLE]


But you’ve done this for a long time, and you have the energy and the spirit to keep going.


This is what we know. And I still have a passion for it. I credit my mom and my father for allowing us, or letting us fly out of the nest for a little while. Rachel got to go away and go to college, she got her degree. My sisters, they all held other jobs. I was able to go to live in Chicago and New York, because I was a flight attendant for United Airlines, and decided this is not for me. I didn’t feel like I belonged there. It was a fun job. When you’re young and you’re in your twenties, it’s exciting. But then, you come back home to Hawaii, and it’s like, I really don’t want to go back to the mainland, I want to stay here.


And so, what made you decide to go back to the family business?


Because at that time, there was a need for me to be there. And my obligation to my family was very strong.


And my mother always stressed that even though she was pure Chinese, she always told us, You’re half Hawaiian, and you need to be proud that you’re Hawaiian. And that was a time when, you didn’t speak Hawaiian, and being Hawaiian wasn’t, something that you kind of touted, I guess. So, she always told us that. Be proud of who you are.   In a way, our family has made a little bit of contribution to helping to preserve this Hawaiian culture, by offering Hawaiian food, good Hawaiian food.


We never thought that —


Yeah; we had no intention —


— Hawaiian food was so important. Any kind of food to a culture, it’s important. It’s very important, because people will sit and share the food, and share conversation. And, it’s always like when you parties.


We always gather around the table.


What kind food did you have?


Right; it’s like a language.






Yeah, it’s a coming together. Like they say paina, and you come and you share. You not only share food, but you share good times, and camaraderie, and everything. But we never thought when we were doing this that, oh, we’re learning this because we want to be able to preserve the limu culture, or whatever.




And it’s just kind of like, when you look back and you say, Wow, when I say limu lipepe, everybody —


People look at you and go, What is that? [CHUCKLE]


Do you have regulars who come for the kind of foods that they don’t see other places, and they come regularly to you for it?


For ake and raw squid.


And you know when they walk up, you know what they want.


Yeah, I already know what they want. There’s a man that’ll come for lomi oio once a week. I have to make sure that it’s there on Fridays. And if I don’t have it, he’ll give me scoldings.


Isn’t oio really bony?


Yeah, but the way that the lomi oio is prepared is, it’s scraped, and then … by hand, all of the pin bones are pulled out of the fish.


Yeah. That’s why you have to learn how to clean the fish correctly, so when you cut it, the bone stays on one side, and when you scrape the meat off, it’s easier.


Ah …


Rather than getting everything in there.


And you’ve got all these other things going on in the shop, but you’re basically making sure the bones don’t go in the meat in this one oio fish.






I really valued what my family had built up, what my parents had established. And I’m hoping that along the way, somebody else in our family is going to recognize, what this is, and what it could be, and what opportunities their grandparents and their parents, and their aunts and uncles have created, and can perpetuate some of this. Because there is value to their lives, if they could just recognize and accept it.


In 2009, after nearly sixty years as a tenant at the Ward Farmer’s Market, the Haili’s Hawaiian Foods family operation lost its lease. The business went through a spell as a lunch wagon, and then found a modest new home in Kapahulu. With its sit-down restaurant atmosphere near Waikiki, a now expanding tourist clientele can experience a first taste of authentic Hawaiian cuisine. And of course, Haili’s continues to be a favorite gathering spot for local people to enjoy traditional Hawaiian foods like lomi oio, ake, and raw squid, coming not from a recipe book, but from the heart. Thank you, Rachel Haili and Lorraine Haili Alo for sharing your long story short. And thank you, for watching and supporting PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou. ‘Til next time, aloha.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.


God, I remember when all the whole beach was covered with seaweed, and you just have to walk on the shore and pick it. We should be concerned about too, is how can we bring back all of these limu’s and preserve our culture. ‘Cause nobody knows now when you say huluhulu waena, or lipoa, what those limu’s taste like.


Where do you get your limu now?


Commercially, we have to buy ogo. We get ours from the farms, the limu farms. And then, there’s still limu kohu in the ocean, so whenever there’s fishermen that come into our store and they say that they have limu kohu, I’ll buy it from them. Because a lot of the fishermen are still dependent on the ocean for their livelihood.


Olin Lagon


Original air date: Tues., Sept. 10, 2013


Olin Lagon is the director of Kanu Hawaii, an environmental and social movement. He calls himself a “geek” raised in Kalihi and Palolo public housing. In his teen years, Olin says he skipped school to catch waves, and jokes that his blood alcohol level was higher than his GPA. In this conversation with Leslie Wilcox, see how Olin found new paths in life and became a tech entrepreneur and community champion.


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The last tsunami scare we had, it was interesting ‘cause I went to pick up my mom, and she lives in Waimanalo near the beach, and so went driving there, and, you know, I saw all these lines at stores, and it’s so orderly. People are buying water, and they’re like, “Oh, you can take the last one” and stuff. I went to put gas in, and they’d run out of the cheap gas, and so they put the sign saying, “All gas same price, at the lowest price.” And so even the owners could have gouged, but they didn’t; they actually dropped the price. And everyone’s waiting very patiently. And then I saw a video of the last scare in L.A., where people are fighting and duking it out for water and stuff, and it really made me reinforce that there’s still a mass amount of compassion in our state, that people do care.


Olin Lagon believes that compassion is the secret of life. He’s a successful software developer and entrepreneur, yet his passions are community and sustainability. Olin Lagon’s lifestyle and work reflect his deep beliefs in simplicity and family, values instilled in him at a young age by his mother. Olin Lagon next on Long Story Short.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha, mai kakou. I am Leslie Wilcox. Olin Lagon developed his first computer program when he was a boy. Since then he’s had a successful career creating tech companies and selling his designs to companies worldwide. Now, he has Kanu Hawaii, an organization dedicated to creating a sustainable future. Olin Lagon grew up in Honolulu, but there’s very little about his childhood that prepared him to become both a successful businessman and a leader in the non-profit world. His family had to overcome many obstacles, and it was his mother’s faith and love for her son that got them through.


When I was six and my dad died, my mom only went to the sixth grade or so, and so she had a really hard time in finding a job. We lived in public housing, and so she’s trying to raise her three kids and — actually four kids with myself, and not being able to find a job. McDonald’s or fast food, she wasn’t able to get employment. So it took a long time before she’d get a job, and it affected everything about what we could do, what we could buy, what we could eat, where we could go, and so that was really hard period for us.

You remember thinking about when am I gonna eat next? What am I gonna eat?


No, but I had this memory where I remember we were eating flour and water, and we had this — and I remember it being good, like wow, and I think some sugar in it and stuff like that, and she created some kind of stew with flour. And so I tried to recreate that when I was in college, and I it just tasted awful. [laughter]. So, I know that I probably ate a lot of food that wasn’t healthy or wasn’t, — was what we could get. So, I remember getting blocks of cheese from the government. I’m not trying to like say everything was really bad, but there were long periods of time where we didn’t have a lot of food to eat.


And did you think of yourself as a poor kid?


Absolutely. And so the thing with living in public housing is that you live in some of the poorest communities in the country, in one of the wealthiest countries. So, the disparity is huge, and kids are not blind to that. I’ve been to 20-some-odd countries, and I’ve seen poverty first-hand, but what makes my childhood different is that we were sort of trapped in this bubble where everyone around us is rich, except for us. And so, we couldn’t get clothes for school, we couldn’t do a lot of things that we thought other kids could do. And I remember this one episode where I wanted to buy baggy pants, ‘cause everybody was popping, and I thought I wanted to be a dancer, and so I stole five dollars from my mom’s wallet, and I opened it up, and she had, I think, six bucks in it. So, I took the five, and I hid it in a book. And then she came up to me after — I think she knew I took it — and she said, “You know, I’m missing five dollars, and we really need it.” So, I remember pretending to look for it, and then — I think I was about eight at the time. And then one night, sort of pretended to find it. I didn’t find it. When she went away, I took it out, and I put it back in her purse. Never stole again. That’s how I — I guess even as a kid, I knew that even five dollars meant a lot to my family.


Did that reduce the size of your dreams?


I think it reduced the size of my social circle, because I felt embarrassed being in the situations, where we grew up in public housing. I felt like I couldn’t bring friends over. I couldn’t … I didn’t relate to a lot of different people because we didn’t have a lot of the things that the culture said we should have. And so, from that perspective, I think it did reduce my social circle. And I’m sure it had an impact on myself, as well, my self-worth and esteem.


What about your mom?


She lived a very spartan and simple life, and I rejected that, and I hated that, and I thought I would want nothing to do with that growing up. And I’ve come full circle, and so it’s that, to me, is a really amazing lesson that I’m still trying to learn; it’s just this full-circle aspect of simplicity and sustainability.


Your mom sounds like she had a lot of faith.


She never felt embarrassed that we lived in the housing. I’m sure she wasn’t happy about it, but it wasn’t something that she hid. She lived as she lived, and it is what it is, and where she worked was where she worked. I was embarrassed that she worked at Zippy’s at one point, where she ended up getting a job, and now I love Zippy’s ‘cause they gave her a chance.


What was life like within your unit at Kuhio Park Terrace or Palolo Housing? How did you guys handle that?


This story might illustrate that. So, I was seven at the time, and I had some chalk, and I was drawing on the sidewalk, minding my own business, and then I felt this sting in the back of my head. And then I turned around and saw these neighbor kids laughing, and they ran into their unit. And as I was rubbing my head, it hurt like I’ve never felt before, and then it felt weird. So, I looked at my hand, and my entire hand was covered in blood. And so they had stabbed my head with a piece of metal that they found. And then so, of course, I went home. By the time I got home, this side is just all bloody. But what, I guess the surprise is not what … that happened, but what my mom did about that. So, I got home, my mom’s freaking out. And she didn’t call 911, she didn’t call the ambulance, she called her pastor. Because I found out years later is that I needed to go to ER, and he took me to the ER, but she needed comfort because she felt how is it that I can’t take care of my own kid and keep him safe within a few feet of our own home? And so from that context, that, I think, illustrates some of the pressures that went on, living in housing. That’s why I went back for years once a month to volunteer with Parents and Children Together and other organizations, because there’s still a lot of injustice in public housing. Shortly after that, I went to live with my sister. And my sister took me in, and she lived in Waipahu at the time.


And she was much older, yes?


Fourteen years older.


So, that was a safety precaution for you?


I think so. Yeah, I think so. It was just really difficult for me. And I’m a geek, and so, I don’t know other geeks in the public housing at that time. And so, I was not only sort of this unusual kid, but I didn’t have a lot of peers that I could relate with.


Explain how you were a geek in public housing.


My Mom, bless her heart, she didn’t have a lot of money, but her pastor gave her a hundred dollar loan, which she used to buy a used computer back in the early ‘80s. It was a Texas Instrument TI-994A, had no monitor, had no disk drive, and then we went to Radio Shack and bought a tape player. And then I set it up as a computer, went to the library, and then I borrowed — there were three books on computer programming. And that’s in an entire library. So, I borrowed all three …


Which library was this?


This was the Waikiki library. And so, I borrowed the three. I read them, and then I learned how to program, wrote my first program. It was a funny program where I — you put in your name, and it would tell you your future. And so when I put in my name, it had all these amazing things to say [laughter]. And my sister put in her name, and then it had some not so good things to say, but those are the kinds of things that I did as a kid. And so, — and from there, I started doing design work and programming different things.


You taught yourself from a remnant of a computer?


It wasn’t that difficult cause I had some books that I could read, yeah.


But nobody else was doing it, you were just self-motivated to check it out?


Right … that was my Mom. She had the foresight to do that.


When he was young, Olin Lagon’s only ambition was to become a professional surfer. That didn’t work out for him. But some of the people he met along the way had a profound impact on many of the choices he’s made in his life.


Did you know you were smart?


I don’t know if I can answer that now. I think that I’m okay …


So, at the time did you have a sense of your self-worth?


I didn’t.


And you didn’t know what was going to happen to you?


No. I just kind of went with the flow, thinking that I was going to be a surfer, and that I was gonna make money doing that and just have that career.


After your father died when you were six, was there another father figure in your life after that?


The father figure I had was someone from the Big Brothers Big Sisters, and so this guy, Dave, who was a volunteer. I remember it’s one of the most joyous moments in my life. I was sitting at home at KPT, and then the phone rang. My mom picked it up, and she said, “It’s for you.” And I never got calls, right? So, I pick up the phone, and it’s Dave. And he’s like, “Olin, listen, listen!” And he’s telling me, “Don’t say anything.” So, I’m straining to hear something. I don’t hear anything. He’s like “Come on, you can’t hear it?’ And I couldn’t hear it. And he said, “It’s hailing; it’s hailing in Kaimuki.” And he was just jumping for joy. And he thought it was the most amazing thing. And while I didn’t know it hailed in Hawaii, but when I hung up the phone, I had chicken skin, and I still do, because this guy was so excited, and he called me. And I just felt so good about that.


One sharing adult makes a huge difference.


Yeah, and I’ve had a few. And there are really two parts to that equation, because I think in everyone’s life, you’re gonna have tons of opportunities where adults are giving you this advice, but it takes your growth to be willing to accept that. And so, I’m sure that throughout my life I had all these wonderful forces coming in, but I wasn’t ready to accept it. I dropped out of high school and was sort of a delinquent kid and all that. And so, but when I would join the military as a naval reservist, I had a guy in military school that was really, — really pushed me to go to college. And no one had ever told me that before, and I was ready to receive that.


Nobody had told you that before?


Never. In fact, it was so bad that when I came back to Hawaii I dropped out of school, so I didn’t take the SAT or anything like that. So, I went to Honolulu Community College, and I took the placement exams. So, it’s just where you go for math and English. And then I went to the counselor, and I said, “I want to be an engineer.” Then he looked at my scores, and he said, “No!” And I said, “What do you mean, ‘no’?” It’s like, “Well, your scores are not high enough, so let’s look at the survey program. It’s two years, and you can do this.” And I said, “No, I want to be an engineer.” And he refused to help me.


And so I was the keynote speaker at HCC one year, and I shared that story, because that’s wrong; you don’t do that to kids. But that’s how strong it is, I think, in terms of, you have to overcome some these issues, people telling you things that you can’t do.


Even before graduating from the University of Hawaii with a degree in business administration, Olin Lagon was already making money as an entrepreneur and software developer.


You were a pioneer in crowd funding and software development.


I’ve been lucky. Some of the designs that I’ve worked on have been adopted by companies worldwide: Olympics, Nike, Fed Ex, NTT. MIT even bought some of the software that I designed.


Do you hold patents?


I have nine, nine patents.


Do they pay you?


Well, the patents were sold in a previous company. So, there’s no financial interest. Some friends and I invented independently this concept of chipping in, or now it’s called crowd-funding. And so, we designed systems around that, and we got some patents for the work that we did.


You own … you founded and owned that company for a relatively short time, I think a little more than a year, but you did an amazing amount of work. Lots of money flowed through there, and then you sold it to a big, big enterprise.


I left that company to launch Kanu with some friends, but I was there for about two and a half years, and so we did roughly a hundred million dollars of crowd-funding through the system. We funded all kinds of projects worldwide. It was pretty amazing. And then my partners went on to sell the technology and the systems to a large national … international company.


You had a very, very strong career going in software development and creating new ideas and companies when you left to join Kanu, which was a fledgling non-profit Hawaii-based enterprise. Why did you decide to do that? It’s a non-profit.


Right, but it’s actually part of my plan. So, my adult life, 50 percent has been given up to service or volunteering. So, I want to give away half my life, and I want that to remain constant for the rest of my life. And so, Kanu was an amazing oppor — I feel privileged that I was able to be a part of the founding of the getting it off the ground and getting staff engaged. And so I see that as a privilege and an opportunity. So half my life is starting companies, tech companies, but I do that for three or four years, and then I go back and so some cause-related work and then sort of oscillate between the two.


And you don’t have trouble making that move?


It’s the same work. You do good work, you find great ideas, you think big a little bit, then you push the boundaries here and there and try to change the world the best way you can.


Did you become wealthy through your ideas in tech?


I feel wealthy, and so I’ve never done anything in my life for money, and I never will. And so, I’ve been very fortunate, and I’m happy with what I’ve got. I’ve been given a lot, and I’ve been very generous.


So, that wasn’t your motivation, but you did make money on your expertise?


Made some and enough.


That’s interesting, “enough,” and how people define “enough.”





In your case, how do you define it, as far as quality of life?


Enough is that you can spend time with your family. So, at 4:00 every day my goal is to just spend some time with my two boys. And so we try to go walking or do whatever we can for that short period of time. We have dinner every night together. And then if I have to work, I’ll work again at night. But then enough means that you can have someplace safe, you can enjoy some of the beauty of Hawaii, which most of it is free, right? — the beach, and hiking, and stuff like that if you’ve got a safe place to call home. And you’ve got good food that you can eat, hopefully a lot of it locally grown. And I think that’s more than enough.


You live off the grid, so to speak as well.


We have a zero energy home. We produce more energy than we need. And we now have an electric car, and it’s still a zero energy home. And we’ve been very fortunate, but I think the kuleana is, if you have the opportunity to live in a zero energy home, then you have to help support other initiatives, ‘cause not everyone has that opportunity. If you are renting, you can’t switch out your appliances or put solar. And so, where you have this deep kuleana, to really be fair, to help others as well.


You also met your wife at an early age, too?


I did, yeah. When I came back from military training, I was 17, actually — no, 18. I was 18. And then one of my friends, my surfer friends, wanted to get a job, and he couldn’t go to the interview by himself. That’s how, I guess, we were. So, I went with him to this job interview at the Mexican restaurant Chi-Chi’s. And so while I’m interviewing with him, maybe — I don’t know what they were thinking, but we’re in this interview together, they said, “Why don’t you come and work, too?” And then I thought, oh, no, I’m not here for the job, I’m here to support my friend. So, I ended up taking the job, and I worked as a busboy. It was the first job I ever had, and I met her there. She was studying to be a doctor, and she was this really smart girl. She was at UH. And I was so intimidated. Like I’m this kind of rough kid. And I’m trying to find my way through life. And she blew me away with sustainability. We went and had dinner, and she was a vegetarian at the time. And I thought, why are you a vegetarian? Like, that is weird. Are you a hippie? I didn’t know what that meant. This was back in 1990. And then she gave me a few books to read, which I did, and then I started my sustainability journey from her. So, we have cloth napkins that we use daily from that time period. Yeah, she has these Down To Earth plastic bottles that are so old the people at Down To Earth don’t recognize them, but she’s been refilling them for 30 years. She’s never bought, like, another plastic bottle for shampoo, ‘cause she just goes back and refills them. And just like these really small things that she does quietly that have just impressed me immensely about sustainability.


Did she become a doctor?


No, she became a teacher. Her brother was in special-ed at the time, and she wasn’t happy with the services that he was getting. And she decided that she couldn’t just say that she didn’t like it, but she had to do something about it. So, she switched her major into teaching and ended up spending ten years on the Waianae Coast teaching in public education.   And then we joined the Peace Corps together.   And then she came back and taught in Kalihi for a couple of years.   And then when my first son was born, she’s been at home ever since.


Kanu Hawaii was launched in 2008 by a group of like-minded individuals who felt that the islands could be the model to the world in compassion and sustainability. They started a non-profit organization based on individual commitments to practice sustainability and compassion. Olin Lagon joined this movement early on and today is Kanu Hawaii’s executive director.


When Kanu first started, I remember talking to some of the early guys when they organized their 40 folks, and I loved the simplicity of it. So, here’s a group of 40 that want to change fundamentally Hawaii for the next 30 years.


And how did these 40 get together?


They’re just friends that were about the same age and hung around together. And but what they did was fascinating: They said, we’re not rich, we’re not famous, we don’t have a lot of money, we can’t do a lot of things, but what we can do is make our lives consistent with the vision that we see.   And so they had this “I will” movement where they said, “First, I will do this in my life, and then collectively we can work together, but not until we actually get our own lives in order.” And I thought that was really empowering, and so, I –when they wanted to get it off the ground, I said, “I would love to.” So, James Koshiba, Andrew Oki, and myself were the first co-directors of it; we got it off the ground. And it’s blossomed in many ways that we didn’t anticipate since then.


And you have 20,000 supporters throughout the state?


About that, yeah, in every zip code across the state. And we’ve done a lot of national work, too that we haven’t really broadcast, like, CNN did a cover story on our group last year, on the elections work that we did. We knocked on about 3,000 doors. We got 25,000 people election information for — that are unbiased and for some of the elections that didn’t have much information, like the local House races and City Council. We did work with 500 families last year on energy efficiency. These were families that were disadvantaged that maybe couldn’t install solar and stuff like that. And so, national groups have picked it up. And so, like ted.com, we built their community-based system for them. It’s a pretty large group. The Points of Light Institute, did the same. The 911 Commission adopted our model for their tenth anniversary of the 911 commission. So, it was really neat to see Kanu’s humble model being used nationally and even internationally, too.


What is the change that Kanu wants to see in Hawaii?


It’s really simple. In the next 30 years we want to fundamentally change sustainability and compassion. So, food, energy, waste, civic engagement, we want us to be more locally self-sufficient and rely less on external sources for energy, to not lose this compassion that we have that’s really different here.


Do you think the compassion reservoir or reserves are dwindling here? I’ve heard people say, you know, the “Aloha” isn’t quite the same anymore.


Yeah, it has changed. In some communities, no; in some communities, yes. And part of it is, there were peoples that lived in Hawaii for many years that had these tenets of aloha at its core, and the demographic profile of Hawaii has shifted, so there’s more people that are not from Hawaii that live here than are from here. So, that has changed the culture in some ways good and in some ways, not so good, and so, the compassion piece has shifted quite a bit, unfortunately, I think.


That’s so interesting that your organization is interested in preserving and growing compassion.


Compassion is the secret of life, I think. If you can’t be vulnerable and compassionate, then it’s hard to be connected with other people. And so, that cannot go away. You can’t do good work and do it without coming from a place of compassion.


I’ve heard one of your members talk really passionately and movingly about how you can’t judge people by where they’re from because it’s the heart that counts.




And that we can’t demonize each other, or we’ve really hurt ourselves.


The truth is, when you — when we mix cultures, then something changes and something shifts. And so, Kanu really wants to make sure that we don’t lose that compassion piece, that we hold sustainability true to our hearts, and the work we do and the lives we live are consistent with that, and we don’t forget to take care of one another. For example, we have this day of action where we’ve set up 20 or so projects statewide that our members can chose whether they want to count turtles, or go plant plants at KPT, or help feed people who don’t have food. And we provide these opportunities for just hundreds of people to just get out and experience different parts of the community. On the compassion side, I remember this one volunteer; she went to a shelter in Manoa that we organized a clean-up effort for for women and children that were battered. It’s a really terrible thing that happened, but it’s a great shelter. And so she was so moved that she showed up the next Sunday and helped and the next Sunday and helped. She was a sophomore in high school. She ended up going every single Sunday until she went to college. And to me, I think that’s compassion, because she has fundamentally changed the lives of everyone in that shelter, and her family, and her friends and created this mass amounts of compassion.


And, so, part of what Kanu did was exposed her, introduced her, made it a personal matter for her.


Right. Or even some of the things we do may not be that effective, but we try to register homeless communities to vote. And I don’t know how many people we got registered, but it was just really difficult, but in doing that work, we found all these challenges. We went to this shelter, and they get their mail in another community, so where do they vote? And if they show up, then what do they use? We just got to learn about some of these challenges first-hand.


That’s right. And so, you learned that you — when you try to come up with a solution, if you don’t have all the information, it is not a solution, right?


No, no.


So, has it been harder than you thought to solve some of the — or at least begin working on some of these societal issues?


Not because we’re not — we got a long way to go, and so, we’re not rushing it; we’re just going as fast as we can. We’re trying to affect food, energy and waste issues. We have an “Eat Local” challenge, where we’ve got thousands of people eating more local. It’s not solving everything, but it’s a step in the right direction. So, I feel like the pace we’re going is good.


What do you see Hawaii in 20 years with Kanu’s work to improve things step by step?


I see Hawaii in 20 years as leading the world in models of sustainability. We’re gonna need it. We’re shifting away from major different resources going off of oil into renewables, and finding ways to live together compassionately. And so, we have this opportunity to excel at that and show the world that it can be done in a very isolated place. And so, I have faith that we’ll find amazing technical solutions, cultural solutions to become one of the most sustainable places on earth.


And what stands in the way of us reaching that goal?


Our culture, in some ways, being stuck in the past. We have to — we can’t talk about sustainability but drive an SUV with one passenger, and not recycle, and not try to eat local. It’s hard because my wife still buys strawberries, and it’s $10 a basket for the Kula strawberries. And I said, “We can’t afford it,” but I still cringe, but I know that’s what we need to do. But I cringe because I’m still connected with that feeling. So, we have to really go all in and support our local agriculture. We don’t support it as much as we should. We need to support local businesses. We don’t support it as much as we should. And that requires a big cultural shift.


So, our salvation is our culture, and our nemesis is our culture.


I think so, right. But there’s hope in that.


As you watch your boys grow up, is there any mistake you’ve seen other parents make that you’re gonna try not to make?


I think the over-scheduling is — I see that kids are doing too much. At least, I think it’s too much, and they’re not allowed to just sit and be. And so, that’s one thing that I want to do differently. And so, I mean, I feel bad, I go to parties, and this kid is doing soccer, and then baseball, and basketball, and trombone, and piano and stuff, and I’m thinking, am I robbing my kid of these experiences? And then I keep going back to, no. I think this is the path that works. And they will find their own ways.


And at 4:00 p.m., you’re there with your sons, talking with them.




Well, Olin Lagon found his way and is helping to blaze the path toward a future Hawaii that is built on self-sufficiency, sustainability, and above all, compassion. His life so far has been a remarkable journey shaped by a caring mother, mentors who were there when he was ready to listen, and his own unending quest for knowledge and justice. Mahalo to Olin Lagon for sharing his story of inspiration and hope, and Mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.


For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of “Long Story Short” with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of “Long Story Short” with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes store or visit PBSHawaii.org.


I’m very … very fortunate that I was born in Hawaii. I’ve seen so many difrerent places, many different countries, and lived in different communities, and this is such a blessing to have come from here. Just even what I went through as a kid, I think there’s so much the world can learn, that we’re from diff cultures and different backgrounds and in some ways it’s working really well and I think theres a lot of beauty there and I’m very grateful for that.



Anne Namba


Original air date: Tues., Feb. 2, 2008


Fashion Designer of “Kimono Couture”


Anne Namba is the creator of a fashion line blending vintage Japanese fabrics and contemporary fashion, “kimono couture.” Her brand, Anne Namba Designs, is being picked up nationally by Nordstrom’s and is featured in other select Mainland stores. Anne graduated from Kalani High School and went on to the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. After stints in the garment industry in New York and L.A., Anne started her own business.


Anne Namba Audio


Download the Transcript




Aloha no, I’m Leslie Wilcox welcoming you to another episode of Long Story Short. This one is a little different. Usually I’m getting to know the guest at the same time you are. But this time, our guest is someone I happen to have grown up with. Used to hang out at her home with her family, saw her go through school, boyfriends, marriage, major career moves. So I already know her— and I also know she’s full of surprises. Anne Namba is the creator of a fashion line blending vintage Japanese fabrics and contemporary fashion, “kimono couture.” Her brand, Anne Namba Designs, is being picked up nationally by Nordstrom’s and is featured in other select Mainland stores. Anne graduated from Kalani High School and went on to the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. After stints in the garment industry in New York and L.A., Anne started her own business.


When I met you, you were in third grade; I was in fifth. And you showed up at Aina Haina Elementary School with your sister—wearing an—you were so exotic, because you were carrying your books in a bag and the strap was on your forehead. It was a woven tribal bag. And everyone took about five second looks, if you can do such a thing.


Yeah. Okay; exotic would not be the correct term. I was like nerd. I was like weirdo. That’s ‘cause we had just come back from living in Thailand. And those were like our little book bags. And they were actually these ethnic bags from Thailand. And my mother was like, These are perfect to carry your books in. So that’s how you carried ‘em, was on your head, so you didn’t get shoulder, you know, aches or anything. So we did that. Oh, my god.


I can’t remember the year, but we were young, and you and I took sewing classes together. Your first formal sewing class.


That’s right. Yeah; that was—I think it was yeah, it was soon after. I know I wanted to learn how to sew, and so Nodie came too.


Your sister.


My sister, Nodie, and you were there and Tammy Higa was there. And yeah, you guys were terrible; I remember that.


I don’t remember that part; not at all.


Oh, you were terrible.


Well, you were about twelve. And is that—did you discover that you were so much better than the rest of us?


Well, I just loved it. I loved it, and it came natural—you know, very natural—


Did you know before that, that you’d be good at it?


Well, I think my mom will be horrified by this story. But it’s true. Because I was the second daughter, I got all of my older sister’s hand-me-downs. And I never had my own clothes. So the only way to get my own clothes was to actually make them, which is why I wanted to learn how to sew. And so I remember my grandmother died, my Japanese grandmother died, and she had one of those really old fashioned sewing machines that you pumped the pedal and it would go. And so I just started fooling around. I found some fabric, and I made this little outfit, not knowing what I was doing. And my mother saw that, and she was like, Oh, maybe you need to take sewing lessons. I’m like, Oh, yeah, I’d love it. So that’s when I started doing it. And Nodie started wearing all of my clothes, so everyone thought that they were her clothes, and I was still wearing her hand-me-downs. So then I started renting them to her, which was my whole entrepreneurial start, so—


How much did you charge her?


I can’t remember, but it was in high school. ‘Cause I’m going, That’s not fair. I buy the fabric, I make the outfit, and then you wear it like it’s your clothes, and everyone just assumes that I’m wearing your old clothes.


Well, I remember at a certain point in that class, I was trying to follow the lines of my Simplicity pattern. And I looked over at you and you weren’t even using a pattern. You were just free-forming it.


Yeah; I remember you would pin everything, like every inch apart. I was like, Oh, my god.


And you would just be done. Like, what’s she still working on? And you would design your own clothes at that point.


Yeah; I started off by just like altering a pattern, or you know. And then I used to go to India Imports and buy the bedspreads there, and—you know, ‘cause that was the hippie days, and make, you know, our long sort of muumuu things. And then people started asking me to sew it for them, so that’s when I started doing that and charging money. So I started way back when.


Was that natural for you, the idea of the—you know, the creative part and the commerce part?


Oh, absolutely. I was like, I’m not doing this for free.


But tough, right? Because so many people asked you to do favors, and Anne could you help me with this.


Yeah. I still to this day have a hard time saying no.


Your family was very supportive of you in this business.


Yeah; yeah. They always—you know, when I announced that I wanted to be a fashion designer, it was like, oh. But they supported me all the way, and you know when I think back now, my parents, you know, they had to scrape together money to send me away to New York to go to school. And you know, back then, you just think, Well, that’s what I want to do, of course they’re gonna pay for it.


Because your father was a professor, he believed in higher ed.




Would he have liked you to have been a scientist like he is?


Oh, they knew that that was never a possibility. In fact, they saved some of my old reports cards. And my kids were shocked. They’re all like, Mom, you got Ds? It’s like, but look at Art; it’s A’s.


Picked the right job.


Yeah, right.


So you went away to New York, and was that like for you?


I remember um, when I first landed in New York—and nowadays, you know, parents take kids on college tours, and they set them up. I just got there, and got out of the train station with all my suitcases, and some man comes up and said, Do you need a cab? And I’m like, Yeah. And he picked up my bags and just took off through Madison Square Gardens. And I’m following him; he takes me to the curb, and he hails a cab for me. And I was like, Oh, I thought he was a cab driver. And then he asked me for a tip. And I was just like, Oh; what? And then the cab driver starts yelling at him for doing that, ‘cause he was scamming me. So the cab driver and this guy then start fist fighting on the street. And then I’m just watching in horror. And then he yells at me; he says, Get in the cab. So I get in the cab, and I’m just like going, I just want to go to FIT, you know, just to the school. I was in shock. I was like, Oh, my god, this is New York. And then I got there and decided I was gonna go—there was a bagel shop, and I wanted to get a sandwich. And everyone’s in there, shouting out their orders, and I’m politely standing, waiting and waiting. And finally, the bagel guy looks at me and he goes, You gonna order, or what? And I was like, Oh, I’m sorry. So that was my very first hour in New York City.


You realized, I’d better ratchet up my—


I was like, Oh, wow.


–confidence level here.


Yeah, right.


Well, by the time I visited you—and this was in the 80’s—you were working in the fashion industry, Radio City Music Hall. Right?


Yeah; yeah.


You were costuming the dancers


That’s right; that’s right.


I remember thinking, What’s happened to Anne? Because you walked—


Oh, I know.


–about five times faster than you ever had, and we were just walking. We weren’t going to any particular place.


I thought, Where are they?


You talked faster, and you were very proactive in dealing with people. You know, just combative, as a matter of fact, as I recall.


Yeah; back—oh, back then—well, especially in fashion, and in school too, it’s really a super competitive field. So you have to— you can be intimidated; you gotta just get out there and—


Did that come naturally for you?


No. I was shy. Remember? I was really shy as a kid. So yeah, I don’t know what happened along the way.


But was it hard, or do you just remember thinking, This is what I have to do, therefore it’s what I’ll do?


No; it was hard. I remember feeling like a country bumpkin when I first got up there, and not being sophisticated, not knowing anything, not being fashionable, not being able to buy the latest you know, fashion.


Did you think you were gonna cut it? Did you think you might not make it?


I never thought that I wasn’t gonna be a fashion designer; I always thought that’s—you know, I’m gonna work in fashion. But I never thought I would be where I am today. I didn’t have that in my fantasies.


What did you think you would do with your degree once you got out of this prestigious fashion school?


I thought I would just be probably designing for you know, companies in New York City. And that someday I might be able to, you know, design for, you know, one of the big—you know, Calvin Klein or something like that. And to me, that would have been like, wow. But then, you know, of course, I burnt out of the city and and left, so—


What did you think when you were leaving the city? Did you think—




Oh, you were glad to go?


I was like, Oh—


And what next?


Well, I moved to L.A. because I thought there’s a good fashion center there, so I moved to LA. And then at that point, I still did not want my own company. So I moved there, and I wanted to get into costuming again. But it’s so tough; that industry is really, really a hard industry to get into. And I fell back into the garment district, into the—actually producing overseas. So that started a whole ‘nother interest in overseas and producing over there. And then naively thought, you know, Oh, my bosses are a bunch of jokers, they don’t know what they’re doing. You know. I just thought, pff, I’m doing all the work here, I might as well open my own business and—you know, very naively. Because running a business and designing stuff is completely—it’s a lot more than just designing pretty clothes. And so I moved back to Honolulu, because I thought, Well, at least if it doesn’t work out, I have a roof over my head, and I know that my family will feed me. So I moved back to Hawaii, and worked here for about a year, just to sort of get the climate, figure out resources, and how it all works here, which is a lot slower.


Yeah; I noticed you started walking more slowly again. And talking more slowly.


And then I started my business. And it’s been great.


And you did literally start your business under your parents’ roof.


Yup. I got the old bedroom, and I updated the—my grandmother’s sewing machine, though. And just—I was a one-man show. I did everything myself.


Anne launched a boutique in 1989 and Anne Namba Designs was born. Despite being what she terms a “one man show” during those early days of the business, Anne credits family members for their unwavering support. More on that as our conversation continues.


Must be a thrill to hear when somebody is wearing an Anne Namba.


The first time I heard my name used in that way, like, Oh, I wore my Anne Namba, and I’m like, Wait, that’s me. What do you mean you wore my Anne Namba? You know. And now, you know, I’ll just say, Oh, I’m gonna wear an Anne Namba. And so I’m very used to it now.


I remember your dad liked to help you pick the models.


That is my dad’s main objective with all my shows.


And your mom is very long-suffering. Kind of rolls her eyes, and smiles.


No; all the models know that if my dad doesn’t like them they don’t get hired again. So they all make sure to say, Hello, Dr. Namba, whenever he comes to my shows.


You had to find a niche for yourself when you got back home.




How did how did Eurasian clothes get to you? How did that idea get planted?


Well I think a lot of it had to do with the influence of always traveling, seeing different cultures, seeing different fabrics which—I love Japanese fabric; love the kimono, the culture, the food, everything. And so I was very taken with the fabric and the kimono, but you can’t really wear a kimono, ‘cause either you look like you’re wearing a costume or a bathrobe. And so I decided, since I had the background of fashion and how do to, you know, Western contemporary style clothing and flattering lines, that I would incorporate the two. And it’s nothing new; people had been doing it before. But you know, I have a different sort of take on it than—you know, everyone has their own sort of individual take. You know, and then slowly got into doing my own prints, because I’m running out of kimonos.


I was gonna ask you; where did you get all the kimono that you used, and how was that taken in Japan? Are they wild about you cutting up kimonos?


Actually, they’re starting to do it now.




You see a lot more of it happening.


Were they doing that at the time you started?


No; no, not at all. In fact, they would be just like, Why are you using that old stuff? And they would not themselves buy it, because it’s almost looked upon, back then, as you couldn’t afford new clothes so you had to remake one of your old kimonos. Nowadays, though, again, you see a lot of the younger generation. I was shopping some of the stores the last time I was there, and you’re seeing Japanese labels, jeans with kimono pockets and patches on it. So things are changing. I have a lot of Chinese influence too, and some of my prints are Chinese inspired, as well as styles. I did one whole collection once for a showing that I did that was all based on Chinese different dynasties. And I researched it and did that whole thing.


That must be fun, the research. Historical research.


Oh, yeah. Yeah; yeah. It’s a lot of fun.


Now, you said you’re getting into prints too.


I’ve been doing prints for a long time, actually. If you have your own fabric, then you can mass produce the styles. So I started doing that, oh, gosh, quite a while ago. And right now, that’s my main wholesale collection.


Who designs your fabrics?


My nephew. He started—that’s Nodie’s son. And he started when he was like fifteen; he’s really talented artist, and so I started having him do some artwork for me. And nowadays, it’s all done on the computer. So you know, we’ll discuss ideas, and I’ll look at things, and you know, if I don’t like a color, you know, he presses a button, it’s, How’s that? It’s much different today.


And he designed the fabric you’re wearing now?


Yes; m-hm.






What are women most concerned about when they dress, in general?


Well, my mission statement is to make every women look taller, thinner, and I just added younger, now that I can relate.


How do you do that, though? Just the cut of the—


The cut, yeah. You know, you don’t want dowdy cuts. You know, you try to keep it modern, but wearable for people that don’t have the most—you know, the perfect body. And it’s funny that, you know, if you have a certain flattering style on people, and you know how to achieve it, then when they put on the garment, they’re like, I love it. And they don’t know particularly why, but they love the cut.


It must be frustrating, ‘cause sometimes you probably want to design for fashion model types who can wear anything. And you have to be realistic and design for people who are regular folks.


Actually, for me, I—mostly because I’m not built like a model, I always design with myself in mind. Like, what would I want to wear. And naturally, you know, I want to look taller, slimmer, younger, so I’ll do that. And when the models put it on, I just see that as like, you know, icing on the cake. It’s just like, oh, well, they’re just so tall and thin. So I don’t design for model figures at all, and I never have. And it’s just when they throw it on and it’s that much better, then you know, that’s great. But you know, I’ll have women that say, Well, of course it looks good on her, she’s six feet tall and size, you know, zero. But I’m like, No, it’s not true. If you put it on—it’s actually too big on her, but you know, that’s her job to make it look better. And put it on, ‘cause it’ll look good on you too. And I was just approached by another store for—to do plus sizes. So now I might expand into that.




Not personally.


Yeah. So is there a new area of the business you’re going to be moving into, or are you gonna be at this level for a while? How’s it working?


Well, at this point, for me to expand in my wholesale division, that’s the easiest, ‘cause I contract everything out. So the hard part is designing the fabric, designing the collection, and then getting it produced. Once I do that, I can up my numbers. And so I could say, Cut 50 of these, or cut 500. It’s just adding more numbers.


That could be an exponential move then.


Yeah; yeah. And it wouldn’t be that much more for us to do; it’s just upping the numbers when we order things. So we’re looking at that. Aother division of mine that is just going gangbusters is my bridal division. And that started out as you know, client coming in; Oh, my daughter’s getting married, why don’t you make a dress. And well, 500 people came to her wedding, and they all—you know, it was great advertising. So now we’re going gangbusters with our bridal.


What do women look for in bridal dresses when they come to you? What do they want?


They want the Asian, you know, influence look. A lot of the girls want to have that. Different fabric, something you know, some of ‘em, you know, it reflects their heritage. Just something—you know, a lot of times, they want something simple, but really different. And so when they come to us, then you know, that’s what they get. We custom make all of our gowns for our brides.


So I understand you’re gonna be appearing across the nation in a particular store. Something new is happening?


Yes; yes. I am, well, I’m participating in the new Nordstrom store, so we’re just going gangbusters getting all the collections ready for them. And of course that goes nationwide. So that’s big.


That’s huge. How much do you think that’ll add to your business in percentage?


Gosh; you know, like I said, I got a D in math, so I don’t know; that’s why I have my husband. Marriage is a business.


Another family member helping—


Yes; yes, yes.


–in the business and being a resource.


Yes; so we do and I’m using my daughter as a model now. So yeah. So we have lots of nepotism.


And it works for you.




What do your kids take away from your running a business and being a fashion designer, do you think?


Well, I hope that they don’t think that life is all about stress. That’s really what I hope they—you know, they don’t do. ‘Cause you know, I worry that—a lot of times, I’m like, Mom’s had a bad day, I’m really stressed. And I don’t want them to think that’s what running a business is about. So I try to watch that, but a lot of times, I know I’m, How was your day, Mom. It’s like, [GROWL]. I think I—well, I constantly remind them that it is a business, so it can go up and down. And in fact, I’ve tried to get—my daughter has done a little bit of her own business. And this is just—you know, I’m trying to get her to have an entrepreneurial spirit, and to realize that if you work hard, and you know, you try to use your head about things and you know, if you have a little bit of talent and you just figure out how to take advantage of it, you know, that you can make money. And so she’s been making money off of little things too. And so I think she’s gonna be able to—and she wants to go into fashion and into business, so I think she’s gotten that from the business, and she really enjoys that part of it. She’s a great salesperson too, so—


Were there times where you wanted to rethink the whole business, or when it was really difficult to decide where to go next with it?


No. Actually, once I started, I never thought—I mean, before I started, I thought, well, you know, no guts, no glory, right, and I can always get a job. So—why not? And started doing it, and I never once said, I want to give up, or this isn’t working, or I rather work for somebody. Never, ever. But then I’ve just been really lucky, and things have been going really well for me. So—


And you’ve seen other fashion businesses lose their way.


Yeah. Yeah; come and go. But you know, I’ve been able to sort of market my look, the image, and you know, create a good image. And just keep on top of things. Although my body’s starting to revolt.


Speaking of that, you’ve done triathlons.


I know; that was like, my daughter calls it my midlife crisis. So she just said, All of a sudden, Mom decided to do triathlons, so—


Well, was it all of a sudden? I mean, were you ready?


Yeah. Yeah; no, I just thought, Oh, I can do that, that sounds like fun. And so I did it. And of course, now I have arthritis in my knees and tendonitis in my arms and—


And now you don’t do those three events anymore?


No; I—yeah, I had to give up running. So then I started swimming and biking, and then now I can’t swim anymore, so today I’m gonna try and do a spinning class. And I walk in the mornings, and I used to make fun of people that walked for the exercise, and now that’s what I’m doing.


Several times now, I think you’ve paddled to Kalalau along the Na Pali Coastline of Kauai, which is rough, there are no lifeguards around to save you if you get into trouble. It’s about a 27-mile paddle from the beginning to the end.


Well, we’ve done that now every year for, oh my goodness, maybe five, six years. And it’s my spiritual renewal. And it’s where we go and we sleep on the beach, and we have to pump our own water, and we look and you know, bathe in the waterfall. But we hike every day, and for me, that is just getting back to nature and realizing that in this world, you are very small. And then all of a sudden, it just doesn’t really matter that the color was slightly, you know, too yellow—or you know.


And the main fashion garment is the pareau, right? Because you can wear it, you can towel off on it.


Yes. You sleep on it. You can—yeah. You can do everything with it.


The wilderness trips, the camping; that doesn’t jive with your image as this fashion designer who’s just perfect at your shows.


I know. I remember when one year we came back from Kalalau; and this was after being a week on the beach, right? And we came direct from the beach to the airport. And as I was checking in, the guy looks at my ID and he starts to laugh, and he goes, Hey, you have the same name as the fashion designer. I went like, Oh, yeah. And another time, I was up at a waterfall, and I don’t know how it got out, but this guy there that works for advertising found out that I was there. And he goes, Oh, Anne, I always to meet you, and so I was a little embarrassed of the way I looked. So I thought, I’m just gonna be cool, like I’m cool, you know, I’m in nature, and so what if I look like this. So I was like, Oh, yeah, and I was doing my whole, you know, I’m nature too, and all that. And then all of a sudden, I’m talking to him, and one of the lenses from my sunglasses popped out and fell on the ground. And then I completely lost it. And I was like, Don’t tell anyone you saw me here.


Do you think your position number two in a family of four kids—you know, they always talk about birth number being important somehow.


Yes. I think I was ignored as the middle child. Because—


Well, we know about the hand-me-downs.


Yes, Leslie. And you know, my older sister, she got all the new stuff, and she got to do things first. And then my younger brother was the baby, so he got babied. And the middle child always gets ignored.


But it seems to have worked out for you.


Yeah. I just like to use it.


The middle child has done very well for herself. I’ve overheard women saying with pride ‘I’m wearing an Anne Namba.’ Anne’s clientele has grown to include Elizabeth Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Hillary Clinton, Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi and many women throughout Hawaii. It was fun sharing stories with this successful Hawaii entrepreneur, creative force, and good friend – Anne Namba. But, as always, we have to keep this long story short.   Mahalo for joining me. I’m Leslie Wilcox with PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou!


We lived in Thailand and Iran, and then just—


You lived in Iran when you were a kid.


Yes. That’s right.


What was it like?


You know, it was really fun back then ‘cause it was the Shah, and you know, we rode horses, and we went to a private little school and it was great fun; international school. And it was great back then.


Your dad was a professor from the University on sabbatical.


Right; and you know, he was basically, you know, looking for different experiences to do, and we went as a family. And so we all sort of got the travel bug and just curiosity in other cultures. I think it was just sort of you know, you grow up around it.


Kent Untermann


Original air date: Tues., Oct. 30, 2007


Hawai‘i Entrepreneur


An entrepreneur with an inspiring story of success. Kent Untermann’s career has included playing football at the University of Hawaii, training at the Dallas Cowboys’ rookie camp – and turning a swap meet business into an operation that generates $15 million dollars a year.


Leslie Wilcox sits down with Kent to hear how he said goodbye to his NFL dreams and applied himself to success in another field – the picture framing business – starting the Hawaii company Pictures Plus.


Kent Untermann Audio


Download the Transcript




Aloha! And mahalo for joining me for another Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Today we get to hear stories from an entrepreneur with an inspiring story of success. Kent Untermann’s career has included playing football at UH, training at the Dallas Cowboys’ rookie camp – and turning a swap meet business into an operation that generates $15 million dollars a year. We’re going to sit down with Kent to hear how he said goodbye to his NFL dreams and applied himself to success in another field – the picture framing business – starting the Hawaii company Pictures Plus.


That preseason injury that took you out of the NFL, off the Dallas Cowboys team; what was it?


Well there was actually a pulled hamstring. I pulled my hamstring really badly on a workout when I was first with the Dallas Cowboys. There was a lot of misconceptions. I never actually played in the NFL; I had tried out with the Cowboys. So I want to make sure that I’m clean on that.


So you were trying out — you were at a rookie camp?


Yes; I was at a rookie camp. It was in the spring of 1985. And they were trying to rehabilitate and get it better, and by the time the season came around it still wasn’t ready, and Tom Landry, who was the coach at the time had said I could come back the following year, which I intended to. But then the injury just didn’t cooperate.


And how hard was it to leave your NFL dreams behind on the floor?


It was very challenging. I had to do a lot of soul-searching. But I really decided, and I could have pursued it, because it wasn’t as though it was really a career ending injury. However, I just decided that it was time to move on. And it was a tough decision, but it was the right decision.


Move on to what?


Well, move on to re-channeling my energies. I put a lot of effort and energy into football and I realized that I wasn’t gonna retire from football. Meaning that I was gonna do something after I played football anyway. So the sooner I decided to move on, the sooner I could start that next career, whatever that was gonna be.


So you’d already developed the discipline. Now you just needed a place to put that discipline. That’s a really good way to say it.


Yeah; a lot of disciplines were developed from my athletic career.


Is it true what I heard – that you went from trying out for the NFL to trading at a swap meet?


Yeah; there was a lot of people that thought I was really crazy, saying, ‘Kent, you can still play at the NFL and all’s you have to do is go back and try again.’ And perhaps I could have made a team. But once again, I had decided that I wanted to move on. I was very entrepreneurial and didn’t mind starting literally at the bottom. So that’s a true story.


You probably knew of other football players who didn’t give it up, and kept trying. Did you ever regret, ‘Ah, I should have given it one more shot’?


No; because I decided when I, at the time that I made the decision, I was gonna have no regrets. And so if there was a little piece of me that still wanted to pursue that then I was gonna pursue it. And so I decided at that time, if I was gonna let go, I had to let go completely. And I didn’t want to be exactly what you described. I saw so many ex-football players—and there’s a lot of ‘em. And football is kinda like acting; it’s a game of chance. And there’s a lot of good actors and good football players that never got a chance to play at that level. And so I made a conscious decision at that time, I never wanted to be one of those ex-football players that said they coulda done it.


So you came back to Hawaii where you’d gone to the UH Manoa; and how is it that you find yourself at a swap meet at that point?


Well, fortunately my wife Laurie was going through the nursing school, and we had made a commitment to each other—we weren’t married at the time, but we kinda knew that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. She was in the nursing school and had about another year and a half. So I had to kinda preoccupy myself with something, and had an opportunity to work for Ford Motor Company on a temporary basis. They had a bunch of extra goods left over, told me I could have ‘em, and I went and sold them at the swap meet. So that’s kinda how it all began.


And what was beginning?


Well, little would I know, it was the beginning of kind of an entrepreneurial career, which was the start of Pictures Plus.


And how did you get onto the framed pictures?


Well, I was buying and selling a bunch of different things at auctions and trading things. And I was a marketing major and I’d just find out how to market something and then I’d be out of it. And so I wanted to find something that was, that I could sell on an ongoing basis. And there was an opportunity at the time to sell these framed pictures. And so I decided to bring those in, since it looked like something that would do well at the swap meet.


And they did, obviously.


Fortunately they did; yes.


So from there you to a large, very successful business. What are your gross revenues?


Currently, they’re just over fifteen million dollars today.


And that’s back going back to what, 1986 starting at the swap meet?


Yeah, started in 1986. I actually used my small signing bonus, five thousand dollars at the time with the Dallas Cowboys, to start buying and selling things there.


And how easy was it to go from there? I mean, it’s a huge jump from the swap meet to this very large, multi-platform business.


Well, there was a number of steps along the way to get there. We obviously, fortunately at the time, the swap meet really allowed us to be successful to take those other stepping stones. But it’s been, whatever it is, a twenty-year process. So it didn’t happen overnight.


Did you have a model you were building on or a mentor advising you on this?


No, it’s really evolved. I think I’m very opportunistic, and so I recognized that there was an opportunity in a marketplace that I thought that custom framing and framed art was overpriced. And so I thought if we could buy well and bring it to market and convert it at a more affordable price that we would be able to scale and make a larger business out of it.


And what, among the services you provide and the products you offer, what’s your best source of business?


Well, our largest sales volume is custom framing, where a customer brings in something and we frame it to their specifications. It is our highest profit margin, but it’s also our highest cost of doing business. It’s extremely labor-intensive. We’ll spend thirty to forty minutes with a customer designing what they want, with no guarantees that they’ll agree to it. And then we have to make that exactly to their specifications. So it takes a lot of labor, and we try to give great value in our business. But it’s very challenging to keep that kinda price-service quotient in line.


And you know the rap Hawaii has as a bad place to do business. What have you found along the way?


You know, I’m a little bit of a contrarian, so I believe if something’s really tough, there’s opportunity; if something’s really good, then there’s opportunity. And we have been successful in Hawaii, I think, because some of the barriers to entry have been more difficult for businesses. So if you can be successful, I should say, because it’s just as challenging for everybody. But most recently, I’ve found it more challenging, just because of the low unemployment rate. And our product is very labor-intensive. So it’s been tougher lately.


Does that keep you from expanding, you think?


Yes, it does. We’re fairly done expanding. I think that we’ve penetrated the market about as well as we can. We’ve probably even gone into some markets that maybe we shouldn’t have. They’re just not large enough markets to support the way that we do business.


Did you imagine when you started at the swap meet that you were gonna be running a fifteen million dollar a year business doing picture frames?


You know, I can’t say that I did. At the time, I always like to plan and project ahead, and I thought we’d have a five million dollar a year business. So it’s tripled my expectations.


For you though, failure doesn’t seem to be an option. Actually, you see failure as a possible opportunity, right?


Yeah, I never look at, I never consider things a failure. I’ve made hundreds, thousands, I don’t know how many bad decisions in business and everything else. But every one of those is an opportunity to learn from something that you didn’t. And I’ve actually grown and gained more experience on a bad decision than I have on a good decision.


But it really, I mean, you can fail a second time too, in terms of what you do with that, quote, opportunity.


Right. You can, although if you do it right, the hope is that you learn from that, so you don’t fail again. Even though you could, but I always look at it as an opportunity. So it’s, to me, it’s not a failure unless you continue to do the same thing over and over again.


I take it the word ‘driven’ describes you.


I think that’s fairly accurate. Yeah; I think I’m relatively driven and have always been fortunate to be that way.


That’s one of the things I love about this show. I get inspired by the people I meet and the stories they tell. We’ll hear more from Kent Untermann – coming up… on Long Story Short.


So you wear many hats. Obviously, besides being a businessman and an entrepreneur, you’re a father, you’re a husband. Which of your roles tends to define you most?


Ooh, that’s a good question. You know, I’m fortunate I enjoy every one of my roles so much. I think the most challenging thing is to find that balance. But I enjoy I’ll say I enjoy being with my family the most. Absolutely, no question about it.


It’s interesting. Usually it’s women who talk about balance when they’re asked about what they enjoy most or what their biggest challenge is. You sound like an active dad.


Yeah, I’m very active. And fortunately, I just love my children, and we just have an incredible relationship. And so it’s very easy. I don’t look at it as a chore; gosh, I gotta be a dad. I really enjoy being with my wife and kids, and so it comes real natural.


And yet, the business has got to be all-consuming. But you work with your wife in the business.


I do work with my wife. Unfortunately, or fortunately, for the family she retired a couple of years ago. And she kinda ran the whole back end of it, and I run the whole front end of it. Since she’s departed, the back end of it, it’s been more responsibility on me, which has been better for the family. But I’ve been encumbered with more challenges since she’s been gone.


You know, many years ago, I was at UH Manoa commencement address by the late Herb Cornuelle. And he said that the most important choice you make in life is not your career but your choice of spouse. What do you think?


Wow. Absolutely. I have actually mentored my kids with two things. One was, be the bigger person. And then at about twelve years old, I told my wife now we have to ingrain in our kids the most important decision you make in your life is who you marry. It influences the rest of your life. So I could not agree more. I have an incredibly fabulous wife, I’m proud to say.


And you’ve been through more than one career.


Yes, I have.


But not more than one wife.


No, no, no. I have a wonderful wife and cannot say enough great things about her. And the benefit of living with someone that you are in love with, and supports you so well, is just beyond words.


So those were your two messages for your kids. Those were your foremost messages.


Yes; until my kids were about twelve years old, we just ingrained into them, be no matter what they did, it was always about being the bigger person. What that meant was, if kids did things to ‘em, it’s kinda the sticks and stones will break my bones type thing. But um, really trying to mentor them to rise above situations. And so we called it uh, you know, be the bigger person.


And the other was choose your spouse wisely?


Well, who you decide to marry will be the most important decision you make in your lifetime. So in other words, really think about that, and think about it real deeply, and how – don’t just end up with somebody. We wanted to start real young, so that perhaps when they were older and they were making a decision, if it wasn’t the right decision that we had already hopefully influenced them in the right way at a younger age.


You expect a lot of discipline from yourself. Do you expect that of your children too?


Yes. Nothing more than I would expect of myself, of course. But yeah, there is definitely a level of discipline I would expect of them.


Speaking of discipline; is fitness important to you now?


Yes, it is. I don’t – I feel a lot better when I’m taking care of myself. And it’s back to the balance thing; sometimes it’s hard to justify to work out for an hour because that’s an hour less with the family, an hour less in the business. But it’s very important to me, and I try to work out four or five times a week, and make sure that that happens for the benefit of everybody, including myself.


I know you do a lot of thinking and you like strategy. I’m surprised you didn’t consider becoming a coach.


You know, my wife always brings that up. I don’t know why I don’t have any desire. Probably because I’ve been out of football so long, I don’t really have a very high opinion of my ability to think as a coach strategically. I’m so far removed from it. I would probably enjoy working with the players and kids mentoring them. That aspect intrigues me. But the strategic and X’s and O’s part, I’m too far removed from.


So have you been watching the UH football team?


Absolutely. Enjoying every single game.


You played in ’81 to ’84 under Dick Tomey.




And June Jones was around too.


June Jones was the quarterback coach. I worked closely with him in my junior year.


And could you tell me your thoughts about how the program has progressed or moved along?


Well, I wish that I was a quarterback or receiver in the current offense. I’ll be the first to admit that. Back when I played as a tight end, which they don’t have any offense now, we weren’t sure if they knew that we were eligible. We thought they thought we were just an extension of the line.




And maybe that’s why June got rid of the tight end. But no, it’s been really enjoyable to watch. I think that June and his staff have done just a tremendous job. And it’s really been neat, kind of an entrepreneur and as an ex-UH athlete, not to knock Von Appen, but hear the, for lack of a better word, excuses that we heard back then about, oh, we can’t do it ‘cause we don’t have this and we don’t have that. And today, they still don’t have those things, yet they’ve found a way to be successful. So I really admire the job that they’ve done.


As you look at some of the controversies going on in Hawaii? The Super Ferry, which may have shown us a tipping point where people are just kind of tired of so many changes, you know, or a sign that they just see a lack of control? Do you find yourself feeling that way as well?


I actually find myself on the opposite end of it. I’m really disappointed in the behavior. I’ve been involved in a few things, and I’m all about people having a voice. I think having an opinion is wonderful. I think it’s wonderful that people can express themselves.


I think sometimes it’s how you express yourself. And just as far as an opinion on the Super Ferry, I think it’s great for the interisland folks, for commerce reasons and all that. But without getting into detail, it’s just the behavior I have seen on how people are reacting to certain things, I’m disappointed in, frankly.


Are you concerned at the direction Hawaii is going in for your kids’ sake?


What I’m most concerned about is, I have an opinion of the people of Hawaii are the most fabulous people in the world. And that’s why I’ve chosen to reside here. I, despite the challenges, I’m here because of the people. The people in this island are the most wonderful people in the world.


That’s right. This is your adopted home. You’re from Northern California, right?


Yeah. I’ve lived in California, which is a pretty nice place. But you know what? The people in California don’t measure up to the people in Hawaii in any way, shape or form. And I’m here because of the people. And so the recent behavior of the people is what’s disappointing to me.


Mm hm. What advice would you give somebody starting with, as you did, a modest sum with which to start a business in Hawaii?


Well, I think first of all, that’s the best way to start. I think it’s much easier to start small. Because when you start small, there’s not a lot of risk. I started with five thousand dollars. You know, the worst thing that would have happened is, I would have lost five thousand dollars; not the end of the world.


But it’s all you had, right?


It was all I had. But how hard is it to start over with almost nothing? I mean, starting from nothing, or almost nothing, it’s sort of nothing. So I think starting small is actually easier. I think the key to starting your business, though, is first of all you’ve gotta really want to have your own business. If you just sorta think you want to have your own business it’s not a good idea. ‘Cause it’s gonna be tougher, harder and more challenges. But like anything, if you really want it, I think you can be successful with it. And what’s an obvious mistake people make that they don’t realize going into it?


I think it’s maybe identifying their strengths and weaknesses, really being honest with yourself. Sometimes we have a tendency to think that we’re better at more things than we really are. And so if you could start in a business where your core competency or your natural skill sets could be leveraged more often, you have a higher chance of being successful.


You sound like you’re into the challenge and the process, and the achievement. Where does money fit into the equation?


I think money is more important just as far as meeting the needs of your employees and our family. Of course, my family comes first. So really meeting the needs of our family. But I have to say at times I’ve gotten too caught up in just, yeah, enjoying what you do to the extent that you sometimes take your eye off of the pure business and economic side of it.


Family first. Finding balance. Coming up next – we’ll ask Kent Untermann to share his vision for his business. One of our PBS Hawaii viewers asks this question. What inspires you, and who inspires you?


What inspires me. I think I enjoy working with people, whether it’s my kids and just the interaction, and the other thing that inspires me is just making things happen. I really enjoy taking something and trying to make it better, tweak it, noodle with it. So I think I’m inspired by making things better, improving things, adding value to it, and looking back and seeing what you’ve created. I think that drives me.


You talked about the difficulty hiring people in this kind of tight labor market. Are you concerned about this widening gulf between the haves and the have nots in our society here?


You know, I’m becoming increasingly concerned about that. I’ve watched the Gold Coast on the Big Island, and you just see these incredible dwellings – multi-million dollar houses going in. I just thought, who’s gonna service those people? How are those people gonna continue to be serviced? Even in our business, where we’re looking for service-oriented people and what we can afford to pay, and what those people can afford to live on. There’s a real gap there and a real mess. And yes, I’m very concerned about that.


And as an employer, I mean, if the folks you want to hire can’t afford to live here, then your business goes flat. Or worse.


Absolutely. We’re very employee-driven and uh, the service levels we provide to our customers are through our employees. And that’s how we provide the service that we do. And it’s increasingly challenging to be able to accomplish that.


A lot of business folks are concerned about workforce development, which many interpret to be the need to educate future workers better, have a stronger educational system. Are your employees, do they come to you qualified?


Well, I believe that we need to invest in our employees. So I’m really big on training. And no matter how much training we do, and how much we invest in training, it still seems to be not to be enough. I think anything that we can do, the State can do, the community can do to grow our people is money well spent.


Now that you’re bringing custom and other picture frames to all of Hawaii, are you planning to go beyond these shores?


We have been talking about going to the mainland for a number of years, and scaling it. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. We have things that we have resolve and areas that we need to get better at. And I just want to be careful that I don’t expand too far too fast and end up in a bad place.


Although if Hawaii has presented a lot of hurdles that perhaps other states don’t have, perhaps you’re already ahead of the game to go somewhere else?


It’s really insightful that you’re saying that, because you’re right. Having to ship everything in, the cost of doing business in Hawaii – we’ve done national studies and we’re substantially less than the cost of doing custom framing on the mainland, even with all the added burden and cost of being in Hawaii. So you’re correct. We plan way further in advance, everything gets shipped in on containers.


Your land costs are so much higher.


Right. The rent is higher, the land is higher, the shipping costs are much higher, the labor costs are much higher. So you’re correct. We’ve had the benefit of that discipline.


So what’s keeping you back? What are the things you have to resolve before you decide to move on?


Well, I’m just not convinced that – the way that we do things here in Hawaii, it’s a hub and spoke. Everything goes into the central facility and then goes back out to all the stores. We handle all of that art. I don’t think that that’s scalable. So what we’d have to do on the mainland is just make frames. And I’m not convinced that we can do the volume that we do here in just making the frames and not handling the artwork. But I know that we couldn’t handle the artwork on the mainland in the scale that we would need to. So that’s what we have to figure out.


What about selling to uh, a mainland business?


Actually, I’ve spoken with my kids and they would like to, at least at this age—


How old are they?


Seventeen and fifteen. So we’ve had a family discussion. At least at this point in time, they would like to be involved in the business. And so as long as they want to be involved in the business, I would enjoy working with them. And we have other good employees that we’ve given equity to. So selling is really not something that we’re looking at.


That’s a wonderful retention method; giving equity to employees.


Yes; we’ve given equity to five of our key employees that have just been with us and really helped us grow our business. And so we basically just went back to them and said, ‘Hey, we appreciate what you’ve done and want to give you a – it’s not a large piece, but a small piece of the business, just kind of as a thanks.’ And so that they have some equity in it also.


So actually, you’re in a uh, good spot if, because most family businesses have trouble making it to the next generation, and so many mom and pops have died because of that.


I think we have a little bit of an advantage in that we’re vertical – so we make what we sell, which also has its challenges. And we’re scaled large enough that we’re a little insulated. In other words, at the level that we’re at, we’re able to get enough good resource – I think it’s really hard when you’re very small, so you’re limited on resources. We’re also insulated in – what we do and how we do it I think is an advantage. But there’s still all the challenges that everybody else has, for sure.


So what do you think you’ll find yourself doing in the next ten years, if you could project?


I think that I’m gonna enjoy – my son has two more years in high school, and my daughter has a year. And I’m definitely gonna enjoy those years. Every spare moment I have, I’m gonna be spending with them. When they go off to college, I’d like to think that I will be a part of that in some way, shape, or form if they’ll allow me to. And then after that, I would like to think that one or both of them will come back into the business, which will be kind of a whole new, inspiring, reinvigorating thing to get involved with them. And somewhere along there in that ten-year timeframe, I’d like to think that Lori and I will be able to spend even more time together.


You know, you talked earlier about something that I think a lot of people would like to know more about. It’s the idea of pursuing a dream and actually getting there. You know, you were just knocking on the door of the Dallas Cowboys at rookie camp, and then you had to give up your dream, or part of it was taken away, part of it you had to choose, okay, I’m not going ahead with that.


I think when it come – at least for myself, and I can only speak from experience it was my dream and it was my passion, and I was driven for it since I was five years old that it was my dream to play in the NFL. So it – I can’t say that it was easy to switch gears. But I think a lot of it is if you really back off a little bit. Playing in the NFL, owning a business, whatever, it really comes down to enjoying life and being driven and enjoying what you’re doing. And so really, it was just a matter of switching gears. It was the same thing. And so whether I’m the owner of a picture framing business or a health club or an NFL football player, it’s really making sure that you allow yourself to do things that you’re passionate about and enjoy it.


Inner drive. A passion to succeed. The relentless pursuit. And a love for family and our islands. All part of the character of Kent Untermann. I enjoyed his stories. Mahalo to Kent – and to you – for joining me for another Long Story Short.


I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou!



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