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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Mark Fukunaga

 

As a child growing up in Honolulu, Mark Fukunaga said he was certain he would never join the family business. He now serves as the third generation Chairman and CEO of Servco Pacific, a company whose mantra, he says, has always been “to follow the customer.” Learn how he continues to grow and diversify the multi-billion dollar business by embracing risk and reinvention.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, May 24, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Mark Fukunaga Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Do you consider yourself a, a big risk-taker?

 

In business, you either grow or you die. I like to think even in life, you either grow or you die. You expand your knowledge, you, um, learn more about yourself, you try new things, or you die. And so…um, because everybody else is growing, so you’re receding if you don’t grow. And I think that is true of our business. So, you have to take risks. Anytime you grow, growth is risk-taking.

 

He continues to grow and innovate his family business, now in its third generation. Meet this Hawaiʻi executive next on Long Story Short.

 

One on one engaging conversations with some of Hawaiʻi’s most intriguing people. Long Story Short, with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha māi kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Mark Fukunaga of Honolulu is the third generation Chairman and CEO of Servco Pacific. The family-owned business celebrated its 100th year anniversary in two thousand nineteen. It has grown into one of Hawai’i’s largest privately-owned companies, with revenues in two thousand eighteen reported at 1.8 billion dollars. Servco Pacific is known in Hawai‘i, Guam, and more recently, Australia, for its auto dealerships, with brands including Toyota and Lexus, and its home appliance sales. Consider the business’s humble start: Mark Fukunaga’s grandfather, Peter, an immigrant from Japan, put down a twenty five dollar down payment on a two-stall auto repair shop in the rural town of Waialua on O‘ahu’s North Shore. Mark Fukunaga was just four years old when his grandfather passed away in nineteen sixty. He learned about his grandfather’s life when he read the transcript of a nineteen forties radio show that was recently discovered tucked away in a family safe.

 

My grandfather was Peter Fukunaga, and um, really an amazing guy. I mean, I….and I-I-I realize this belatedly, but he was just, um, an extraordinary, um, risk-taker, resilient, um, far-sighted, um, just an amazing guy.

 

Was he an immigrant?

 

Yeah, so he came over from Japan. Uh, he, uh, uh, was from the Hiroshima area. His father, my great-grandfather, apparently, uh, started off with some money. He apparently owned something like nine mountains up in the hills, and uh, uh, unfortunately also liked gambling, so he blew it all, and uh, I think the sons were, uh, sent away to make money. So he emigrated at the age of seventeen, um, and came to Hawai‘i, and-actually the Big Island, and um, took a job with one of the plantations; uh, a place called Kukuehaele Plantation up on the North side. So he was doing that, and then he got a job at Parker Ranch as a cook…I think probably a dishwasher and a cook, uh, and, and did that for a bit. And then he, um…I guess because he was sort of engineering-oriented, he, um, became what’s called a powder, a powder man. He basically was the guy to blow up dynamite charges to create the flues…irrigation flues through the mountain. I think he was being paid twenty dollars a month, of which he would send ten back to Japan in those days.

 

And was he intending to go back?

 

He was hoping to. he was hoping to become an engineer. I think at a certain point he said, “You know, I-I-I really need to strike out on my own.” So he moved to Honolulu after about five years on the Big Island. And all the time he, he used to carry a little English dictionary in his back pocket, so he was always trying to learn English. Um, he knew he had to learn English. He knew he had to learn about America, so um, he enrolled in Trinity Mission School. So he did odd jobs. He worked, uh, I think as a house boy, uh, and when he could he went to Trinity Mission School first grade ‘cause he didn’t know anything more than that level.

 

So he was willing to humble himself…

 

Yeah.

 

And, and risk a big move?

 

Right. At the age of twenty-two, he was in the first grade, first grade class, and…but he was a smart guy. So after a month, they promoted him to the second grade; a month later, third grade. So he went through six grades in, uh, in about, uh, six months, and then he, um, went to ‘Iolani, and unfortunately, um, because he was so, I guess you would have to say driven, he drove himself, I’m sure he wasn’t eating well or whatever, um, he ended up getting, um, tuberculosis. So he spent a year in Lē‘ahi hospital. Before that when he was a dynamite guy in the Big Island, he had a…he fell, like, thirty feet. Almost died, broke both arms, so he was in the hospital there once. He caught scarlet fever on the Big Island. That put him in the hospital. So he, he was, um, you know, he had all these setbacks but somehow he always came back.

 

Servco Pacific CEO Mark Fukunaga describes how his grandfather, Peter Fukunaga, came back after recovering from tuberculosis. He set his mind on getting into automotive sales and servicing, but he had no experience in this area, so he knocked on the doors of all three Honolulu auto dealerships in nineteen nineteen, hoping to learn the business from the ground up. Finally, one of them decided to give him a try based on his persistence.

 

So, he works there for about two months. Um, he was working on a car, and it unexpectedly, uh, pins him against the garage wall. Breaks…

 

Another setback?

 

Breaks a leg, so he’s back in the hospital; this time I think it’s Queen’s Hospital. So he’s recuperating, badly broken leg is, you know, it’s pretty, apparently a really bad injury. And while he’s in the hospital, he hears about this garage that is for sale in Hale‘iwa, what was then Waialua.

 

A garage meaning a place where you get your car fixed?

 

Yeah, yeah. So it was a two-car repair garage; repair any make. And um, um, so he says, “Great.” And he’s got twenty-five dollars in savings. That’s it.

 

That’s amazing, since he, he was in the hospital for a, twice already.

 

Yeah, right.

 

Hmm, so he saved money, too.

 

So he actually reaches out to the, uh, seller and they strike a deal. And it’s, uh, I think it’s sixteen hundred dollars and twenty-five dollars, all he has in his pocket, is the down payment, and he makes it. So he seals the deal. He limps out of the hospital bed on crutches because not healed, and he goes out to Waialua and starts running this two-car garage, and that’s the start of Servco nineteen nineteen. And uh, and apparently, so he gets this thing up and running, and then I’m reading, um, this transcript, and he says, “Then we faced a really bad depression.” And I’m thinking, “Oh, the Great Depression.” And he goes, “Yeah, the, things got really bad in nineteen twenty-one.” And apparently there was a smaller depression then, and he said, “We were faced with bankruptcy. Everyone wanted to quit.” And he said, “I just said no. We’re gonna continue. I will, I won’t get paid. I’ll do whatever it can, we can to stay alive.” And he struggled through that, and then, and then things got better in the twenties.

 

Even in nineteen twenty-nine with the, the real Depression?

 

Then he, he apparently, uh, so, again, a far, uh, sighted guy, and, he saw it coming so he started branching out into appliances. So he, he, he then started this business for, uh, electronics: Easy Radios and Easy Washers.

 

Mark Fukunaga’s grandfather, Peter, took his two-stall auto repair shop and diversified the business to include home appliances, musical instruments, financial services, and car dealerships in Wahiawa, Waipahu, and later Mapunapuna and Honolulu. He married a local girl, and as his three sons became of age, they joined him in the family business.

 

They were, uh, led by his three sons, you know, my dad and two uncles, uh, George, Ben, and Tom. Eventually, um, Ben left to do his own thing, and it’s George and Tom. And so they were a partnership that lasted, um, really thirty five years.

 

That’s pretty amazing, too…

 

Yeah.

To have family working together, I mean, that can’t be taken for granted.

 

Yeah, yeah, yeah. It uh, you know, they, like all brothers, you know, they had their ups and downs, but they always, they always found a way to work it out, and um, and they had very different views, you know, on how to run a business, which I think was probably healthy. So they always, I think in some ways challenge each other. And um, and so they, they continue to have the Chevrolet, uh, dealership, but then um, uh, my grandfather, in, uh, really at the tail-end of his life, he decided he needed another franchise, a international, foreign franchise, and he actually, uh, went to, uh, try to get Opal out of Europe, and luckily, in retrospect, uh, he got turned down, thank God. So he then said, “Well I, I gotta…maybe I’ll go to Japan because I know they’re building cars there.” So, um, he, that’s when he went to Japan, and he, um…there’s an expression in Toyota called ‘go to the source.’ Genchi genbutsu, which is find out what you need to find out at the source. Don’t rely on other people’s words. So, he went to talk to the Tokyo cab, cab drivers and said, “Thinking of Nissan or Toyota to approach. Which car is better?” And the Tokyo cabbie said, “No, Toyota has a better clutch.” And he knocked on Toyota’s door, and they said, “Yeah, sure. We’ll give you the distributorship.” So, we actually started…we’re one of the oldest distributors in the world. Toyota really grew from about sixty-five, and that’s when the company really started to take off, but they had inherited sort of these other businesses, the appliance electronics business. My grandfather had started a finance business, became Servco Financial. Um, a music business: Easy Music. The second generation took all of that and they kind of went, you know, with, with this great success with Toyota and Chevrolet, then started really diversifying. So, um, they ended up doing everything. I, I don’t think there is a business we haven’t done. We, we, we built furniture: Hawaiiana Furniture.

 

What’s the most arcane business they’ve started or got into?

 

Oh, wow. Cosmetics. Door to door cosmetics. Pola Cosmetics, like the Avon lady. Uh, growing plants in Waimanalo, Evergreen Nursery.

 

That’s a lot of bookkeeping.

 

Yeah, yeah.

 

And a lot of experimentation. Mark Fukunaga is the only child of George and Alice Fukunaga. His father, George, took over as Servco CEO from Mark’s grandfather, Peter Fukunaga, in nineteen sixty. Mark says while growing up in Honolulu, he was sure of one thing.

 

Uh, one thing I was sure of, which was I was never going to join the family business. So, um, you know, you know, I think it’s just, you know, stubborn.

 

They did expect you to, right?

 

Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It wasn’t all that explicit, but it was high…you know, it was heavily implicit that, yeah, you know, etcetera. Everything was presumed that I would do that, and I just kind of said, “Yeah, you know, I pretty much did my own thing.” So, of course I majored in philosophy, political philosophy, which is totally inapplicable. And I kind of like school, so I figured what can I do to sort of prolong this so I don’t really have to face having to like, break with the family and do my own thing, you know, so…out of all the things out there, I, I think being a lawyer would kind of preserve the optionality to do stuff, you know, government, uh, teach, private practice, nonprofit impact litigation. So, and three years of, kind of, law school is kind of…it’s, it’s intellectually interesting, but you can, you know…it’s, it’s not a bad life. So I did that for three years.

 

In Chicago?

 

Yeah.

 

After graduating from the University of Chicago Law School, Mark Fukunaga landed a job in New York City at a top-tier corporate law firm on Wall Street. He represented countries, including Brazil and Argentina, which didn’t have the money to pay back their loans to the United States. Mark say he liked law school more than he liked practicing law. In nineteen eighty-eight, he returned to Hawai’i to fulfil family obligations…for a time, not as a career.

 

So, yeah, I had all this family, uh, expectation and you know, when you get the ripe ol’ age when I, I, I think at that time I was thirties, um, I…Asian guilt, family obligation. I said, “Look.” I told my dad, “Look, I know you always wanted me to work in the family business. I’ll work for five years, and then after that I’m gonna do my own thing.”

 

Because now you’ve repaid him for all of your raising.

 

That was the theory. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I came back.

 

Did you see that you would enjoy it, or did you think it would be an, a total drag obligation?

 

Uh, a little bit of both. I thought it’d be good. You know, I mean it was, it was the identity of the family, so I thought it would be a good thing to learn that and to work with my dad, who was, you know, frankly kind of a workaholic, so I didn’t really know him that well; as well as I, I, I might’ve on a, on a really personal level. So I thought, “Oh, that’ll be good.” And uh, but then afterwards I’d kind of find something else. So when I came back, uh, from New York, um, I was put in to kind of rotate through the company and do, you know, a bunch of jobs to kind of learn about. And my first job was in the appliance service department, and at that time, um, General Electric, which was our main brand…um, their refrigerators had a defect, and their compressors, the thing that cools it, were failing. So we had thousands of refrigerators that were failing full of food throughout O‘ahu, and, um, I was, um, I was in that department, and it was, we were…

 

You were taking the calls?

 

We were taking the calls, and then pretty soon it was like, you know, we were, we were just dealing with this tidal wave of stuff. So, anybody who could do anything was doing anything. So, um…

 

That must’ve been the family food for the week or more…

 

Oh, yeah.

 

So that’s, that was big money people were losing…

 

Yeah.

 

Rotting in their homes.

 

Right, right. So, um, we were taking these refrigerators full of food. Food was bad, and guess who got to clean ‘em out. And…but it was…you know, I loved it. I was supposed to be there for two weeks. I ended up staying for like, four months, and they had to actually yank me out.

 

You liked cleaning gross food out of…

 

Yeah, it was…well that part wasn’t so much fun. Although I did learn that if you need to take a really bad smell out of a refrigerator, best thing is fresh lemons.

 

Just squeeze it in there?

 

Squeeze it, and then wipe it all down with fresh lemon juice, you’re great. Good to go.

 

After nearly five years of working for Servco, the company that his company founded and his father was running, Mark Fukunaga was at a crossroads with his career. Would he stay in the family business, or move on to a different path?

 

Sad thing is like on the fifth year, um, so I was already thinking, uh, what I was…whether I was gonna stay, whether I move on. But, um, we were in Guam, and unfortunately, he had a heart attack and died in front of me. Um, we were there on a trip because we had expanded to Guam as part of those forty-two businesses, and, um, unfortunately he died. So, uh, and my uncle, Tom, who was the other brother in the business…

 

So there were just two at that point?

 

Two at that point. Had terminal cancer. So, they ended up dying. You know, they’re partners for life, and they were partners ‘til death, to death. I mean, they, um, died within a year of each other. So, all of a sudden you have two people who are totally unqualified, um, my cousin, Eric, who’s Tom’s son; me, being George’s son. We’re like, “What are you gonna do?”

 

You’re, you’re not gonna leave. You’re gonna stay the course, right?

 

Of course. Yeah, so, um, we took over.

 

What changes were made by you and Eric?

 

Well, uh you know, when we came in, we just, uh, we…we sort of saw what was there. It was like, you know, as I said, some forty odd businesses, um.

 

And were they doing well?

 

When they were acquired, or we entered into it, there was some sense because Hawai‘i was, was still its own economy that was separate from the U.S. mainland. And I think, you know, we all saw it in the late eighties when Costco came, K-Mart came, and then the wave of national retailers, national banks, you know, B of A was here, everything. You know, in all kinds of parts of the economy had all of a sudden national and global competitors, and uh, it was no longer local to local, where you could match up.

 

It was not a time to be selling cosmetics door to door.

 

Exactly, yeah, so uh, it, it just kind of hit in a wave in that, that…right around nineteen ninety. And…and so when Eric and I took over in ninety-four, it was like, geez, this isn’t gonna work. And um, so we had to do some really tough things, you know, we, we, um….

 

Let people go.

 

We let some people go. Um, we shrunk, um, you know, so we sold, spun off, and closed, um, at that time thirty nine out of the forty-two businesses, and it was just one after the other.

 

And not from a personal standpoint, but from a professional standpoint, you were comfortable with that.

 

Uh, it was really hard, you know. I mean, uh, Servco is incredibly lucky to have a great board, and one of the board members, um, said to me, Dick Gushman, he said, “You know, if you, um…if you can’t do the tough things, you have no business being a CEO. If you like doing the tough things, you’re not a human.”

 

And when you operate doing the things you do, you really have to be self-aware. You have to know yourself. What have you discovered along the way?

 

Oh gosh, um, you have to, you have to be able to forgive yourself for making mistakes, you know. That’s probably the first lesson. You’re gonna make a ton of mistakes. I can…if we had three more hours, I could go through all of them. Uh, but, but it’s, it’s that. It’s being comfortable with making mistakes. I think that’s a big one.

 

You know, um, when people talk about your company and the family, I mean, they may think, “Oh, they’re in the car business. They’ve been in the car business for years. They’ve got it made.” But it does…it probably doesn’t feel like that, does it? Because the car business has changed so much, and is it a sure thing now? We’re talking about all kinds of new transportation coming online.

 

Yeah, big time. It’s totally different. I think every business out there is facing disruption.

 

Is that the biggest disruption for…uh, digital-related, internet-related?

 

I would say, I mean, it’s particularly bad in the auto business in terms of, uh, the disruption we’re facing, because I think we’re facing four different ones, one is moving from brick and mortar to digital. But in addition to that, there’s autonomous cars that will come here.

 

Where people wouldn’t need to own a car…

 

Right.

 

They would just pick up a driverless car and take it.

 

Right, yeah. You’ve got sharing, Uber, and, and now we’ve launched our own sharing service, called, uh, Hui Car Sharing. So you’ve got sharing, the sharing economy, and you marry that with autonomous vehicles, and all of a sudden, do you need to own a car?

 

 

Does that phase you?

 

It’s fascinating and terrifying because we don’t know how it all is gonna pan out, how, how lucrative, you know, or profitable, you know, sustainably profitable it can be. Um, and…but we know it’s the future. And even though, you know, frankly, some of that stuff disrupts our core business of selling and servicing cars, we know that’s what customers want. So we’re gonna…we…that’s been our mantra for a hundred years. We follow the customer; following the customer, even at the possible expense of some of our business, but we know if we follow the customer, it’s gonna be successful in the long run.

 

Uh, what’s the fourth generation looking like?

 

Um, you know, we’re lucky. I think we have some really, really talented, uh, what we call G-4’s. The fourth generations. And, uh…

 

I didn’t know there was a nickname for it.

 

Yeah, there’s a whole…yeah, if you’re in the family business world, there is, you know, G-1, G-2’s, etcetera. But, um, no, we’ve got some really talented, um, people out there, and um, I think, you know, again, this was great counsel from another one of our board members, Warren Luke, runs a family business and he said, “You know, everybody in the family always worries about the family business, but you really have to worry about is, um, the business of the family.” You know, how do you make sure that, um, younger generations are constructive, engaged, uh, productive members of society instead of living off dividends.

 

You mentioned your daughter might be interested in going into the business?

 

Yeah, I mean, you know, I’m slightly biased here. I think she’s the best thing in the world. Um, and…

 

And you have one daughter. You’re…an only child, just like yourself?

 

I have one. Only child; I’m an only child, which, which could be horrible. But she’s actually a well-adjusted, giving, um, thoughtful, uh, unspoiled person. So uh…

 

And she’s a millennial.

 

She’s a millennial. Um, she, uh, graduated from b-school, just got out of Columbia, and is now working as a management consultant.

 

What was parenting her like as a, as a…when she was a child?

 

It, it, was, uh, uh, you know, um, completely unexpected. I, I didn’t know if I was gonna be a good parent or if even I was going to like parenting, and it turned out, um, that was the best…hands down the best thing I’ve ever done. I love being a father, and uh, and uh, it was incredibly rewarding for me on all kinds of levels, but it was also influential. I mean, I, I became a different person from being, um, from being, uh, an all-in parent. You know, I learn how to be tolerant. I learn how to be patient. I learn how to appreciate curiosity and encourage curiosity, and become more curious myself because of my interactions with her. Um, so she made me a better person, yeah. She’s, uh, she’s terrific. You know, like some other folks in the family, interested in possibly joining the family business.

 

And what if one of the G’s just could care less about transportation and cars but wants to do business? Then what?

 

Then I think that’s terrific. I think, you know, every business, you know…any business this long reinvents itself, and we’ve reinvented, you know. We didn’t…we don’t do, we don’t bake muffins anymore. We don’t build furniture. Um, so every business reinvents itself. And um, I’m sure we will do…the next generation will reinvent the business again.

 

One of the businesses in which Servco Pacific still has the controlling stake is Fender Musical Instruments, makers of legendary guitars used by rock and roll artists like the Rolling Stones and the late Jimmy Hendrix. In two thousand seven, under Mark Fukunaga’s leadership, Servco expanded its Toyota dealerships into Australia, which now account for half of its automotive business and its two thousand plus employee workforce. In two thousand eighteen, Mark was named CEO of the year by Hawaiʻi Business Magazine, and he continues to grow and innovate a sprawling and successful family business, founded for twenty five dollars in Waialua, Oʻahu. Mahalo to Mark Fukunaga of Honolulu for sharing his story, and thank you for joining us for this edition of Long Story Short on PBS Hawaiʻi. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

 

It-it’s about being a custodian, a good custodian. It’s not like, okay, how much dividends can we pull out of it? You know, and, and I think we all take the position that we…our identities are wrapped up in Servco, and that our role in the community is tied to Servco, so we better darn well be sure that Servco is a really good corporate citizen that does good things. Um, and we try to just…try to perpetuate that.

 

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.

 

[END]

 

 

 

PBS HAWAI‘I PRESENTS
Lifeline: Pearl Harbor’s Unknown Hero

PBS HAWAI‘I PRESENTS - Lifeline: Pearl Harbor's Unknown Hero

 

Narrated by actor Gary Sinise, PBS HAWAI‘I PRESENTS Lifeline: Pearl Harbor’s Unknown Hero tells the story of how Joe George became an unlikely hero, and how he was recognized with a Bronze Medal more than 70 years later. “Even though Pearl Harbor was attacked 77 years ago, this is a story people have never heard before,” said Gray, “Individual stories of heroism like this so easily fly under the radar. It is important that people hear them.

 

Read the program guide cover story on Joe George.

 

Preview

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Showbiz Masterminds

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Showbiz Masterminds

 

The glamour of the entertainment industry can be alluring, but with its heavy business risks, there are no guarantees of success. Polynesian entertainment company co-owner Cha Thompson; the late radio DJ and concert promoter Tom Moffatt; and former nightclub owner Jack Cione are three “showbiz masterminds” who excelled at entertaining local audiences. Revisit these conversations about their journeys, lessons learned and passion for showbiz.

 

Program

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Sept. 8, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

More from Showbiz Masterminds:

 

Cha Thompson – Authenticity in Entertaining

 

Tom Moffatt – Elvis’s Hat

 

Tom Moffatt – Elvis at Honolulu Stadium

 

Jack Cione – How to Hire a Naked Waiter

 

Showbiz Masterminds Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

And if you said you were from Hawaiʻi, that sold.  You almost didn’t have to do anything.  And so, we started traveling around the world.  And when we came home, people wanted shows.  We actually had to decide: We gotta get off the stage, you cannot be producer, director, business manager, choreographer, which is what we did. And oh, god; try do the books. Hello.

 

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

 

And what were the skaters wearing?

 

The skaters wore clothes, but the three girls that stood there 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.

 

Yes.  [CHUCKLE]

 

Was there a time you considered getting out, because maybe the risk was too high, or the cost was too high in some way?

 

No; I’ve never felt that way.  I always have been very optimistic about this business, that people want to be entertained, they want to see live concerts, they want to go out and be there, and experience that music firsthand.

 

The world of bright lights and big stages holds a certain allure.  But only a few carve out a successful business in the grueling entertainment world.  Meet three of Hawaiʻi’s showbiz masterminds, next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawaiʻi’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou.  I’m Leslie Wicox.  Show business can be fun, exciting, and profitable.  But there are no guarantees.  Yet, Polynesian entertainment company co-owner Cha Thompson, nightclub owner Jack Cione, and the late radio deejay turned concert promoter Tom Moffatt excelled in this risky industry.   These three people are very different from each other.  In common, they all trusted their artistic tastes and business instincts to entertain Hawaiʻi for decades.

 

First, we turn to our 2008 conversation with Cha Thompson.  In the early 70s, she was a nineteen-year-old hula dancer traveling the world for performances, when she was suddenly put in charge of a popular Polynesian dance group.  Cha Thompson and her husband Jack soon founded Tihati Productions, now one of the largest and longest-running entertainment companies in Hawaiʻi.

 

I was with the original Puka Puka Otea group that Elaine Frisbie from Rarotonga ran.  And we were the only one in the State to do Polynesian everything.  And then, when she was leaving, I was her lead dancer, and she simply said: Here, take it and run.  And at nineteen, excuse me, I knew nothing about business.  And so, you know, when I married my husband, I was working in medical records at Queen’s Medical Center, and he was working in reservations at Hawaiian Airlines.  And people started calling us.  And I’m telling you, it was so successful, because tourism at the time was the thing, and everybody wanted a show.

 

What year was that?  What general decade?

 

1969, ’70.  And if you said you were from Hawaiʻi, that sold.  You almost didn’t have to do anything.  And so, we started traveling around the world.  And when we came home, people wanted shows.  We actually had to decide: We gotta get off the stage, you cannot be producer, director, business manager, choreographer, which is what we did. And oh, god; try do the books. Hello.

 

You danced.  What did your husband do?

 

He was the emcee.  And his very first thing to do was, he came to Canada when I was with the World’s Fair, and I was a dancer.  And he was one of the few Polynesians who could speak English.  So, when our emcee got sick, he said: Give it to Thompson.  And he said: I’m not an entertainer.  You know. And in fact, just before we left, he said: I’m part-Samoan, surely I can learn the knife dance.  I always thought he was too handsome to be a knife dancer. He didn’t look as wild and savage. But he learned it, and became a knife dancer.  Terrible knife dancer in the beginning; can’t hold a candle next to my son, who’s a world title holder.  But that’s how we started.  We had to get off stage, and get a good attorney, get a great CPA, and we gave up our careers to run the business.

 

You were singled out to be the one to take over the dancing troupe.

 

Yes.

 

Why?

 

You know, I wonder if because shucks, I was always vocal. I always had an opinion.  I wonder.  And many of the Polynesian girls were more reserved.  I always had the plan, I always had the plan.

 

And it was a good plan?

 

It was a good plan.  I think survival mode; always in a survival mode, you know.  And I think that’s what my children detect. Like: Mom, oh.  You know, always plan for tomorrow, save, you know, the rainy day is coming, and always dress well if you get into an accident and make sure you have clean underwear.  [CHUCKLE] And you know, the house must be clean. Visitors will come, they’ll judge us. I always felt like I was being judged; always.  People started taking us seriously when we would sit on business boards, or when we contributed in a business fashion.  But yeah, I mean, you’re Polynesian; surely you can’t be too smart. And entertainment; heavens, you must fool around you must do drugs.  Well, we did neither, and it paid off.  It paid off for us.

 

I sense you’re a good negotiator.  I’m trying to figure out what your style is.

 

[CHUCKLE]  It’s the Pake blood, Leslie; it’s the Chinese blood.  And the funny thing about it is, in entertainment, they will say: Oh, come and put on a show, or come and dance for us, and you can eat all you want, and you can drink.  I don’t drink.  I’m really thin; I don’t eat that much.  I need something else.  And money was the thing I needed.  But we had to earn it, we had to earn it.  They didn’t take us seriously, you know.

 

I know you brought in some major acts.

 

Yes.

 

And you developed major talent.

 

I think we’re known as a Polynesian revue.  And I don’t know that many people know that Tihati Productions has a vast department that brings in contemporary acts.  Like, we brought in Lionel Richie, and Cyndi Lauper. And we also do thematic parties. You know, we’ll prepare a whole Raiders of The Lost Ark, or Aloha in a volcano.  So, we do many things.  But I think they still think of me as the hula girl.  I mean, maybe, because then they’ll say: Oh, you know, you run that halau. And I say: No, I’m not a kumu, I don’t have a halau.  But Tihati Productions, they think of as a Polynesian revue.

 

You’ve had to really strike a balance between Polynesian authenticity and entertainment.  How have you worked that out?

 

I decided early on not to educate them, rather to entertain them, but to not sell myself and not give them what is real.  Any Tihati revue that you see will have real flowers, we’ll use real ti leaf skirts, we do authentic numbers and sing it in the native tongues.  You know, Tahitian, Samoan, Fijian, and all of my instructors are from those islands, Hawaiian.  So, I never felt that tourism was a threat to me.  In fact, when some people might have thought, Oh, that’s a sell-out, she’s worked in Waikīkīfor thirty-five years, you know, why isn’t she with us?, I would say, Well, tourism dollars sent all my kids to college, and I never felt that I wasn’t doing exactly what is me.  You know, I believe God gave me a gift in my roots and my heritage, and I share it. And lucky for me, tourism is Hawaiʻi’s number-one industry, and they’ll always need the hula girl, and the steel guitar, and the fire knife dancer.  And so, I think I’m here to stay.

 

With clear vision, quick reflexes, and a tenacious attitude, Cha Thompson and her husband Jack built a respected, long-running entertainment business.

 

Our next showbiz mastermind is also a longtime entrepreneur.  Jack Cione first gained notoriety in the 60s with live shows that were new to Honolulu at the time—nude entertainers and bottomless wait staff.  He was fired up to put on his own dance productions after seeing what he called a lousy show at the old Forbidden City Nightclub in Kakaʻako.  Here, from our conversation in 2014, Jack Cione remembers talking to the Forbidden City’s manager about organizing his first shows there.

 

I just told him how bad his show was, and he said: 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.  So, I did a show at the Forbidden City.  And I did two shows that made a lot of money.  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.  So, they came over.  And I had the Japanese girls, and I used them as showgirls.  And I talked three of the Japanese girls into going topless. I just had them open their kimonos to add a little more to the show.

 

And what were the skaters wearing?

 

The skaters wore clothes, but the three girls that stood there 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.

 

Yes.  [CHUCKLE]

 

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.

 

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.

 

Throughout history.  [CHUCKLE]

 

Right.  And so, what was the law?  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.

 

You’re saying this like this is, you know, just part of doing business.  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 all 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 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.  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 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?

 

No.

 

No?

 

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.  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.

 

Paraded, without their pants.  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.

 

As clients.

 

That’s how it happened.

 

And people keep coming back?

 

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

 

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

 

No.  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, people would want to buy me a drink.  I said: You know, I’m in the business to sell this; I don’t drink it.

 

Jack Cione is a showbiz mastermind who went with his gut.  He knew what he liked, saw what worked, and gave people what they wanted.

 

So did our next guest.  Much has been said about the late Tom Moffatt’s career, first as a pioneering rock and roll radio deejay who introduced Hawaiʻi to Elvis Presley, then as a promoter of big name concerts, bringing everyone from The Eagles to Bruno Mars to the islands.  But let’s not forget Tom Moffatt’s work with local acts, especially during the Hawaiian music renaissance in the 1970s.  In our 2011 conversation, he recounts his work with Keola and Kapono Beamer on a recording that still strikes a chord here at home, and beyond.

 

I had just left radio.  I’d gone through a couple of owners at KPOI, and a third one was coming in, and I decided it was time to take a hiatus from radio.  So, I started my own record company.  And in the door walked Kapono Beamer one day, and said that they weren’t happy with wherever they were in recording.  And so, I got the two of them in, and talked to them about it.  And I said: Why don’t you guys go out and write, and let’s do a record together, an album.  So, I gave them some seed money to go out and write.  And Keola called me and said: I think I’ve got a song.  He was living up at Alewa Heights; I’ll never forget.  And I went up to Alewa Heights to hear the song. It was just when it was getting dusk, and that time of the evening when it was getting dark and the lights were coming on.  And he played for me Honolulu City Lights.  And I knew we had something.  So, that was my first recording endeavor, really on my own, and we came out with Honolulu City Lights.  Got Teddy Randazzo to help with the arrangements.

 

And for decades, I believe that was the highest-selling local album of all time. Is it still?

 

I don’t know, with Iz around.  [CHUCKLE]

 

And I think Kealii Reichel might have had a really big seller.

 

Oh, yes; yes.  But not that long ago, few years back, I think it was the Star Bulletin or the Advertiser, and Honolulu Magazine came out with a list of the best albums. Not best-selling, just the best albums, Hawaiʻi albums of all time.  And number one was Honolulu City Lights.  That was a thrill.  It’s still my favorite.  [CHUCKLE] I still love that song.

 

Me, too.  Actually, that came out when I was seeing a lot of friends off to college at the airport.

 

Yeah.

 

And it was always playing the airport then, and they were always crying. Those were the days where there was no security.

 

Yes.

 

You went to the gate to see people off.

 

You could go the gate with leis; yeah?

 

And local style, you didn’t bring just leis; you brought bentos, and food.

 

Yes; uh-huh.

 

And everybody had luaus, and that song was just playing—

 

Oh, yeah.

 

–almost continuously.  And if it wasn’t somebody was asking for it to be played.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

Yeah.  So, that’s such a cultural memory in Hawaiʻi.  That was your first, ever, recorded song.

 

Yes.  I’d done some singles and so forth.  Once, I put out an album, a trumpet album, but that was with other people involved. But this was the first one I did on my own, was Honolulu City Lights.  At the same time, I had a girl that worked for me just as I was leaving KPOI, and she said: You gotta go out and see this group in Aina Haina.

 

Randy Borden?

 

No.

 

No? Okay; who?

 

Country Comfort.

 

Country Comfort.

 

Yeah.

 

Playing at the old—

 

At The Sty.

 

–M’s Ranch House?

 

No, this was at The Sty.  It wasn’t Aina Haina; it was beyond Aina Haina at The Sty.

 

Niu; that’s right.

 

Yeah.  And I heard these guys.  I went out and saw what was happening with the audience, and what they had going for them. And so, I finished off an album that—this was just before Honolulu City Lights, that my partner Irv Peninsky had started.  And I finished off the album, and we put it out together.  Then after that, I left out on my own.  But Country Comfort was one of my favorite albums.  I also did an album by The Surfers at that time called Shells, which I still think is one of the best Hawaiian albums ever produced.

 

Who were the local artists that you most enjoyed working with, and had the most success with?

 

Well, The Royal Drifters were one of the first local groups.  Dick Jensen, Robin Luke, Ronnie Diamond; they were all big singers in the 50s and early 60s. And we used them as often as possible on The Show of Stars at the Civic Auditorium, and whenever we could at the new arena.  Remember the first time that the Rolling Stones came to town, I put Dick Jensen on as the opening—Lance Curtis as the opening group, opening performer.

 

Lance Curtis.

 

And he danced like Michael Jackson.  This was before Michael Jackson.  He could dance.

 

You know, all of these enterprises, these artistic enterprises, and creative enterprises, to really be stable and to make a go of them, you have to be good at money.  You have to be good at restraint, and you have to be good at planning.

 

Uh-huh.

 

Did you have that all along, or did you have to learn that the hard way?

 

I’m still learning.  [CHUCKLE]  Still learning.  But I got good accountants around me.  Yeah.

 

And you’re not by nature prone to take unreasonable risk.

 

No.  We put quite a bit of money into some of the recording projects, but I believed in them, and they turned out okay.  Opening the Outrigger main showroom was kind of gamble.  It was a room that was sitting there was a convention room that they never used.  And Tommy Sands had come to Hawaiʻi, and was looking for a place to work.  And so, we opened that showroom.  And it’s been going ever since, after Tommy and I kinda drifted off.  And another time when the Beamers got going with Honolulu City Lights, there was another room that was sitting empty which we opened as the Reef Showroom at the Reef Hotel.  The Ocean Showroom at the Reef Hotel; that’s what we called it.  I put the Beamers in there.  That was kind of a gamble at the time, but I felt, you know, this record was happening.  So, we opened the showroom with Keola and Kapono Beamer, and Andy Bumatai as the opening comedian.  It was very successful.

 

Was there a time you considered getting out, because maybe the risk was too high, or the cost was too high in some way?

 

No; I’ve never felt that way.  I always have been very optimistic about this business, that people want to be entertained, they want to see live concerts, they want to go out and be there, and experience that music firsthand.

 

The concert promoter, the nightclub entrepreneur, and the Polynesian entertainment company co-owner; three masterminds in showbiz who trusted their tastes and instincts to entertain the islands.  After months of declining health, Tom Moffatt left us in 2016. What an honor to revisit his tremendous career.  And we thank Jack Cione and Cha Thompson for their savvy business stories.  Mahalo to you for joining is.  For PBS Hawaiʻi and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

 

You learn that from Kalihi.  Somebody puts you down and, ah, you know, I could do something better than they could.  I knew I could.  I don’t know how this is gonna sound, but what was important is, you gotta know how to beef, quite frankly.

 

You can beef?

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

You can beef?

 

Yeah, man.

 

You’re so elegant.

 

Yeah, man.  [CHUCKLE]  Or at least, I used to a lot.  And you know, when you come from a large family, nobody wants to beef with you. ‘Cause in the housing, families fight families.  I mean, I know it sounds imbecilical, but we did.

 

Did you beef boys, too?

 

Yeah.  Yeah, yeah. Most of the boys didn’t want to take me on, though.  I had brother, big brothers.

 

I mean, you were just a kid.

 

Yeah.

 

Playing at nightclubs.

 

I did.

 

What time did you go to sleep?

 

Well, I changed my age.  I was twenty then.  ‘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.

 

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 made thirty-five dollars a week.

 

Ouch!

 

I introduced Elvis Presley.  The place went crazy.  It was so exciting.

 

Really high decibels?

 

Yeah; yeah.

 

Shrieky.

 

Yeah.  And there he was, just a microphone, and a simple sound system.  But he held that audience.

 

And when had you met him before that?

 

Well, the day before, Ron Jacobs and I … Ron figured this one out.  Do something different.  And we’d me the Colonel, and we’d kinda hinted there might be something like this in the works.  And Don Tyler was one of our guys at KPOI, and we dressed him up to look like Elvis. Ron had his convertible, a Ford convertible, hardtop convertible, top went down.  And got a fellow who looked like Colonel Parker, and Ron driving. And we had it all planned.  I’m on the radio.  From the moment Elvis arrived, I’m on the radio playing nothing but Elvis records.  And I did this all morning, into the afternoon.  So, I kinda planted it; well, we understand that Elvis is heading for Kailua, for people to be out in the streets looking for Elvis, and drive down the streets, and people are screaming.  And we did this in different neighborhoods.

 

Did you get any fallout from it?

 

Well, we got back to the studio.  By then, I’d played Elvis for six straight hours, at least. It was mid-afternoon, and we were patting ourselves on the back.  And we get the message from our news guy that Colonel Parker wants to see you guys downstairs, immediately.

 

Dun-da-dun-da.

 

And we looked at each other.  We wanted to escape.  So, we went downstairs and there’s guards at the elevator.  We went down one floor.  And they took us into Colonel Parker’s suite.  We didn’t know what to expect.  Colonel said: Boys, that was a pretty good promotion you did.  Oh, my gosh!  Oh, and here’s Elvis.  In walked Elvis.  And that’s the first time I’d met Elvis.  [CHUCKLE]

 

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.

 

[END]

 

 

 

INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAIʻI
Preparing for Hurricanes

 

On its approach to the Hawaiian Islands last year, Hurricane Lane dumped an historic amount of rain on the Big Island, causing major flooding that damaged homes, roads and other infrastructure, without even being a direct hit. The storm also caused flooding on Kauaʻi. At one point, Lane intensified to Category 5 strength and was one of two tropical systems to cause damage in Hawaiʻi last season. A new hurricane season starts June 1. Is Hawaiʻi prepared? Are you?

 

Here are links to information and resources that can help you prepare:

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INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAI‘I
Are You Ready to Retire?

 

Retirement: Those golden years when you can enjoy leisure, spend time with family and perhaps travel. But is this dream truly within reach? With many private-sector workers at significant risk of not having enough retirement income to meet basic needs, State lawmakers see a crisis, and are considering a measure to address this problem. Are you prepared to retire? Join the conversation on INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAI‘I.

 

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NOVA: The Next Pompeii

 

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FRONTLINE
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FRONTLINE investigates how state governments and Wall Street led America’s public pensions into a $4-trillion hole. What are the consequences for teachers, police, firefighters, and other public servants and who will be held accountable?

 

 

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Predictions underlie nearly every aspect of our lives, from sports, politics, and medical decisions to the morning commute. With the explosion of digital technology, the internet, and “big data,” the science of forecasting is flourishing. But why do some predictions succeed spectacularly while others fail abysmally? And how can we find meaningful patterns amidst chaos and uncertainty? From the glitz of casinos and TV game shows to the life-and-death stakes of storm forecasts and the flaws of opinion polls that can swing an election, “Prediction by the Numbers” explores stories of statistics in action. Yet advances in machine learning and big data models that increasingly rule our lives are also posing big, disturbing questions. How much should we trust predictions made by algorithms when we don’t understand how they arrive at them? And how far ahead can we really forecast?

 

 

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