Sunday, January 7, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 7, 2001

Entrepreneur learns you can't fight the cultures

Hawai'i importers face daunting challenges
Journey is heart of the business
To become an importer, do your homework first

By Leigh An Crow
Advertiser Staff Writer

Taso Haidemenakis and his business partner, Saulo Villanueva, shop in more than 50 countries for music, jewelry, religious icons and household novelties that fit into the soothing setting at Artlines in Ala Moana Center and in Lahaina, Maui.

Taso Haidemenakis, co-owner of Artlines in Ala Moana Center, meets a family of woodcarvers on the island of Bali.

Courtesy of Taso Haidemenakis

When the pair opened the store in the late ’80s, they were a big player in a small pool of Hawai
i importers. Now, however, competition has increased, and Haidemenakis and Villanueva have opened retail outlets in Las Vegas, in addition to their retail and wholesale operations on Oahu, to pick up the lag in Artlines’ sales. Still, although the store’s sales have shrunk, along with the pocketbooks of their local customers, business is still going well, Haidemenakis says.

Amber jewelry comes from Poland. Rosaries and other religious goods from Greece and Mexico. Ame-thyst and quartz geodes from Brazil. And from Thailand, wooden carvings, Buddhas and marcasite jewelry.

But getting imported goods onto their shelves can be wrenching. Being thousands of miles from the shipper overseeing their cargo, any phone calls with pleas or threats to get their goods moving carry little weight. Then there are the myriad cultures and requirements to be learned.

After 12 years of cargo headaches and other delays, Haidemenakis said, he has learned that one of the secrets is to accept that he must work with the buying environment, not against it.

Twice a year, he usually flies to Indonesia to buy and order goods, and of all the places he travels, his experiences there may test that philosophy, as well as enchant him, the most.

While spending time on the island of Bali — sometimes more than he plans to because of delays — he has developed an appreciation for Hinduism, partly because in Balinese markets, Hindu ceremonies take precedence over work. All activities, including trading, stop for ceremonies. And there are numerous religious occasions requiring recognition, so business is frequently interrupted to celebrate a rice harvest, a full moon, a wedding, a childbirth, a funeral, moving to a new house, or even teeth-filing.

Ceremonies are not the only aspect of Balinese religion that cuts into business. Followers also believe in animism, so before they cut a tree or take a stone from its resting place, they take time to ask the object for permission to use it. If an artist wakes up and something feels out of sync, the tree remains standing and the carving is not done.

Speaks 10 languages

Haidemenakis had been buying Indonesian merchandise from wholesalers for several years before he went on his first buying trip. Before he went, he learned how much goods would cost and how much he could make from them. He also quickly learned that his profit margin depended on his negotiating skills. He now can speak 10 languages, he said, and picks up more as he needs them.

Before he goes into a country, he reviews translation books for words that will help him with business transactions, especially the words for numbers. That way, he can follow the prices that interpreters and sellers are tossing around.

"You really need to know the price," he said. "You can find the same thing for $10 and $1."

When interpreters are hired on Bali, often they take the visitor to those jewelry factories that pay them a commission — which also happen to be the most expensive factories. He avoids being duped by knowing what goods are worth and saying, "Look, this is the price I’m willing to pay."

Haidemenakis said he is continuously on guard. "You can’t trust anyone. They always make mistakes." Those mistakes are often for their benefit, he said. So now when he makes a purchase, he inspects his order for both quality and quantity.

Haidemenakis seeks particular crafters in villages for items unique enough to bother with scheduling a trip, but he conducts most of his buying on Bali, especially since he uses the factories there for his growing manufacturing business. He orders photo albums he designs to be made with coconut wood and aromatic cloves. They set gemstones in sterling silver jewelry.

At the factories, mass production is the name of the game — but human labor with little help from machines is the means. Several families work under one roof, carving or making jewelry. As the factories become a larger part of Haidemenakis’ business, he said, dealing with them becomes more frustrating.

He has had bad luck with things he has ordered. For instance, he will order more of a piece of jewelry previously purchased from a particular factory. But what he receives is not what he ordered. Although the mistaken products do not sell as well as the ones he may previously have carried, he pays for them because it’s better than dealing with the headache of returning the shipment.

'Not all fun and games'

Then, too, there have been problems with shipping agents. In one instance, Haidemenakis negotiated an $8,000 price with an agent he had previously used with no problems. When the shipment was late, the shipper gave several excuses. Several months later, when Haidemenakis finally got his money back, the Indonesian rupiah had been devalued so much that he lost a few thousand dollars on the transaction. Haidemenakis said he now is on "shipping agent No. 6."

Another issue is insurance, which supposedly is included with the cost of an agent. "But insurance is not really insurance," Haidemenakis said. The top of one container en route from Indonesia was covered with water. He lost one-third of the cargo, worth more than $5,000. He was not compensated for the damaged goods. "It’s very hard to collect from Indonesia."

"Many people go to Indonesia (to start an import business) but they quit because of the losses," he said. "It’s not all fun and games."

Because he deals with shipping merchandise from so many countries, he never knows what to expect. One time, a container coming from Mexico was intercepted in San Diego by a customs agent whose search for contraband damaged a supply of papier-mache statues. Again, he was not compensated. Just last week, display cases needed for the new Las Vegas store were broken in shipping, putting off the opening of the store another week.

Because his businesses rely on trading with Indonesian companies, it was paramount for Haidemenakis to reduce risk of loss. He hired a friend living in Indonesia to check on the status of various purchases and to order his designs. Because phones and computers often fail in Indonesia, Haidemenakis said, "you need a person to go physically there to the factories and the cargo agent. It’s impossible to do a big business without her."

But while frustration after frustration rolls off his tongue as Haidemenakis speaks of doing business in Indonesia, the whole time he is smiling from ear to ear.

Correction: Local retailer Artlines operates retail and wholesale operations on Oahu and has retail outlets in Las Vegas. Information was incorrect in a previous version of this story.

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