A foothold on success
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
Of course the price has shot up: That 49-cent pair of slippers in 1952 now goes for $1.79.
Otherwise the focus hasn't changed much from Ki-
yoto Uejio's original dream in 1952 to sell nothing but slippers, sandals and other "open footwear."
To mark those five decades of Slipper House sales, Uejio's son Glenn was supposed to throw a big golden anniversary banquet last month. But he had to move it to next month "because we've been too busy," said Kiyoto, 82, who still carries the title of chairman.
Hawai'i's retailers have been one of the hardest-hit segments of the economy for the past 10 years and their situation only got worse after Sept. 11. But Glenn Uejio has stuck to his father's basic business philosophy since he took over in 1982, and added one of his own:
Treat workers well, Uejio insists, and the customers will keep coming back.
"The business books say the customer comes first," Glenn Uejio said. "No. The employees come first. My No. 1 job is to make sure my staff is motivated."
Kiyoto Uejio didn't have the worry of trying to motivate 25 employees when he started out. He was simply trying to find an idea for a business.
His inventory came on consignment through his older brother, Fumio, who imported rubber slippers, fancier straw-covered goza slippers and Japanese dancing slippers from Japan. Uejio didn't want to sell anything more because he wanted his store to stand out.
Plus he didn't have the money to invest in all of the variations of half sizes, narrow and wide widths that come with shoes.
And so The Slipper House was born May 2, 1952, in a 10-by-10-foot bedroom on Young Street that Uejio rented for $50 a month.
Uejio opened and closed Slipper Houses on Hotel Street and Fort Street, and in 1959 became one of Ala Moana Center's first customers. Future stores at Pearlridge and the Royal Shopping Center also opened and closed.
The Slipper House remains one of Ala Moana's original tenants because of a healthy mix of tourists and loyal residents.
Michelle Allen, a Castle Medical Center charge nurse who shops at The Slipper House for sandals at the end of each workweek, remembers her parents bringing her to The Slipper House from Kailua as a little girl. Today she buys slippers and sandals for her three children.
"The inventory rotates a lot," Allen said. "And you can't beat the prices."
Glenn Uejio, 54, insists that it's the employees who make a business successful.
He holds five-minute staff meetings three times a day. In a back-room stairwell, employees post daily notes about what's on their minds everything from family stress since Sept. 11 to thoughts on how to display merchandise better. The notes are posted near another wall that has more permanent messages written by the staff explaining why they are proud to be working at The Slipper House.
In the days that followed Sept. 11, employees openly wept. By Oct. 7, Uejio decided that "it's time to smile to grin, to laugh."
He bought a pull-string family of toy ducks at a K B Toys store, wrote his name on the big duck in front and said he told this employees "from today I am the lead duck. ... Everybody cracked up."
Now, each of Uejio's memos carries a logo of a quacking duck.
Once a month Uejio organizes one-hour staff meetings at places such as Haiku Gardens on the Windward side, aboard the Star of Honolulu dinner cruise, or near the ocean's edge.
In those one-hour meetings, less than five minutes is ever spent on topics like selling, said assistant manager Gladys Takafuji, 73, who has worked at The Slipper House for 32 years. ("If it's junk, I wouldn't be staying here," she says matter of factly.) Most of the time is spent talking about teamwork, keeping a positive attitude and promptness a constant theme for Uejio, who believes that tardiness is a symptom of attitude. "People are only late for work because they don't want to be there," he said.
Skits also take place to keep everyone's mood light. And Uejio is famous for taking staff time to quiz his employees about geography or current events.
"Name 10 provinces in Canada," he said to Takafuji the other day as they passed one another in the stairway. Earlier, Uejio took a half-hour out of his work day to help Takafuji sell her house in Kaimuki.
"He's always there for personal problems," she said.
The average employee stays nine years, longer than the average worker in retail, where turnover is relatively high. And Uejio said he hasn't had to advertise for an opening in more than 20 years.
"I'm really a team builder," Uejio said, "not a retailer."
Actually he's also a symphony musician, a legendary clarinet player among some Hawai'i music teachers. His wife Connie is principal harpist for The Honolulu Symphony.
But after teaching music and playing in upstate New York for seven years, Uejio grew weary of the winters and asked his father in 1978 whether he could come home and join the store.
"I told him, 'If the windows need cleaning, you do it,' " Kiyoto said. " 'If inventory needs to be stocked, that's your job. That way you'll know everything when you become a big shot.' "
Father and son agree that Kiyoto never pressured Glenn or his sister, Karen Frix, to work in the family business. Kiyoto wanted his children to find their own way and work in the store only if they wanted.
"I didn't want them to do anything they would regret," Kiyoto said.
Today, Glenn is the company president. Karen runs the business office.
Reach Dan Nakaso at email@example.com or 525-8085.