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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, November 10, 2003

Big Island Candies founder competes in global market

Interviewed by David Butts
Advertiser Staff Writer

Allan Ikawa

Age: 54

Title: President, chief executive officer, founder

Company: Big Island Candies, founded in 1977, which now has about $10 million in annual sales and 90 employees

High school: Hilo High

College: University of Hawai'i- Hilo for two years and UH-Manoa for two years

Breakthrough job: pumped gas at Hilo Motors, worked as a carpenter, worked at the state Legislature and was employed as a banker. "All of that, plus your teachers and friends mold you into something," Ikawa said. He credits his English teacher at Hilo High School, Eunice Denyes, with teaching him how to deal with people.

Little-known fact: As a pre-teen, Ikawa won the Big Island Soap Box Derby for his age group.

Major challenge now: choosing the right way to expand the business, and the right products to add to the product line.

• • •

Q. You started Big Island Candies in 1977 with your wife and two employees. Now you have 90 employees (150 during the Christmas selling season) and you still can't keep up with demand. Are you planning to expand further?

A. Our capacity is our limiting factor. We have kind of maxed out, so I'm going to have to take a hard look at putting up another building, expanding my factory. That's a good problem to have.

When I was starting out by myself, there was a month where I did less than $100 (in sales), and now we are close to $10 million a year. That's coming a long way.

Q. What have you learned along the way?

A. I learned that you need constant growth to create excitement. The same old, same old, gets boring. If you have constant growth, then everybody gets charged up because we are going forward.

In our case, at first it was only Hilo and then the state of Hawai'i, but now it's a global market. When you go to a global market, it's a whole different scene. That's where we are heading.

(What) we are trying to prove is that just because you are from Hilo, Hawai'i, it doesn't mean that you cannot conquer the world.

You've got FedEx, DHL, UPS. They fly in and fly out every day. So why can't you compete with a global market?

Q. What else have you learned?

A. You've got to go to bed early and wake up early. The employees, when they come to work, they should see my car here. When they go home, my car should be here, too. You, as the leader, have got to set the pace.

Q. You've said your business went up and down until 1986 and has had constant growth since then. What did you figure out in 1986?

A. That I knew what I was doing. I got more confident. I hired more people.

When you grow, along the way you are going to find different mentors. The late Bob Shibuya — he ran Bob's Body and Fender — he taught me about being the best. You be the best, and everybody is going to come look for you.

His dad had a restaurant. His dad said, "If somebody wants to give you the money, take the money." When you go to a restaurant, sometimes you have to wave the waiter down: "Give me my bill. I want to leave." And it takes forever. You can't pay them. People don't like to wait.

At the register, speed is everything. I've got so many registers because people don't like to wait. ...

One of my best friends is Warren Haruki (former president of Verizon Hawaii). He taught me that just because you are a local guy, (that) doesn't mean you cannot compete on a national level. Look at this guy. He is one of the top producers for Verizon, and he's a local guy.

The other one that taught me is Elton Tanaka (former district manager for Sears). He taught me that Hawai'i, more than any place else, you have got to network. And to network, you golf.

People laugh when I tell them you've got to golf. They think I'm joking, but I'm not. It's those little things that they don't teach you in school.

Q. What else don't they teach in college?

A. They don't teach you Failure 101. They only teach you — in theory — how to succeed. Nobody teaches you how to deal with failure. That's what you have to learn on your own. You've got to make sure you don't get burned twice. That's where friends and mentors can help you, because they have already been through it. The first thing I realized when I came out of college was my dad was getting smarter and smarter every year.

Q. Did you learn to golf because you knew it was going to help your business?

A. When I went to college, I had to take a PE course, so I took up golf. The golf instructor told us most business deals are done on the golf course.

Before I had a retail store, I was selling out of my office. There was a state golf tournament in Hilo, and I donated some chocolates to the kids for snacks, and all of the sudden all their parents started coming down to my office. They loved the product and were looking for something special to take home.

Q. How is your Internet business?

A. That's like gangbusters. During the holidays, from September, we run two shifts. We have 14 guys answering phones during the holidays.

Q. Are your operators here, or do you use call centers on the Mainland?

A. They're local guys. So people who call from Texas or wherever, they know they are talking to a local person. When you receive a gift, it should say, "Postmark: Hilo, Hawai'i." It shouldn't say Kansas City, Mo. When you are talking to somebody that speaks a little pidgin, you know it's from Hilo.

Q. What new products are you planning?

A. We have a line that has all natural products. We put in a little twist of Hawaiian ginger. I want to add to that line more local products. I've been talking to the University of Hawai'i Cooperative Extension (Services) and the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture). I think I found a way to use more local products. The stumbling block is you have the farmers who grow stuff but don't know how to get it to the next level. They can't get it to me where I can use it.

Q. Why bother? Why not buy cheaper ingredients from overseas?

A. The whole intent is to use more of our local products. We are selling Hawai'i, the romance of Hawai'i. I'm trying to use as many products as I can from Hawai'i. It's our community. You want to help the farmers, and hopefully, they will grow with you. But it has been a challenge because there wasn't a way to process it to make it usable for us.