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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Suisan thrives on honesty, hard work

By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Rex Matsuno, with his wife, Ethel, has been president of Suisan Co. Ltd. since 1967. The Hilo company is the largest food and dry goods distributor on the Big Island.

Suisan photo

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Suisan's largest freezer storage ware-house is about 11,000 square feet. The distributor serves about 700 customers and operates a fish market in Hilo.

Suisan photo

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Suisan Co. Ltd. has survived two deadly tsunamis, earthquakes, the Great Depression and dozens of other challenges during the 100 years that it's operated along Hilo's waterfront. So when the economy starts to tumble as it is now, Suisan president Rex Matsuno doesn't panic.

"I know how to survive a bad economy. That's the multimillion-dollar trick, but I cannot disclose that," Matsuno said with a laugh.

But then he turned serious and said the secrets to the success of Suisan, the largest food and dry goods distributor on the Big Island, are value and honesty. And Matsuno should know because he's been working deals for Suisan since 1947, when a handshake and your word meant everything.

"If people cannot trust you, you're dead," Matsuno said.

Matsuno has spent a lifetime building trust among customers, from the first day that he worked as an 11-year-old boy at a tuna cannery to today as the fifth president in Suisan's history. At 86, he continues to meet with major companies to craft deals to distribute their products on the Big Island.

Suisan averages about $80 million in annual gross revenue and Matsuno said he projected more for this year. But with the economy slowing down, Matsuno doesn't expect to hit his target, although he still expects a good year for the company.

"If you keep your eyes open, you'll have opportunities all the time. You have to follow the market," he said.

The company was founded as Sui San Kabushiki Kaisha Ltd. in 1907 by a group of fisherman and peddlers who were looking for a way to sell their catch. Seven years later, the hui started a fish auction, which became a popular visitor attraction until it was closed in 2001.

Matsuno went to work for his father, Kamezo, at Suisan in 1947 after serving as an interpreter during World War II. He earned $100 a month, but found out the government would pay him $120 as a veteran if he went to school.

So Matsuno enrolled at the University of Hawai'i-Hilo with a focus on business.

After graduating, he put his degree to use as the company's bookkeeper. In the early years, Suisan was primarily a fish wholesaler, and because Matsuno kept track of the company's finances he knew that Suisan needed to diversify in order to survive.

In 1949, Matsuno launched Suisan's frozen food division, which at the time was a risky venture because Big Island residents were used to fresh food and produce. But Matsuno was able to convince Yukiwo Taniguchi, owner of the KTA stores, to stock his freezer with frozen Swanson chicken and that was the start of the new venture.

"The company wasn't making too much profit, so I started the frozen food business to bring in extra revenue. I used my dad's facilities, the freezers and all of that. I was selling fish, frozen food and everything," Matsuno said.

Over the years, Suisan has had to overcome a lot of adversity.

The start of World War II saw severe restrictions on fishing and business activities by Americans of Japanese ancestry. Matsuno's father was among the thousands sent to internment camps until the end of the war.

But Suisan continued to operate with the help of non-Japanese fishermen who trucked their catch to the Suisan auction. Loyal customers also kept the company afloat.

After the war, the business was slowly getting back to normal when in 1946 a devastating tsunami destroyed much of Hilo's waterfront, including Suisan's facilities. A second tsunami in 1961 heavily damaged the reconstructed Suisan complex.

After each crisis, Suisan recovered and grew. Matsuno said there is no real secret to how the company survived the tough times.

"The only thing I can tell you is hard work," he said. "You're going to struggle, but you have to get up and do things, make things happen. You can't cry over what has happened. You never give up the ship."

Matsuno took over as Suisan president in 1967, and since then the company has opened a distribution branch in Kona to serve West Hawai'i, formed produce and dry goods divisions, and started an egg division when it acquired Mauna Kea Egg Co.

Suisan also has close to 200 employees, a retail and wholesale fish market in Hilo, a fleet of more than 40 refrigerated trucks and a customer base of about 700.

Matsuno said he'd like to take credit for the growth of the company, but said he learned a lot in the early days from the "big boys" in the food distribution business, such as C.Q. Yee Hop and M. Otani.

"I learned everything from C.Q. Hop. They were so nice to me. They said, 'Spend two days with us and we'll show you all of the tricks how to buy, how to price and everything.' That's where my education came from," he said.

Matsuno added that he's gained a lot of insight by just listening to others.

"You learn by other people's ideas," he said. "You have to keep your antennas up. You have to be aware of things. Just don't listen and forget. You have to remember."

After more than 60 years with the company, Matsuno said he doesn't plan to retire anytime soon. His daily routine includes a stop at Starbucks to gossip with his friends, and then he goes to the office to "count the cash."

"My retirement is I go and play golf three, four times a week," he said. "Maybe I spend a half-day at work and in the afternoon I'll go and shag balls. I'm the boss already. Now I have people working for me."

Reach Curtis Lum at culum@honoluluadvertiser.com.