MAUI BIZ SCENE
Pulling together, looking ahead on Maui
By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Curtis Lum
Q. What are some of the issues that Maui small businesses face?
A. There are many big issues. Of course, gas prices are astronomical. For the past several years we've had a very low unemployment that's loosening up a little bit. The visitor drop is impacting businesses greatly right now. We also in Maui County have been shutting down transient vacation rentals, so a lot of businesses who were counting on those visitors were also greatly impacted and many are reporting losses of 20 percent of revenue. So we're seeing a very tough time for small businesses right now.
Q. Is there anything the chamber can do or is doing to help?
A. We're always working on regulation. We're always trying to keep costs down for businesses and help them find new ways. We've been looking at shipping alternatives to help keep costs down. We're working on home-based business legislation because our laws are antiquated in that area. We're working on many networking opportunities and business-to-businesses opportunities to help us buffer some of these economic slowdowns that we've experienced and expect to experience in the next couple of years.
Q. When there are big surprises like Aloha Airlines, Molokai Ranch and NCL pulling out ships, how does the chamber react to that?
A. You deal with it as best you can. With Molokai Ranch and Aloha Airlines, one of the first things that we started doing was getting the word out on job fairs so that the businesses looking for employees can help not only those employees but help their own business by finding qualified people. When we lost the air cargo with Aloha Airlines, we looked to work with freight forwarders and put shipping solutions in place. What happened, though, was the industry beat us. But that was something we were working on and thankfully, we didn't have to continue working on. As soon as we are aware of a challenge, we look to what solution could be employed and what role we could play in it. We really are a proactive group and we try and think many years down the road. We're very much right now involved in looking at sustainable issues. We believe in the triple bottom line of sustainability: economy, environment and social well-being. We take a look at all of those elements as we plan forward.
Q. How long have you been with the chamber, and are you a paid staff member?
A. The president is a paid position to head the operations. I just made two years with the organization in April. Before that, I was president of the Maui United Way.
Q. Is your expertise in nonprofits?
A. I began my career many years ago at the Maui Economic Development Board, which is a nonprofit focused on economic development in Maui County. I worked for them for 11 years and was the vice president when I left, managing a multitude of projects, from the Maui Research and Technology Park development to the high-tech business incubation center called the Maui Research and Technology Center. I did multimedia development projects and manufacturing extension programs. Working there, we were very entrepreneurial. While we were a nonprofit, we operated very much like a small business and I managed projects very much like I would run a small business and did business consulting for many companies. So I gained nonprofit experience there and I gained business development experience there and I think that was a great benefit for me later on in my career.
Q. Any desire to start your own business?
A. I did at one time run a small business and found that to be a great joy. But I gave that up because I'm a partner in a landscape contracting business called Island Landscape. The chamber actually is a full-time job. It keeps me very busy, particularly with legislative activity on the county and state level, as well as all of the events that we have. On weekends and late evenings, I work on the other business.
Q. What is your membership?
A. We have over 940 members. It does go up and down because 88 percent of our members are small businesses and many don't survive the first five years so we always see a rotation with some dropping off and new ones coming on board.
Q. What are some of the areas in which you've taken a proactive role?
A. The most proactive role right now is working on helping to draft legislation in the transient vacation rentals situation. We didn't expect to be a champion in that area, but we ended up being a champion because we thought it was an important small-business issue impacting more than just that industry.
Q. The economy is slumping, Maui has the highest fuel prices in the state; how do you envision the Maui economy in the next months or years?
A. What Maui is really good at doing is, one, pulling together and working together as a community, and, two, we're very resourceful and we find new ways to do things. We're seeing that happening right now. Sometimes it's driven by a situation, for example, the Aloha Air Cargo, that changed some people's way of doing shipping because they needed an immediate solution. Once the air cargo resumed, many of them kept with the solutions. So that'll help reduce costs. We're looking at ways to bring people together. We hold lots of networking events and we're constantly promoting "Buy Maui First" and doing business with chamber members.
Q. You were named the state's top journalist by the Small Business Administration. So you also write a lot about small business?
A. I am the editor-in-chief for the chamber's Connections newsletter and I am a writer for the weekly e-news. I write a column called the Chamber View that's published in the Maui News every Saturday. I also write and we produce a video segment that airs on the Web.
Q. Where do you find the time to do all of this?
A. I have to say that I have a great team and we work very hard and we are a team that's excellent at multitasking and a very cohesive team. We do put in long hours and we work very hard. We know that we're paid by hard-working businesses that are going through some tough times as well, so we try and maximize every moment to give them the best bang for their buck that we can.
Q. What are your immediate goals?
A. We are going to be a 100-year-old organization in 2010 and one of my big goals is for the chamber to own its own office space. We are going to soon embark on a capital campaign, probably looking to buy condominium office space. We are looking to expand the staff so that we can take a more active role on legislation because we're seeing that as a growing need. A lot of things have come up in the past two years and at a frequency that we didn't experience in the past. Now we're seeing that we need to be as responsive as we feel we need to be. We're going to need to expand staff in that area. We're looking to do some educational programs, to engage youth in the discussion and debate on the issues. We have a number of new programs that we'd like to foster in the next couple of years.
Reach Curtis Lum at email@example.com.