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187: Hamai Appliance Shows Unwavering Commitment to Their Community in the Aftermath of Maui Wildfires

Written by Rob Stott

October 3, 2023

Hamai Appliance has been a staple in Kahului, Hawaii on the island of Maui for over 50 years. Needless to say, they’ve built a reputation as a community-first kind of business. And, as Bryant Hamai, president of Hamai Appliance, shares, never has that commitment to their community been more apparent than during the recent wildfires that left many of their friends and family displaced and facing unprecedented times. Hamai shares an awe-inspiring story of how a locally-owned business with such strong ties to the community can make a major difference in the lives of those they’ve promised to serve.


 

Rob Stott: We are back on the Independent Thinking podcast. Real pleased today, we got an awesome one on tap. Mr. Bryant Hamai out there and representing Hamai Appliance. President of Hamai Appliance in Kahului, Hawaii on the island of Maui. Appreciate you. I’m sitting here it’s the afternoon. Well, you’re six hours back is that right?

Bryant Hamai: We’re about six hours so it’s 9:00. My day is just starting and I know your day is almost ending.

Rob Stott: Just about ending.

Bryant Hamai: This always happens.

Rob Stott: I used to be on the other end of the spectrum. I was working with a bunch of Germans … German companies. It was 9:00 AM here, it’s exact six hours the other way. It’s bedtime for them right now.

Bryant Hamai: It’s a little bit of a challenge for us, especially we do the … We go to Prime Time, and sometimes there’s quite a bit of a difference, and there’s early morning meetings. So in my head, it’s usually I’m starting maybe 4:00, 3:00 in the morning, Hawaii time when I’m there. It’s always fun.

Rob Stott: Do you do the red eyes to get it? How do you get adjusted? Do you do red eyes and then try to power through it? Or what’s the-

Bryant Hamai: Well, I don’t do good with red eye.

Rob Stott: I don’t know who does.

Bryant Hamai: That just seems to be the route that works the most convenient so I don’t waste the day. That first day I’m always struggling. I’m shipping on coffee throughout the meetings and trying to stay awake. So it’s always fun.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. Well, hey, I appreciate you having the time and coming on. I look forward to diving into this, a lot to talk about today. Just first of all, I appreciate you being here.

Bryant Hamai: Thank you, thank you. Nice being here.

Rob Stott: Share a little bit about your background and path into the retail business. I was putzing around the Hamai Appliance website, you guys got an awesome story. 1969 was when the business was founded, right?

Bryant Hamai: That’s correct.

Rob Stott: A storied history. Tell us about your path into the family business.

Bryant Hamai: I mean, like you said, our store started in 1969, so even as a child, myself, a lot of my family members, our cousins we’ve always been around the store. We’ve always been semi-involved. Not really in the daily operations but from time to time. We’d pop in here and try to help out when we can. We used to have this event called our private sale. So that was an opportunity where the young ones, myself, my cousins would come in and we’d help out with the sales. Back then we were pretty heavily in the electronics. We dealt a lot with Panasonic, Technics so we had a lot of TV players, Walkmans, stereos, and things like that, which we don’t do anymore. With those types of products, we would come in and they would trust us selling during the private sale so it was always a fun event. We’d make it a lot of fun. Take tallies about how many sales we could make and make it a small competition between the cousins. From what I remember, I think I would usually come out the highest salesperson.

Rob Stott: It makes sense for where you’re at today.

Bryant Hamai: No, no I was just kidding. It was always fun. So that’s how we were involved in the beginning. As we grew we would dive a little bit more and help out with deliveries here and there. My move back to Maui happened in 2012. I was previously living in the Bay Area, I was in business banking and some investment banking. My dad was thinking about trying to scale back a little bit and he was thinking about his retirement so that’s where the succession plan came into play. Nationwide did a good job about, I think, helping with the planning of that. It was either sell the business or pass it on. That’s something that we definitely did not want that to happen so we wanted to try our best to continue the business and going on. So right now it’s myself and my cousin Kelii are running the store right now.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. I love asking this of multi-generation owners. We, obviously, run into a lot of them at Nationwide. Obviously, you spent time away from the island, but did you have a feeling you’d be back in the business? Was it a calling or did you feel pressure? What was the feeling for you getting back into the family business?

Bryant Hamai: To be honest with you, I’m not sure if I envisioned coming back to run the business. I enjoyed being in the Bay Area, had a lot of good friends out there. After graduating college I just stuck around there. I think in the long run I did want to make a move back to Maui one way or another, the timing just happened a little bit earlier than anticipated. I imagine more so closer towards the retirement age coming back and settling down. Hawaii’s a great area. Maui’s a safe place to raise a family. At the time, my wife and I, we made the decision that we thought it was a good move to come back here and get involved with the business, learn it. I learned from my dad who has taught me so much over the years. He’s been doing it from pretty much from day one. Had that opportunity for me to come back and learn from my dad, that has been great.

Rob Stott: Unique opportunity. I didn’t plan on asking this but you mentioned the succession planning. That’s a new word I should say. It’s always been around as something that has been done here at Nationwide but really with Mr. Bellows and putting an emphasis on it. Talk about what it was like to go through that.

Bryant Hamai: Well, that might be more of a question for my dad if he was-

Rob Stott: Fair.

Bryant Hamai: It’s a complicated thing. Passing it on from whatever, from one generation to another, and there’s a lot of things … My dad has always been so involved so I think it’s … It must be difficult to try to pass that on and accept change, I think can be different. Business now is a lot different than it was back then, I can imagine, with the new technologies and whatnot. I’m sure there’s some complications in the backend, but overall, I think for him just having the confidence and … I feel like he was confident in myself, and my cousins, and the rest of my family to teach us, to teach us well as best as he could, and we can thrive off of that and implement our new strategies and practices.

Rob Stott: Well, from your seat too, I think the idea of being able to go through it and force your … Not be forced into a situation like that, right, having to make a decision. It has to be comforting for you to know that was an easy transition. Well, easyish transition I’m sure. Also, knowing that he’s there and can tap into him. To your point from earlier about his institutional knowledge of how things have been done.

Bryant Hamai: Definitely. He never really made it a point where I WOULD … I felt forced. He brought it up years before I even made the decision to come back where he asked what our thoughts were. And at that time, like I was telling you, that maybe not now, I’m not really sure. And I think he felt that I wasn’t interested at the moment then. To be given that opportunity later … Fast-forward four or five years after he made that offer to come back to have that opportunity to learn the business and still be able to come on in and run the company. It’s been very grateful and very lucky. The company’s been doing well and hopefully, we can continue to grow it.

Rob Stott: When a customer walks in, what’s Hamai’s appliance like today? What do they see? What’s the experience like?

Bryant Hamai: As far as the core root of Hamai Appliance, I think that’s still remains. We’re still a small business, still a small island so word of mouth travels a long way. And we’ve always been involved with the community. Customer service has always been a big emphasis with us. Another part is our servicing. So the repair side too has always been a very important part of our business. To me, it’s our big competitive advantage over the box stores. And servicing in general has always been difficult on Maui. For us to offer that, the brands that we sell, we feel like it needs to be serviceable, and we’re always trying to put a focus on the training for the repair.

As far as the business itself it goes now, it’s a little bit different like I was telling you. Previously we were heavily in the electronics. And as that phased out we were really on GE and Maytag. And as things evolved, Sub-Zero and Wolf was one of the first luxury lines that we decided to bring in. That was a big jump so I was talking with my dad about that. He was saying that it was so different than what we were normally used to selling. He’s selling a $700 refrigerator and now we’re selling … Probably at the time a $12,000 fridge. I’m not sure what it was at the time. So that’s a drastic shift in the business. Now, we do have a lot heavier focused on the luxury side. We put in a few more luxury appliance displays with live cooking so we can do a little bit more demonstrations and have a little bit more focus on our relationships with contractors, property managers, and things like that. I think that has been helpful, the change to focus a little bit more on the high end.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. And you talk about the shifting in-store experience too. Even aside from just the products offered, just sort of how you set things up and want that customer to engage when they walk in the store, that’s obviously evolved as well over time.

Bryant Hamai: With the different technologies. The use of iPads. Now we use digital tag so I think just … There’s a lot of little things operationally that have changed I guess to enhance the customer experience.

Rob Stott: I’m intrigued, right? I’m, obviously, sitting east coast, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philly. You’re on an island. Are there a lot of challenges that are different that a retailer in Pennsylvania might not have to think about that … On the mainland as opposed to working in Maui that you do?

Bryant Hamai: Well, you have to consider we’re on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean so-

Rob Stott: A little bit different.

Bryant Hamai: I can’t order something and get it later on this week. So, of course, there’s the freight factor which is not only just the extended timing for our ordering but it’s also the additional cost. Cost for freight is ridiculous. And I think a lot of dealers don’t realize the cost of shipping. Some of the vendors that we talk to, even at Nationwide, at first though said, “Oh, no problem. Prepaid freight, it’s not a problem.” And then they realize, oh wait, wait, we have to ship it up to where? And it costs how much? They say, “Okay, we’ll prepay it to your freight porter and then you can take care of that.”

If there’s a free prepaid shipping all the way to Hawaii program that we can implement I think that’d be beneficial to us and some of the other Hawaii dealers. We can put that in the notes for everybody to look at. The freight timing it … Really we’re pre-planning about a month ahead from the time an order goes in. So a lot of it is really just gauging what we need in the future. And sometimes we over order in a specific model, sometimes we under order but it’s just a lot of planning.

Rob Stott: No, that’s crazy. Well, you mentioned all the partnerships, right, with designers, develop … Home builders, and stuff, they have the same issues, I imagine, getting product as well. Is it something everyone deals with?

Bryant Hamai: Everybody in Hawaii. And then we deal with shipping delays. I think everybody, even in the mainland, has to deal with product deliver … Product delays. But with the shipping delays, there could be backups at the port, just limited containers. That’s something that we’re seeing right now. There’s such a big influx of shipments that are coming in to help out with what recently happened in Maui, with all of the buyers, that there’s limited chassis, limited drivers, limited containers. On top of our waiting for four weeks for our products, it’s stuck at the docks and we can’t even get it here when it’s only a mile away.

Rob Stott: Wow. I mean, other business challenges that … Are they what a retailer would expect?

Bryant Hamai: No. Other than the shipping challenges, I think that’s the biggest thing, to being out in Hawaii, with the additional cost for the freight. Hard to compete with some of the big box stores because they’re able to mark it down so much and I think they don’t have to worry about the freight as much as a smaller retailer like us.

Rob Stott: No, that makes sense. We hear, obviously, a lot about talent retention, and recruitment, things like that. Is that also a challenge where you are?

Bryant Hamai: It’s definitely a challenge. I’m not sure if it’s more of a challenge here than it is anywhere else. I would say that that’s probably one of the biggest challenges that we’ve had over the years, keeping the good people. Ever since COVID and everything a lot of people are paying more and they’re … Construction companies and warehouses, they’re paying quite a bit more that we can’t, unfortunately, compete with that. That’s I think the biggest struggle that we have.

Rob Stott: You mentioned COVID. Now, obviously, the world shuts down. Was the impact still heavy for Hawaii?

Bryant Hamai: It was. And I think this would probably be consistent with most other dealers. There was a period where we were very slow, maybe the first two or three weeks. Hawaii was pretty much shut down where they weren’t allowing people to come in for a period of time, I can’t remember how long it was. While this is happening, a lot of the vacation rentals, the owners who are living in the mainland are realizing hey, we’re not going to have anybody coming in maybe for, who knows, six, eight months, so the remodel that we’ve been thinking about, maybe now is the time to do it. So the contractors were extremely busy. Of course, that led to us being busy. And I think that’s similar to what a lot of the other retailers were experiencing too. So it was slow and then it just ramped up. Warehouse issues where we’re having problems storing everybody’s stuff, some of the projects were delayed. Similar to the issues that we’re having now due to fires.

Rob Stott: Right, right. You don’t want to say, “Those aside” for right now but how is business today?

Bryant Hamai: Right now it’s a little bit slower than the previous couple years, I think that’s pretty consistent. We are seeing some new things happening due to the … All of the homes that were lost. They’re putting up new temporary developments that I think we’re going to be a part of and we’re trying our best to do. As far as the challenges, of course, that we’re seeing is the … There were projects that in the middle of it were … They might’ve lost their homes so now the product is stuck here. We have special order policies where they’re non-refundable, but we’re not going to stick with that if they lost their home, right? So we’re being real flexible about that. But there’s project delays so there’s additional products that are just sitting in our warehouse that are getting backed up. That’s been the biggest challenge that we’ve seen as a result of the fires is just backed-up warehouses and overflow.

Rob Stott: Walk us through these past few weeks. Unless you were under some rock somewhere hadn’t heard about the wildfires in Hawaii … I mean, you being there, just walk us through what those weeks were like while it was going on. What was it like running the business? All that sort of stuff. Let you take the floor.

Bryant Hamai: It was real dramatic and mentally exhausting. It was just traumatic just to see everything that’s happening. Of course, everyone sees it on social media. As time progressed we started hearing more and more from friends and family, from customers who had firsthand experience of seeing some things, and a lot of it was pretty graphic. As far as from the business side, we were trying the best that we could do to try to help out in one way or another. If people needed additional refrigeration because maybe they were staying with a friend we were trying to connect with a lot of our vendors. And we’re fortunate that Simmons Serta helped us out by donating about 100 beds.

Rob Stott: Wow.

Bryant Hamai: Protect-A-Bed also donated about 100 mattress covers. So we were just distributing these to the families that were in need that maybe … A lot of families were just taking in additional people and they might not have had adequate places to sleep, they’re sleeping on garage floors. And that’s consistent with the entire community that they were just trying help out in one way or another. Whatever things that you could do to help and just leverage your partners and just try to help out. But there was so much things that were happening and I think that was just natural for us to try to reach out and see what we could do if we could do anything.

Rob Stott: For someone that not familiar, set the perspective of where you … Was your business ever at risk of being caught up in the wildfire? How far away is Hamai’s from what was going on?

Bryant Hamai: Our store was pretty safe. There were two fires that night. So a lot of people don’t know that there was Lahaina fires and there were also Kula fires. I live in Kula, and also my cousin Kelii he lives in Kula. We were both forced to evacuate. So that night I came down here with my family, and my dad, and my mom, and we actually spent the … We slept at the store. We have, I don’t know, 12 mattresses that are set up in our showroom floor. And we also were helping out another family friend so that was another four people.

Rob Stott: Wow.

Bryant Hamai: All of us came down to sleep at the store. We got showers, we got electricity so that was fine. Luckily the store was safe from harm’s way. It’s pretty far from where the fires were. But our homes were pretty close. So the fire got within about a mile of where my house was, but luckily our homes were safe.

Rob Stott: Obviously, I think too, people watching the coverage you hear a lot about … And you mentioned it, the community aspect. Talk about just what that means to you guys and sort of the driving force of that behind everything you’ve been doing.

Bryant Hamai: It was pretty amazing to see I mean, as tragic as everything was. I think most people would say the coolest thing, the most beautiful thing that happened out of all of this is just to see how fast the community just stood up and just … No one is even thinking about anything they’re just doing, they’re reaching out. I mean, people were driving boats around the fire area to drop off supplies. Neighboring islands were driving boats over. And just rallying up whatever supplies that you had that you could help. People were trying to make an effort just to see whatever they could do. That was really nice to see. And it’s still continuing. A lot of the local chefs are preparing food, and everyone is just really just shifting gears to try to help out the community. It’s really nice.

Rob Stott: I mean, no bigger effort, I don’t think, than to shut one store down for a period of time too. So I know you guys did that for an event this week, as we’re sitting here recording this week. But talk about that event and what that was like. Some of the Nationwide team was there to help support. Just talk about how that came together and what that was like for you.

Bryant Hamai: Sure. That was a packing event that was pretty much orchestrated by No Child Hungry. It was probably two or three days after the fires. William Lowry reached out to me and he was talking over everything that happened. And really he just wanted to see how he could help in one way or another so we’re just brainstorming a little bit. He was telling me that they were in the middle of sending 250,000 meals directly to Maui, and I think that was just about to be route. That was really cool to see that how fast we were able to act on that. Because of the influx of food that was coming into the island, he wanted to do something a little bit different. It seemed like having more of essential goods would’ve been a little bit more proper.

So that event Mike Whitaker, William Mowry, Tom Hickman was there, and a lot of the other Nationwide guys were there too so that was really nice to see that they were so supportive in trying to put together this event. We ended up packing three different kits which was a combination of little snacks foods, another one was an essential kits, and another one was your toothbrushes, deodorant, wipes, sanitizing wipes, and things like that. It was three different kits. A total of about 4,500 kits were put together which they were able to distribute.

But we also were able to pack about … I want to say it was about 8,000 meals, the same type of meals that we were doing over at the Nationwide show. To have everybody come in and do that together was really nice. We had support from a Boy Scout troop from Makawao on Maui, that was actually my old Boy Scout troop. I know the scout masters so he was happy to help out with that. And then we had some youth sports groups helping out too so it was the Kamehameha basketball team. And a lot of family friends came in. And we also had help from the LDS churches, The Church of Latter-day Saints. We had a ton of people helping out. So just to see everyone just so eager to help out and it was really nice.

Rob Stott: That’s a microcosm of what’s been happening down there, I have to imagine, just seeing all that take place.

Bryant Hamai: It felt good to be able to put something together and just to see that people were very responsive and willing to help.

Rob Stott: I mean, that’s happening now. You mentioned a couple of things that you’ve been doing and some of the immediate things, but what other efforts are underway?

Bryant Hamai: We don’t have anything set in stone, but the latest that we’re trying to put together … A pretty well-known local chef here he’s been making so many things together with the community, and a lot of cooking events and things like that. He wanted to do something at the store. He was born and raised in Kula, like myself and my cousin, so we wanted to do something special for the Kula families that were displaced and lost their home. So in a nutshell, I mean, we were thinking about doing a live cooking event at one of our … On one of our live displays. And inviting some of the Kula families and just have a little private type of an event. A little live music, some nice food, and just make them feel a little special.

Rob Stott: Something to get the mind off of everything I imagine.

Bryant Hamai: We thought it would be a nice fun event for them and hopefully, we can put that together. But that’s something we’re thinking about maybe in November so hopefully that’ll come through.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. And it’s neat to see the pictures too. I mean, you could tell everyone that was down there was … Whether they were from the community, from the Nationwide team, the No Child Hunger team, I mean, everyone … Those events always have a special meaning. We see it when we’re at Prime Time and things like that. I can imagine getting to do it sort of in an area where it’s needed, on-site essentially, had the … The faces or bright smiling faces despite everything. Just cool to see that, I think, from our perspective too. It’s something that’s needed but it’s got … It takes that sort of feel-good vibe to a whole nother level while you’re doing it. It was cool to see.

Bryant Hamai: Thank you.

Rob Stott: Right now with business, is it a business as usual? How are you approaching things right now at retail as part of Hamai Appliance? You can’t ignore it, right, because everything’s going on and it’s going to be going on. How do you get back to that? Or are you trying to get back to that business-as-usual approach?

Bryant Hamai: Sure. We try to say it’s business as usual. We’re mindful of this, and we can tell certain families they’re buying things for a certain need. We try to fact-find a little bit more. And if it turns out to be a situation where if they lost their home or they’re in a temporary place with a family member or whatnot, we try our best to help out with further discounts one way or another. A lot of people who took delivery of appliances, maybe within the past year, are now coming back in to get a replacement. We’re like “Hey, you were just here.” We try our best to help them out with maybe their extended warranty that they already bought or whatnot. One way or another we’ll try to find a discount whether it’s a free delivery or a discount on the product.

Rob Stott: I mean, tremendous to sort of see how you guys have not only handled the situation but continue to operate through it and make an impact in that community, right? So it’s been around for what? Over 50 years, 53 years is that right, if I’m doing my math right?

Bryant Hamai: 53 years, that sounds about right.

Rob Stott: Or 54 years. It’s a community staple and one that we’re excited to have part of the Nationwide family as well. Bryant, we appreciate you taking the time and sharing a little bit about your story. Our thoughts continue to be with you down there, and I know we will continue to see some efforts from the Nationwide side, I’m sure the No Child Hungry side as well. We appreciate it and appreciate you taking the time, man.

Bryant Hamai: Thank you for having me. Thank you to the Nationwide group for everything that you did. No Child Hungry. William and Mike Whitaker were terrific, and we couldn’t have done it without them, so we’re very appreciative of that. Thank you for thinking of us.

Rob Stott: And we’ll see you soon.

Bryant Hamai: We’ll see you soon. Thanks, Rob.

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