2016 Small Business Editor’s Choice Awards
Profiles of 5 local companies and business leaders who impressed us this year.
Sweet E’s Cafe
Owner: Ethel Mathews
Sponsor: Nohonani Leslie, First Hawaiian Bank
Ethel Mathews picked up her entrepreneurial mindset from her parents, who owned a corner store off Kapahulu Avenue. The restaurant side of her personality reflects her love of speaking to people through their stomachs. The combination of those personas “made her want to start her business,” says Nohonani Leslie, personal banking officer for First Hawaiian Bank.
Mathews opened Sweet E’s Cafe in a 950-square-foot space at Kilohana Square in October 2011. Then, it was just her in the back, cooking, prepping and washing dishes, and three servers rotating in the front seven days a week. As word got out, lines constantly formed out the door of the restaurant.
Born and raised on Oahu, Mathews never went to culinary school. “It was just from loving to cook. I never worked in a kitchen before and everything was just trial and error,” she says.
One of her challenges as a new business owner, she says, was that she would do too much herself and failed to delegate or outsource work until later.
She eventually outgrew the small space at Kilohana Square and, in early January, the restaurant moved into a space almost triple the size of the original, at the corner of Kaimuki and Kapahulu avenues. She now has a staff of around 11, plus herself and her husband.
“She’s just grown the amount of employees that she has and they’re loyal to her because she’s so good to them,” Leslie says.
Her father and brothers also help, making the business very family oriented. “I treat my staff just the same,” Mathews says. “I take care of them just the same as if they were a brother or a sister, so they realize this is a business they want to stay with.”
She attributes her business’ success to her relationships with employees and customers. “My whole thing is to make employees and customers feel they are a part of my family, and I think that goes a long way because they all feel so welcome when they come to the restaurant,” she says. “That relationship is really important, and I think that’s what has built our business’ success, because of the extra personal touch we put into it.”
Pediatric Dental Group
Founder: Bert Sumikawa
Co-Owners: David and Mark Sumikawa
Sponsors: Pam Arashiro and Nathan Akamu, First Hawaiian Bank
Bert Sumikawa didn’t intend for his practice to become a family business. In fact, he never pushed his sons into dentistry or any other profession. However, seeing their dad at work persuaded David and Mark to pursue dentistry.
“He had us helping during summers as we got older, high school, college, and then watching him work there … we could tell he enjoyed what he was doing. It made you think, ‘It’s something I could do,’” says Mark, who acts as VP and secretary for the company.
Bert started the practice as a sole proprietor in 1966 before establishing it as a corporation under the name of Pediatric Dental Group in 1971. His focus remains pediatric dentistry as he believes that, when properly guided, children can become lifelong good patients.
“My philosophy is we have to try our best at all times to treat patients well and also teach them to maintain their core health. It’s more like a partnership among parents, children and the dentist,” he says.
In January, Bert transferred 100 percent ownership of the company to his sons. Even before retiring, Bert spent a lot of time volunteering, and his sons have followed his lead. Bert taught at the Kokua Kalihi Valley Dental Clinic and was on staff at Saint Francis’ hospital until it closed a few years ago.
Today, the Pediatric Dental Group has a total of four dentists, three hygienists, nine dental assistants and four front desk staff at offices on Oahu and Kauai. One dentist lives on Kauai and the others take turns flying there from Oahu.
“Mark and I are real lucky that our dad worked really, really hard to set a good example for us,” says David, company president and treasurer. “When we joined him, we tried our best to pay attention to how things were done, what things were good, what things might need to change at some point, and we’re careful to always remember that we don’t know everything.”
Pam Arashiro and Nathan Akamu, personal bankers for First Hawaiian Bank, say the way the Sumikawas make their patients comfortable in the office with toys and televisions sets them apart. “It’s really a lot of things that I wished I had when I was going to the dentist as a kid,” Akamu says.
Preferred Home and Community Based Services Inc.
Co-Owner, CEO and president: Maria A.F. Etrata
Sponsors: Nedy Pia Directo and Rocky Anguay, First Hawaiian Bank
Those who know Maria Etrata say she is a skilled businesswoman but that her success is based on love of family and respect for human dignity.
Her company, Preferred Home and Community Based Services Inc., provides day-care services to developmentally and physically disabled adults and their caregivers at a building in Waipahu. However, to tell the company’s story, it’s best to start with Maria’s personal story.
She earned her degree as a licensed practical nursing degree and, at times, worked full time as a nurse. At other times, she worked in banking and took business classes at night. Meanwhile, she and her husband, Renato, raised four children.
It was a busy life and, by 1983, she wanted more time at home for her children. She learned that Waimano Home, a facility for people with developmental disabilities, wanted to place clients in private homes, so the Etratas expanded and modified their Pearl City home and welcomed four men ages 27 to 62. The Etrata children learned to share their home and help with their guests, who were in many ways like children themselves. Maria says they came to know the Etrata children as sisters and brothers.
“I learned to love them and I learned to love their ways,” Maria says. The men stayed for 24 years, until 2007, when her care home closed.
Meanwhile, Maria and her family formed Preferred Home and Community Services and finished building a facility on Maikoiko Street in Waipahu in 2012. In 2014, the company earned revenue of $6.5 million, with nearly 60 clients, while overseeing another 170 outreach patients being treated by other providers.
“Maria has a lot of heart – she wants to help people,” says Nedy Pia Directo of First Hawaiian Bank, which helped to finance construction of the facility. “She’s involved with and has done a lot for her community. And with all of that, you still feel she has this humbleness and this love for the people she serves.”
Maria Etrata has served as president of the Filipino Chamber of Commerce, and she and her husband have won many awards for their public service, philanthropy and advocacy for caregivers.
One online Yelp comment sums up the company: “This is a family-run business. Although, to call this place a business, I think, does it a disservice. The owners and staff are genuinely kind and caring people. They whole-heartedly care for their clients.”
—Lee Ann Bowman
Maui Brewing Co.
Founder and CEO: Garrett Marrero
Garrett Marrero wants Maui Brewing’s Kihei brewery, a 42,000-square-foot facility that opened in December 2014, to be energy self-sufficient by 2017.
The brewery is equipped with a 50-barrel system for the company’s four signature beers and limited releases, and a 25-barrel system for specialty beers and its Island Root Beer. If all goes as planned, it will eventually derive all of its energy from a 1.2-megawatt microgrid.
“Garrett is very environmentally focused,” says Michael Paul, the Pacific Rim director of installation at Zero Base Energy. “He wants to be energy independent and he’s doing what he feels is best for his customers and the community.”
Zero Base Energy is working with Maui Brewing to add a solar photovoltaic structure, solar hot-water system and three megawatt-hours of batteries to the Kihei brewery. The facility already has LED lighting. “I dream of a day when every ounce of Maui Brewing Co. beer is brewed with energy we produce on site,” says Marrero.
Marrero started the company in Lahaina in 2005 and says today it distributes in 15 states and is the official craft beer of Hawaiian Airlines.
“We support local labor and farmers, just like we have local support for being a quality and locally produced beverage. We’re practicing what we preach,” he says. “I think a lot of our members work with us over another entity because of those belief systems and our practices.”
Maui Brewing puts its beer in aluminum cans made at a Ball Corp. plant in Kalaeloa, Oahu. Marrero says he chose aluminum cans because the beer stays fresher longer, and they also reduce its shipping footprint. “You can pack more cans (than glass bottles) in a 40-foot shipping container – about 2,000 cases of cans, versus about 1,200 cases of bottles,” he says. In 2015, his company brewed roughly 40,000 barrels of beer, or more than 551,000 cases.
The craft brewery also partners with Hawaii farmers in sourcing fruits, honey, sugar cane and vanilla for its beers and root beer, as well as Maui-sourced bread, produce and beef for its brewpub in Lahaina. The company donates its spent grain to local ranchers for feed.
“If we can get it in Hawaii, and it is equal to or better than product we can import, then, of course, we’ll buy it here, no matter what the cost,” says Marrero, adding that the company has spent thousands more on buying Hawaii Island-grown vanilla, as opposed to discount vanilla extract from Tahiti. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Owner: Alan Akina
Sponsor: Jason Koyanagi, Bank of Hawaii
Alan Akina serves a niche ignored by many other financial institutions: “We help people understand the day-to-day basics of money.”
He understands the situation faced by many of his customers. “I came from a great family, but not a great financial situation, and those tough times instilled in me a desire to know how money worked,” he says. Once he’d gotten the fiscal knowledge that had been missing from his life, he wanted to share the message.
101 provides personal, private education lessons. “Our instructors come to a client’s kitchen table. That direct service is unique,” says Akina. “There is proprietary software that does calculations for them, but then it’s a pencil and paper. We’re going old school. That’s how we make a significant change in people’s lives.”
To some customers, the results seem like magic. In reality, it’s better budgeting, credit building, smart banking and debt elimination. Tony and Hajel Sabog enrolled in 101 Financial in 2013. Since then, they’ve paid off $20,000 in debt, and moved out of a 10-by-10-foot room at Hajel’s grandparents’ home into a house they purchased. The course “changes the way you look at money,” says Tony. “We had some times when we wanted to spend more, but Alan’s like a coach.”
Kristopher and Kristine Knight also paid off debt and moved into their own home after taking 101 Financial classes. Now they are eyeing investment properties. “In the Islands, so many of us struggle with finances,” says Kristopher.
“A lot of people have to leave, or are going paycheck to paycheck. With the tools that Alan’s shared with us, the thinking is more that the potential for growth is endless.” These happy customers lead to referrals, a strong suit for Akina’s business.
Akina launched 101 with his own savings and says he has never taken out a loan or courted investors. By its seventh year, 101 Financial made the Inc. 500 list of America’s fastest growing companies, and today, 500 independent contractors are teaching his classes. He says 12,000 people have taken the program in Hawaii and in 25 states on the Mainland, where students learn via webinar.
Since it’s a home-based business, “I thought it might peak,” says Bank of Hawaii VP Jason Koyanagi, who has known Akina for nearly 10 years. “But now he’s adding on more with the online program; his goal is to grow nationally. One segment was doing well, but it’s smart of him to think ahead and ask, ‘How can I make it so more people can access it?’ ”
—Kathryn Drury Wagner