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Hawaii's Best Small Businesses 2013

Hawaii Business and the federal Small Business Administration honor 32 small businesses and small-business champions in Hawaii

Hawaii's Best Small Businesses 2013

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Exporter of the Year

FSC Architects

Co-founders: Jim Freeman, Ralph Shelbourne and Benjamin Candari

Sponsor: Angie Shiroma, First Hawaiian Bank

Jim Freeman, left, Ralph Shelbourne and Benjamin Candari.

Photo: Mark Arbeit

FSC has been growing at 15 percent a year, exceeding the projections that the three founders set when they created the firm three years ago. But they are careful not to grow FSC too fast, because they feel that would hurt both client relations and the quality of their work.

“We’ve purposely been pretty modest about our projections and growth,” says Jim Freeman. “We’re not going to grow into a large firm, it’s not our model.”

Freeman founded the company, which specializes in high-end resort and hospitality projects, with Ralph Shelbourne and Benjamin Candari.

Freeman says larger firms can fall victim to the trap of placing too much focus on sales. When that happens, it becomes difficult for partners to be fully involved in projects. Instead of taking on extra projects, FSC’s principal partners plan to train junior partners in their standards and prepare them to take on their own clientele.

“When we sell something to our clients, we’re there. It’s us,” says Candari. “The quality is controlled better. We can really cater to the needs of the client.”

Candari says he spends a quarter of his year traveling and maintaining personal contact with clients. FSC gets inquiries and work in the Middle East, Africa and even Sri Lanka, but the bulk of its projects are in China.

“I’m not sure if our clients are finding us because we specialize, but I’m pretty sure, in the end, (the reason) they’re satisfied is because we have focused on hospitality design. We know what we’re doing and I think that comes out in the course of the project.”

FSC also refers other Hawaii-based businesses that might help their clients, such as landscape or interior-design firms.

“I see them as an advocate for Hawaii businesses that want to work overseas,” says Angie Shiroma of First Hawaiian Bank, who nominated FSC for the SBA Small Business Exporter of the Year Award.

Freeman says the recipe to FSC’s success is simple: Take care of your clients. Do a good job. Be easy to work with. If they like working with you, they’ll come back. The recipe seems to be working because most of FSC’s work is repeat business or client referrals.


Entrepreneurial Success

Big Island Candies

Allan Ikawa, President, CEO and Founder

Sponsor: Art Taniguchi, Bank of Hawaii

Allan Ikawa.

Photo: Courtesy of Big Island Candies

“Chili pepper toffee, with Waialua chocolate, smoked sea salt and almonds.” Allan Ikawa is savoring the thought of a new delight among the dozens that Big Island Candies has created over its 35-year history. There have been so many, often with local flavors such as lilikoi and ginger, that he’s lost track of some.

“With the Hawaiian chocolate, we had to create a new product,” Ikawa says. “People are so used to that (traditional) taste. A committee comes up with new ideas and they try to incorporate home-grown products as much as possible, even though it can be really hard.”

The path to success for this award winner has been blocked at times by recessions, the threat of bankruptcy, a cash-flow crisis and layoffs.

“My employees would call up and say, ‘Hey Allan, when can I come back to work? I’ve got to feed my family.’ That really hurt, so I told my guys, ‘Here’s the deal. I’m gonna bust my okole but it’s your kuleana to keep up with me. So we just charged ahead and I got this break. A fellow from Japan was looking for a macnut chocolate producer and it got me back on my feet.”

In those early years, sheer determination, passion for his product and a loan from the SBA kept him going. Originally in banking, Ikawa switched careers in the late 1970s to help a bank customer, a Swiss candy company. He learned the trade, bought the business in 1977 and expanded into cookies. His first, chocolate-dipped macadamia-nut shortbread, is still a bestseller.

“Us guys in Hawaii were brought up with crispy cookies,” he says, “not the soft stuff. I talked to customers who wanted cookies, hired someone to come up with what I felt it needed to be, and over the years have fine-tuned it.” In all that time, he has never changed his high-quality ingredients.

Today, there’s a warehouse and factory in Hilo, about 100 employees, and customers worldwide. Once they’ve bitten, they’re hooked.

“If you’re in the community over here, or even on Oahu, you can’t help but notice the presence of Big Island Candies,” says Art Taniguchi, Ikawa’s friend and the senior VP and East Hawaii regional manager for Bank of Hawaii.

“Everywhere you turn, you see their footprint. They’re always giving to fundraising events, charities, anything to help out. Talk to anybody from here and they’ll tell you the same thing.”

* Received an SBA loan when starting out.

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