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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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Veterans Small Business Champion

Leslie Wilkins

Maui Economic Development Board

Sponsor: Kevin Yoshida and Patrice Matsumoto, Central Pacific Bank

Photo: Courtesy of Leslie Wilkins

Described by many as Maui’s most active advocate for women and youth, Leslie Wilkins readily extends her efforts to returning veterans, too.

Kevin Yoshida, regional manager for Central Pacific Bank, says Wilkins foresaw that many veterans would be entering the civilian workforce now. “She saw it coming, prepared and leveraged the Maui Economic Development Board platform and personnel to create opportunities,” says Yoshida, regional manager for Central Pacific Bank.

“Maui employers want to hire veterans and to know how to make it a win-win situation,” Wilkins says. Veterans need time for counseling, health services or family activities as they reintegrate into the civilian community, so Wilkins organized workshops to help businesses implement flexible work arrangements. Isolation can be a problem, so she forms support groups and pairs women vets with mentors in the professional community. Women vets in particular are less apt to identify themselves as veterans or find employment reflecting their skill levels.

A well-regarded grant writer and manager, Wilkins was hired to head MEDB’s Women in Technology program in 1999 and was soon named senior VP. “Little did I know we were tapping into a gold mine,” says MEDB President Jeanne Unemori Skog.


Hawaii’s Minority Small Business Champion

José Villa

Latin Business Hawaii

Sponsor: Rodney “Kimo” Wong, Bank of Hawaii

Photo: Courtesy of José Villa

Villa is the hub of the growing Latino community in Hawaii. As a co-founder of LBH, a chamber of commerce-style organization, Villa connects the 9.2 percent of the state’s population who share Hispanic ancestry.

“It takes a long time to make a network of friends,” Villa says. “With us it is already established – a newcomer simply has to plug in.”

He calls his home an information center. “People call me when they need a Spanish speaking doctor, lawyer, etc. or if they’re looking for church services in their language,” he says.

Carlos Juarez is a board member of LBH and a friend of Villa for more than 10 years. “José brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm. He’s very entrepreneurial, as he knows how to find people with resources and connect them,” says Juarez, who is also chair of the Social Sciences Department at Hawaii Pacific University.

After a successful career with the Air Force, Juarez says, Villa could have enjoyed a peaceful retirement, but chose to create something more meaningful.

“José has put Latin Americans on the map in Hawaii,” Juarez says. “Sixteen years ago, when I moved here, there was no way to know who anybody was. Today we have a real community, and Villa alone has been the most important person behind all of this.”


Women in Business Champion

Naomi Hazelton-Giambrone

Founder, Element Media

Sponsor: Krista Sherkey, Streamline6 Communications

Photo: Courtesy of Naomi Hazelton-Giambrone

Element Media began in 2005 as Hazelton-Giambrone’s MA project while at Hawaii Pacific University. The firm combines marketing consultation and ad design with publishing the magazines Pacific Edge and Las Vegas Bound, the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii networking directory, as well as custom military publications. Element Media also organizes “targeted, lighthearted and edgy” networking events, such as the sustainability oriented Green Drinks. 

Element Media also strives to enlarge its marketing, event planning and social media work. “We’d like to open divisions and become full service for other companies,” adds Hazelton-Giambrone.

Her determination has taken her far from her first enterprise of making leis on her native Kauai. “I first met Naomi when she was a very young lady at Rotary,” says financial advisor David Livingston. “She has sales instincts honed well beyond her years, and is one of the hardest working people I know.”

Hazelton-Giambrone says her greatest accomplishment is juggling her career and partnership with her husband, Jamie Giambrone, and caring for their newborn child.

“Jamie and I struggled to figure out how all of this would work,” she says. “We just decided we’re going to make it work! And that’s what small-business owners do – we make it work.”


Home-Based Business Champion

Craig Swift

Maui Economic Development Board

Sponsor: Bard Peterson, First Hawaiian Bank

Photo: Courtesy of Craig Swift

Craig Swift has spent the past 20 years helping small businesses on Maui, assisting with loans at Lokahi Pacific (the Maui Community Development Association) and conducting business classes at Maui Community College.

It’s no surprise that he was appointed last year as director of Maui Economic Opportunity Inc.’s Business Development Center, which provides business-plan training, microloans and consulting services.

“I’d say this fits pretty well with my skills set,” he says.

Swift also oversees a six-week course called Core Four, which is designed to help fledgling entrepreneurs and has more than 1,500 graduates from all over Maui County.

“Craig is a very even-tempered guy with a really good attitude and a great motivator,” says Brad Peterson, VP and Maui team leader for business banking with First Hawaiian Bank, who has known Swift for 13 years. “People who have obtained a microloan from him or graduated from his class, his door is always open for them to come back.”

Swift, who has worked on Maui for 35 years, finds it rewarding to help small businesses and entrepreneurs.

“Those who come to Core Four are really there to take on a dream, and that’s the most exciting part,” says Swift, 62, himself a small-business owner. “And for those who have been unable to find traditional financing, it’s rewarding to see what people can do when given the opportunity.”


Financial Services Champion

Robert Kawahara

Kawahara + Co. Certified Public Accountants LLC

Sponsor: Kevin Baptist, Bank of Hawaii

Photo: Courtesy of Robert Kawahara

Robert S. Kawahara exem-plifies his firm’s motto: Global Perspective. Local Commitment.

“He is very aware of global, national and state issues that impact his clients,” says nominator Kevin Baptist, also a personal client. Kawahara is proactive, helping individuals and businesses not only with immediate accounting and tax needs, but also with managing growth and planning for retirement.

Kawahara makes Harvard alumni and high-school graduates feel equally comfortable, says Baptist, which may explain why he is the youngest president ever of the Kahului Rotary Club. He also serves on the boards of the Hawaii Society of Certified Public Accountants and Hawaii Association of Public Accountants.

Kawahara says his firm, now at 700 clients and “growing like gangbusters,” assists businesses, whether they’re struggling through tough times or with fallout from success. The company has an A- Better Business Bureau ranking, the minus only because the firm is just 2 years old. In reality, Kawahara’s accounting services go back more than 30 years, to the firm founded by Kawahara’s father and mentor, Ronald Kawahara. Robert joined the firm in 2004, after working for the Honolulu Police Federal Credit Union.

“All my success comes from having good employees who are good at what they do and the knowledge gained from my dad,” Kawahara says.

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