When translated from Hawaiian, the word aio is defined as “a wave that rises and falls without breaking.” But if you ask aio Hawaii founder Duane Kurisu what it means, he’ll tell you that “aio is about discovering who we are and the promise of what we can be.”
That principle has long guided aio Hawaii, which is composed of publishing, technology, sports and food businesses. “We always had this vision that there was something really special about the people here in Hawaii and that we need to share who we are with people around the world,” Kurisu says.
His passion for people drove the founding of aio Hawaii 25 years ago, in August 1992. Its first business was Hawaii Winter Baseball, a professional minor league that hosted promising young players from the U.S., Japan and Korea. The league brought people together: families watched the games, the players formed cross-cultural bonds and friendships, and many of the players went on to the major leagues and became ambassadors for Hawaii. Graduates of the league included some of baseball’s biggest stars, including Ichiro Suzuki, Jason Giambi, Todd Helton and Buster Posey.
The core, Kurisu says, was learning to do things the aio way. The aio way is about character, which Kurisu relates to baseball: “When people get drafted to play professional baseball, they’re all very talented. They’re all athletic – which is why they were drafted – but there’s something special that takes them from being a minor league player and becoming a major league player. And it’s really that sixth tool, and so we call it the aio way. It’s about character.”
In the mid-1990s, Kurisu and aio branched out to publishing, with the notion that media need to be involved in making sports successful. Hawaii Business magazine was his first acquisition. At the time, the magazine was heavily in debt and about to go out of business. Knowing that Hawaii Business was a valuable voice in the community and the oldest regional business magazine in the U.S., Kurisu wanted to give it a fighting chance. From there, he added other publications and businesses.
One goal is for aio Hawaii’s businesses to be able to reinvent themselves. “Being an underdog is a state of mind that I believe is an important part of the culture of our businesses,” he says. “Complacency is one of the biggest dangers we face today, because, whether it’s in media, sports, food or technology, the world is changing quicker than ever before. If we are not mindful of this and continually work on reinventing ourselves, we can quickly become irrelevant or obsolete or both. Most of our brands have faced this and some are facing it today.”
Ken Miyasato, director of strategic planning and human resources, has worked at aio Hawaii since 2008. He first coordinated marketing and operations for Hawaii Winter Baseball, and he says he has seen aio Hawaii grow from small, individual businesses into a collaborative family of companies. At Hawaii Winter Baseball, he relied on support from other aio Hawaii businesses to help spread the word about game promotions, create posters and print game schedules. Today, that collaboration has increased to where partnerships among the businesses are happening every day on different levels.
The company’s strength has always been its employees, who are passionate about their work and care about Hawai‘i, says Susan Eichor, COO and president of aio. “It seems very diverse, so what’s the connection? I think it’s always been this incomparable commitment to Hawai‘i and its people. That’s the common thread throughout all of the companies.”
Eichor says two programs are representative of aio Hawaii’s focus on its approximately 260 employees: aio Discovery and personal development leave. aio Discovery is a leadership training program that sends employees to help build infrastructure in needy countries. The personal development program allows employees to take a week of paid leave each year for journeys of self-discovery and to learn something outside of their normal work life.
The company’s biggest achievements are those of its employees at work, at home and in the community, Kurisu says.
One example is the “With Aloha” Japan fundraiser that aio Hawaii employees organized to help Sendai’s Tohoku University Hospital after a large earthquake and tsunami hit the area in 2011. They raised $150,000 from a single event. Kurisu, who traveled to Japan with another employee to present the money to the hospital, says it was the only money the hospital received for six months. “No government money, no money from any other nonprofit organizations,” he says. “So can you imagine how many lives we must have saved?” By the end of the year, more than $200,000 had been raised.
Miyasato hopes he’s around for another quarter century: “I’m very interested to see how aio evolves over the next 25 years, because it has grown into something special that is a major influence in Hawai‘i, as well as we’re doing things that are making people outside of Hawai‘i, around the world, take notice. And it’s almost like we’re planting the seeds, we’re connecting dots, and it’ll be neat to see how those seeds grow and the connections we establish, what they evolve to 25 years from now.”
What will never change is aio’s dedication to the Islands and their people, and to making Hawai‘i the best it can be, Eichor says. “We want to make sure that we continue to serve Hawai‘i in the best possible way.”
The Promise of What We Can Be
aio Hawaii has always been considered a place where employees can grow.
Marylea Conrad worked at multiple magazines under PacificBasin Communications as an associate editor, associate fashion editor and stylist from 2006 to 2009. She now runs her own jewelry company, called [ki•ele], and says her experience at the publications, such as networking and learning how to style for photo shoots, has helped to get her where she is today.
“I’m still working with people who are in PR that I worked with and met through aio,” she says. “So, just all of that experience really helped propel me to where I am today, and it’s something I’ll continue to use.”
David Tumilowicz, director of account management at Kaiser Permanente, said he picked up leadership skills when he worked at Hawaii Business magazine, as a senior account executive and publisher from 2005 to 2013, and as publisher at Hawaii magazine. Those skills taught him how to trust and give support to his colleagues.
“When I was at aio and at PacificBasin and at Hawaii Business,” he says, “the best use of my time was to try to create an environment where everyone could express their human potential. And that’s exactly the same thing that I try to do here at Kaiser, which is to really identify the unique skill sets and contributions that everyone on the team can bring and create the space for them to express themselves through their work.”
Randal Ikeda worked as the CFO for PacificBasin Communications from 2000 to 2004 and then as GM of ESPN 1420, both aio companies. He’s now the executive director of the Nu‘uanu YMCA and says his time at aio Hawaii helped him decide that he should work at a nonprofit. While at aio Hawaii, he helped to develop programs that focused on giving back to the broader world and helping the employees grow, both professionally and personally.
“That whole mindset made it easy for me to say, ‘Oh, you know what? I should really be doing this full time – taking my business ability and giving back to the community,’ ” he says.
aio Hawaii’s Family of Businesses
aio Hawaii currently consists of 18 brands. Here’s when they joined the family.
1997 Hawaii Business magazine
1999 Watermark Publishing
2000 Hawaii Home + Remodeling
2001 HONOLULU magazine
2002 ESPN 1420AM
2002 Punaluu Bake Shop
2003 Hawaii Buyer’s Guide
2004 B. Hayman Co.
2006 Obun Hawaii
2006 Hawaii magazine
2007 Upspring Media
2009 HONOLULU Family
2010 NBC Sports Radio 1500
2011 Pagoda Hawaii
2012 Hawaii Distribution Center
2013 Legacy Isle Publishing
2014 Frolic Hawaii