One Hundred Years of Fortitude

World wars and natural disasters couldn't keep the Kitagawa family from succeeding

December, 2005

The story of I. Kitagawa and Co. is one of the great Hawaii business tales that no one has ever heard. Just ask Brian Kitagawa, the company’s current president and general manager. Even he didn’t know a lot of I. Kitagawa’s history. When Brian, the great-grandson of founder Isojiro Kitagawa, would ask his elders about the history of his family’s automotive business, which spanned two world wars and two devastating tsunamis, they would just shrug and say, “It was hard.”

“They don’t talk much about the past or what problems they had or what challenges they faced,” say Kitagawa. “Getting that kind of information out of them is like pulling teeth.”

So when Kitagawa commissioned the publication of a brochure to commemorate his company’s 100-year anniversary, a lot of the history that was uncovered was as new and fascinating to him as it was to the tabloid’s researchers, who scoured the newspaper archives of the Hawaii Tribune Herald.

“Being in business for 100 years is a great accomplishment,” says David Rolf, executive director of the Hawaii Automobile Dealers Association. “It is testimony to the strong core values of the company’s founder and to the family members who adhered to those values over a century’s time.”

The Kitagawa story reads like a sweeping, historic epic in which nature and world events seem to have conspired against the gritty, no-nonsense, plain-speaking protagonists, who succeeded anyway.


Sea of Change

In 1904, Isojiro Kitagawa immigrated to Hawaii from Yamaguchi Ken in Japan. He went to work at one of the Big Island’s plantations, but after a half a day of cutting cane, he realized that his future lay somewhere else. That somewhere else turned out to be East Hawaii’s azure waters.

A year later, he opened a fish market on the shores of Hilo Bay, which sold the catch of the town’s growing fishing fleet. But as any good businessman, Isojiro realized that the fishermen needed supplies, so he started selling lines, ropes and nets, as well as groceries. Three years later, Isojiro saw another opportunity just beyond Hilo’s horizon – the gasoline-powered engine, which would transform the hand-powered sampan into an efficient fishing machine. The enterprising businessman would support these innovative fishermen with gasoline and lubricating oil, eventually moving into engine parts and offering repair services.

In what might have been his biggest leap of faith, Isojiro decided to sell what were then strange, cutting-edge products: trucks and passenger automobiles. He started with an inventory of five vehicles, made by long-gone manufacturers such as Argo, Metz and Crow-Elkhart. Later on, he would sell Durant, Star and Flint cars, as well as Continental, Studebaker and Chrysler in 1937. Amazingly, during its early days of business, I. Kitagawa Co. sold more automobiles per capita than any other car dealer west of the Rockies.

In 1941, I. Kitagawa started construction on a new facility closer to downtown. However, everything changed after the outbreak of World War II. Car production was halted as America’s automobile industry turned its attention to building trucks, tanks, airplanes and other war machines. The Kitagawas decided to concentrate on providing replacement parts to their customers along with repair services and gasoline. In addition, construction of the building was stopped for the duration of the war.


Wave of the Future

At the conclusion of the war, business was looking bright. The company resumed construction of the new facilities, but work wasn’t yet completed when, on April 1, 1946, a tsunami devastated Hilo town. I. Kitagawa and Co., now headed by Isojiro’s son-in-law Tsutae, who adopted the family name, lost everything in the series of tidal waves, but he decided to rebuild in a new location, still on the outskirts of Hilo. Isojiro passed away in 1956.

The business thrived again, expanding to include General Electric appliances and growing to nearly 50 employees. But disaster struck once again on May 23, 1960, when another tsunami hit tranquil Hilo Bay. A series of 35-foot-tall waves killed 61 people and destroyed or severely damaged 540 homes and businesses. Again, the Kitagawas lost everything.

“After the second tsunami, my grandparents didn’t want to start up the business all over again. They had enough money to live comfortably,” says Brian Kitagawa. “But my father [Iwao Kitagawa] was only in his 30s, and he wanted to keep the business going. Even though they didn’t want to do it, they supported his decision completely.”

Brian says that those early days were “touch and go.” State officials offered land to tsunami survivors for purchase. The parcels were on high ground, safe from tsunamis, but also located several miles outside of town, far away from any business activity at the time. Iwao purchased a nearly 4-acre lot and built a facility that was three times the size of I. Kitagawa’s previous structures.

“It was very risky, especially to do it on such a large scale,” says Brian. “But my father was an entrepreneur. He worked by intuition and feel. With SBA [Small Business Admin-istration] loans and a negative capitalization of $200,000, he restarted the business. He was doing it on a shoestring.”

Business was slow at first, but as Hilo and the rest of the island grew, so did I. Kitagawa Co. In the 1960s, Iwao added the Datsun line to his growing offering of cars as well as a second car dealership in Kona. In addition, the enterprising businessman brought NAPA auto parts dealerships to Hilo, Kona and Captain Cook.

Today, Brian oversees I Kitagawa Co., which operates Hilo’s Kamaaina Motors and the Kona Auto Center in West Hawaii, as well as NAPA Auto Parts stores in Hilo, Waimea, Kona and Captain Cook. While tsunamis are no longer a concern for I. Kitagawa and Co., Brian says that a new wave far beyond the Big Island’s horizon is challenging his family business: globalization.

“The world is a smaller place because of globalization,” says Brian. “As a result, we don’t just compete against the guy down the street, but with every car dealership in the country. We have to be as efficient and technologically savvy as anyone.”

To meet those challenges, I. Kitagawa Co. has spent $1.75 million for renovations to Kamaaina Motor’s Kawili Street location, which now includes two state-of-the art service drives, an enclosed showroom and new offices and service systems. The company is also building a brand-new facility in Kona. It’s an ambitious and gutsy plan, now a familiar storyline for the Kitagawa clan.

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