Talk Story with Brian Uy
The Master of Mingle
It may be called networking, but for master of mingle Brian Uy, making connections is anything but work. Whether he’s on the job tending to his family’s real estate business, or off the clock, the former cigar bar owner is always looking to strike up a good conversation with friends new and old. We checked in with Brian – or Bee Wee, as he’s commonly known – to see if he has any good advice for getting your schmooze on.
Do you consider yourself a “people person”?
Well, I was in Hawaii from kindergarten to fourth grade and then moved to New York. As a Chinese kid moving from Hawaii to New York City, I really had to adapt and learn to be outgoing. Plus, I just have a passion for meeting people. It really started when I moved back to Hawaii. My mom asked me to come back in the early ’90s to help with her real estate business. But I didn’t go to high school or college here, so I didn’t know anybody. And of course, people would ask, “What school you went?” and I wasn’t like that. I was like, “What elementary school did you go to?” I was kind of frustrated. How do you become a realtor at 21 years old and not know anyone in your town? It’s kind of difficult. So everyday I would try to meet someone new. Not for business, just for my own sake.
Is networking in Hawaii easier than on the Mainland?
Well I look at it differently than before because Hawaii is so small to me now. There’s no six degrees of separation. In Hawaii, you got a half-degree of separation. Hawaii’s like one big high school. Ultimately, everyone is within reach. There aren’t too many people who are impossible to get to. Here, you can meet all the people who, maybe in a different city, would be totally untouchable. People should really take advantage of that. Also, some people are just naturally shy in the Asian community. You really don’t need to be that way in Hawaii because people are so friendly and akamai and just know the local way. They won’t be too intrusive and ask the wrong questions.
Do you ever have to bite your tongue?
Oh, always. The fact that Hawaii is half a degree of separation can also work against you. If you don’t like the person or don’t respect them, just avoid them. But don’t bury them. Because chances are, someone I really dislike might be friends with someone I’m really good friends with or someone I’ll eventually do business with.
Connections are important in this town.
Definitely. And I enjoy connecting people. Some of the best deals I’ve made didn’t even involve me, it was just bringing two people together. Knowing this guy’s looking for this and this guy’s looking for that and they can help each other if you just get them together. If there’s one way I’d like to make money instead of selling real estate, it would be just putting people together. That’d be the ultimate job to me. A lot of friends have gotten married because I introduced them. I’ve also heard a few times, “Hey I went to a wedding and they met each other at [my cigar bar] Havana Cabana.” That’s always one of the greatest things to hear too.
How did you open Havana Cabana?
When I’d visit New York, I realized cigar bars were getting popular and trendy. So I just learned everything about the industry. Then I got three other guys involved and we opened Havana Cabana [in Chinatown] in ’96. It was everything I wanted it to be. The name was cool. The ambiance, the buildout. Even the logo. The timing was just off. I think it was before its time. So we shut it down in 2001. It was a nice run but we did lose a lot of money.
So you went back to real estate?
Yeah, and in the first two years after shutting down Havana Cabana, 90 percent of my real estate business came from people I met there. Because bankers would come in. Country club members would come down to smoke. All the politicians would come just to relax. Then they started throwing fundraisers there. That’s how I got involved with politics. I got really involved helping Jeremy Harris’ campaign because he was big on building up Chinatown. He asked me to be on the transportation commission, which I still am on. That’s probably the most active I am now, just volunteering on the transportation commission. Because politics is tiring. When we were campaigning, we’d start at 7 a.m. every day. But it sure was a great way to meet people.
After you’ve met someone, then what?
I try to get people’s birthdays, then I send them a text, email or letter saying Happy Birthday. That’s a great way of keeping in touch with people who you want to stay friendly with but don’t see regularly. I also try to have lunch or coffee with someone different all the time. I use my evenings too. Breakfast, dinner, weekends, functions, golfing – these are all part of doing business in Hawaii. It’s far from just working your eight-to-five inside your office. I think people who really need to be in business know that.
Pau hana included?
I don’t think it’s something we should be proud of, but it’s definitely one of the greatest tools for getting to know someone. Wine tastings, pau hana – where else can you go after work but restaurants and bars? I have some friends who are married with children, so they go straight home. They joke that they want to live vicariously through me. They want to know what’s going on after hours. Because you really can get a lot of business done in the evening. Going to dinners and functions is just as good as picking up any kind of business deal on the golf course.
How do you remember everyone you meet?
The big thing for me is the Palm Pilot. I have like 3,200 numbers in my palm. I’ll keep names, birthdates and siblings, kids, girlfriends or wives. Or whatever helps me identify them. Sometimes when you’ve met someone in a group setting, you need that little hint the next time you see them. People often joke, “How or why do you remember these things?” But it’s just a part of me.