Interview: Russell J. Hata, Chairman, President and CEO, Y. Hata & Co. Ltd.

Please describe how and when you are conducting your return to your offices, stores, restaurants, warehouses or other physical locations.

We are taking an employee-centric and work function perspective that varies upon the department, job responsibilities and our employees’ emotional and physical needs. There is a lot of work to be done to recover but we want to do it in a way that is safe and compassionate.

For those that choose to work in the office or work in a staggered remote schedule, masks must be worn, and their desk spaces are adequately distanced from others. Our meetings on WebEx have been productive so we’ll continue those for a while and in-office meetings will be limited to no more than 10 people in a room. Our safety manager will continue to audit our operations, including the administrative areas. We’ve been practicing proper health and safety procedures from the start of the pandemic because we never closed our doors even for a day, including ChefZone.

After your transition period ends, how do you think your new normal” will be different from your old normal?

We’re preparing for a scenario where there are fewer customers overall but our partnership with those that recover is even stronger. I don’t know what percentage that will be just yet, but I think we can all agree that for some time, there’s going to be less of everything. We are hyper-focused on helping our customers recover and re-open with solutions for safety, sanitation, menu re-design, labor-saving ingredients, and more. We’re also looking at ways to diversify our customer mix, especially oriented towards local producers. So, there are many opportunities that can emerge from this. This has been the Y. Hata way for 107 years: innovate always and put the customers first.

How do you think your new normal will affect your finances and customer service?

Our customer service will be focused on providing solutions to the problems presented by the pandemic. We’ll put emphasis on training our customers to be ServSafe certified so that our customers are in compliance with state or county mandates in the new normal. This also means being the reliable supplier for sanitation products.

One solution that will be significantly increased from pre-COVID-19 days is our digital support. Whether it’s providing them a platform for social media promotion on Y. Hata accounts or helping them stand up their own social media and/or e-commerce – we’re committed to helping our customers have a stronger digital presence. Because our customer base is so wide, e-commerce is going to be a vital part of our operation going forward. What this means financially is simply working smarter and more efficiently.

How are you going to ensure good employee performance and engagement under your new normal?

We have kept up with our weekly updates from the executive team and our bi-monthly internal newsletter called “Good News” to the entire ‘ohana. Other steady state programs were continued during the pandemic, like the “on the spot” recognitions of Kulia Coins where any manager can recognize any individual across the enterprise who best lives our core values as well quarterly employee recognitions.

Right before COVID-19, a new program called “Hata Cares” was planned. We are in the business of food, so our “Hata Cares” started with our employees. When the shelter-in-place order came down, we had a massive backlog of perishable food that we gave to our employees and to organizations handing out food to those in need. We continue to give employees discounts on our food bundles, which they get to purchase before the public. Finally, our in-house chef prepares ‘Ohana Lunches for employees at a few of the locations every week. We’re trying to hold ourselves accountable to the saying “employees come first” and doing things like that, I think, make a big difference.

The pandemic also gave us the opportunity to provide our employees the opportunity to volunteer for community events which went a long way to create a sense of ‘ohana internally but also community with others.

Are there other important lessons your organization learned from this crisis?

One big lesson is realizing that inefficiencies that may have been tolerated during periods of steady state or boom can raise real issues in a crisis. Kinks in process and procedures get spotlighted in a dilemma. Another lesson is that talent, succession and teamwork are always important but in a crisis it’s crucial that you have the right people who are resilient with positive attitudes who can “paddle together.” These lessons are now at the forefront of our 2021 fiscal year strategic plan.

As challenging as it’s been, I’ve been impressed with everyone at Y. Hata. When we needed them, everyone came together: no ego, all hustle, all hours of the day and night. It makes me and my entire Hata family really proud.

Categories: Leadership, Restarting Hawaiʻi