Commentary, Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
The year 2024 will mark the 60th anniversary that the Kosasa family has owned and operated ABC Stores, one of the biggest companies in Hawai‘i. Everyone knows of the large number of ABC Stores in Waikīkī, but that is only part of their success story. Filled with many chapters of amazing achievements, it is a story based on hard work, responsibility and the importance of ‘ohana. Through the years, the company has evolved with the times, but two fundamental principles have remained constant: convenience and customer service. At the helm of this iconic brand is Paul Kosasa, the president and CEO, who is a rock star known for his business expertise, leadership skills and core values. To get to know Paul, we need to first go back two generations and highlight several pivotal moments in his family’s history.
A New Beginning
The story unfolds with Paul’s grandparents, Morita and Mitsue Kosasa, who were Issei from Okayama Prefecture. Paul’s grandfather originally came to Hawai‘i as a plantation worker in the early 1900s. He worked in the sugar cane fields for a few years, went back to Japan for his omiai (arranged marriage meeting) and returned with his bride Mitsue to live in Palolo Valley. Putting his carpentry skills to good use, he built a store on his property and in 1917, M. Kosasa Grocery and Butcher opened for business on 10th Avenue. Sidney, Paul’s father, was born on the second floor of that store in 1919.
A Glass Half Full, Not Half Empty
When it was time for Sidney to decide on his career, it was Paul’s grandmother who advised him to go into the drugstore business, so he studied pharmacy and got his degree from UC Berkeley. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, however, his future plans and freedom were put on hold. Sidney was incarcerated at the Tule Lake Internment Camp in Northern California, while his brother Neil, who had volunteered for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, K Company, served in Europe. As fate would have it, it was at Tule Lake that Sidney was reunited with Minnie Ryugo, whose family owned the boarding house where he had stayed during college. While incarcerated, the two fell in love and had a wedding reception in the camp. Even during those difficult days, the newlyweds maintained a positive outlook on life.
ABC is Not an Acronym
In 1943, in order to get released from Tule Lake, Sidney found a job as a pharmacist at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri. The following year, he and Minnie decided to leave Missouri to settle down in Hawai‘i. In 1949, the couple started their own business, Kaimuki Pharmacy (later renamed Thrifty Drugs), which was expanded to a total of eight drugstores. In the early ’60s, while on a trip to Miami Beach for a convention, they realized that Waikīkī had the same potential to become a huge visitor destination. This epiphany became the inspiration for the concept of ABC Stores. They opened their first Waikīkī store, located at Kaläkaua and Beachwalk, in 1964. Why was the name ABC Stores chosen? They decided on that name because it was easy to remember and it would appear at the top of the listings in the yellow pages.
All in the Family
Paul, the youngest of Sidney and Minnie’s four children, began helping out with the family business at age nine. His responsibilities included mopping the floor, stocking shelves and pricing merchandise. Spending time at the store gave him the opportunity to meet and talk with employees, many of whom taught him valuable lessons.
In high school, when it was time to think about his major, Paul considered engineering because of his interest in electronics. His teacher at ‘Iolani School encouraged him by saying that it is a challenging field, but it will also prepare him for anything. That made sense to Paul, so he took his teacher’s advice.
After graduating from the University of Michigan with an electrical engineering degree, he worked at Foods Company, a supermarket chain in Los Angeles, for a short time while pondering his career path. In 1980, his defining moment occurred when his father asked for his help with the business. Paul returned home to “try to prolong the legacy that my parents had built.” He worked in various departments as a trainee assistant manager, store manager, assistant buyer, district manager, and then in 1999, he succeeded his father as head of ABC Stores.
A Juggling Act
ABC Stores can be found on every major island in Hawai‘i as well as in Las Vegas, Guam and Saipan. The company has grown to include Island Gourmet Markets, Island Country Markets, Honolua Store and Sueoka Market. They launched Dukes Lane Market & Eatery in July 2017 and diversified into the restaurant business with Basalt in Waikīkī and in 2018, Lineage in Wailea. As if those responsibilities are not enough to keep him busy, Paul is the president of the Kosasa Foundation, which was established by his parents to provide grants to not-for-profit organizations. He is also the chair for the Waikiki Business Improvement District Association and Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra and serves on the board of Central Pacific Bank, Hawai‘i Community Foundation and Kuakini Health Systems, to name just a few. He is the recipient of numerous awards including Retailer of the Year (2003, 2009) and the 2021 Legacy in Tourism award.
At this point you may be thinking, how does he do it all? Paul said it helps tremendously to have a loving family who is very supportive of him. He met Lisa, his wife, when she was a banker at First Interstate Bank. Paul values “her good advice on how to do a better job.” Daughter Lindsay teaches at Waipahu High School and also teaches ballet to children. Son Ian started working for ABC Stores in 2020 and has helped the company through a digital transformation.
Despite his busy schedule, Paul does find time to relax. He enjoys playing golf, listening to music (jazz, rock, classical) and watching Netflix. In the following Q&A session, he reflects on his career of over 40 years with ABC Stores.
LK: How badly did the lockdown affect your businesses?
PK: The lockdown halted all visitors from traveling to Hawai‘i. Tourism stopped. Airlines, hotels, restaurants and retail were completely shut down. Of all the challenges we’ve faced, it was the worst ever for our company. We had to furlough nearly 90% of the employees, but kept a few stores open to service the residents. Needless to say, we lost a lot of money.
LK: How is your company doing now?
PK: I’m optimistic for the future. The economy always has ups and downs. It will bounce back like it has in the past. Asian visitors will eventually return.
LK: Why has ABC Stores been so successful through the years?
PK: I can proudly say that it is due to our amazing employees! I feel honored to be working with them. We also believe in the importance of perseverance; this mindset has helped us through tough times. Another “rule” that we follow is that no matter how good you are, you can do better. We continue to fine-tune our business model and practices so that we can provide the best service and experiences to our customers.
LK: How are you able to manage without an assistant?
PK: It forces me to be organized and plan my time. It is really hard, but no one in our office has an assistant. Everyone does their part and no one gets special treatment. I make my own appointments, but sometimes I mess up.
LK: What is your philosophy for your business and personal life?
PK: For business, it is about valuing people — our employees and customers. I need to find the balance of taking care of the company (profits) and taking care of employees (satisfaction). As for my personal philosophy, I know it sounds cliché, but somehow try to make the world a better place. Having a sense of purpose is important to me.
LK: Who is your role model?
PK: I cannot single out one person. I have many role models who I can turn to depending on the situation. My grandparents, parents, spouse, children, cousins and employees are my role models. Each one has influenced me and taught me important life lessons. I do have mentors too. Willie Nishi was the most influential in shaping my leadership and management skills. He was vice president of operations for over 40 years with ABC.
LK: Please share some memories of your grandmother.
PK: The fondest memory of my grandma was her expression of gratitude every time I did something for her. I used to walk to the market to pick up groceries, mow the lawn, water her plants and keep her company when she traveled to the mainland to visit my sister and brother. Another special memory is that she made great chawanmushi, although she never shared her recipe. Bummer.
LK: What is the most fulfilling aspect of your career?
PK: Seeing how happy our retirees are and hearing employees tell others how proud and fortunate they are to be working for a good company.
Only Look Back to See How Far You’ve Come
What started as a mom-and-pop business has grown by leaps and bounds to become the company it is today. ABC Stores has accomplished this with integrity and aloha. They treat their employees as family, offer profit sharing, give back to the community and the list goes on. With their milestone 60th anniversary approaching, I asked about the commemorative events they are planning. Paul responded, “I’m not much into celebrating the years of business. I’m just happy that we are still in business.” If you haven’t already noticed, he’s a very modest and low-key guy. What does he want the legacy of ABC Stores to be? “An excellent company. I have not achieved it yet, but I am working on it,” he replied. His refreshing answer is very heartfelt. It further illustrates that ABC’s legacy is in extremely capable hands.
Lois’s interest in Japan started with J-pop and martial arts shows. Her decision to study Japanese led to teaching English in Hamamatsu. She enjoys singing and doing creative projects.