A Family Business Strums Along
Friday - February 09, 2011
When I knew I wanted to do a story on the family-owned-and-operated company KoAloha Ukuleles, I did what I normally do before an interview: I checked out their website.
Not what I expected, but in a good way! The profiles on staff (Alan Okami, Paul Okami, Patricia Okami, Alan Tagama, Brian Benevente, Davin Fukumoto, Albert Tagama, Dustin Iijima, Orlando Benedicto, Rogemar Buccat, Dennis Hermano, Keith Yoshioka and Dominic Pastor) are hilarious!
Right then I knew I was in for a colorful interview at their Kalihi factory.
When I spoke to publicist Tracy Larrua, owner of Poi Planet, to schedule the interview, we agreed on a 10:30 appointment, and she followed up by asking if I’d like to stay for family lunch. I e-mailed back asking for the address, thinking we’re now doing the interview at their home.
Nope, they have family lunch every day at the factory. And what they mean by family lunch is: Food is provided (either cooked or ordered), everyone stops working and sits down at a long table in the office area and eats together. Many families don’t even do this at home, but in the work-place? That’s awesome!
“Our outlook is that when you work here you become part of our family,” says Alan.
Unfortunately, I had an appointment immediately after, so I couldn’t stay. But I was regretting not rescheduling my other appointment when I saw the salads and pizzas coming in.
OK, call it jumping the gun a little. I like to call it being one step ahead. This July, KoAloha Ukuleles celebrates 15 years of producing some of the finest ukuleles on the market. I decided to kick off their celebration by telling the story of their unique company from the beginning.
Officially introduced in July 1995 at Roy Sakuma’s annual Ukulele Festival by founder Alvin Okami, the seed was planted in late 1994 when Alvin’s good friend Herb Ohta Sr. suggested crafting a miniature ukulele for his sister’s store. Alvin embarked on a mission to make a tunable, playable miniature. A few months later, he had one measuring no more than 5.5 inches in length.
That was the beginning of KoAloha Ukuleles.
Behind every good man there is a great woman, right? That’s the case in the Okami ohana. Patricia Okami aka Mama KoAloha has been instrumental in the company’s success.
“Mom is the president,” says Alan, vice president. “She’s the boss.”
Throughout the years, the roles played by Dad, Mom and sons Alan and Paul have shifted, and continue to evolve, but their strong family unit has remained the core of the company.
The products also have evolved. As a musician, Alvin’s passion to create ukuleles was fueled by his commitment to produce an instrument with a sound that was unparalleled. And he did. It’s what many today call the KoAloha sound.
“Our instruments, looks-wise, are very different from 1995 to now,” says Alan. “There’s been a progression in design, and we’re still very progressive in that my father is really our designer, and every once in a while he throws something into the mix. We try to push the envelope in design and our sound has remained consistent in the process.”
In the first year, KoAloha produced about 300 ukuleles, and now it produces about 3,000 a year.
“As odd as this may sound, we’re not here to sell you an ukulele,” says Alan. “Our goal is to develop trust and friendships. And it’s a matter of developing relationships. We’re not here to sell you, we only want you to buy if you believe in our philosophy and what we do.”
Outside of the factory, the Okamis participate in numerous community events, including ukulele-making sessions for children on Molokai.
“We went there just as a demonstration in 1996 and what we wanted to do is show that people care and give,” says Alan. “And honestly, the first year we did it we could not afford to do it. In fact, our family wasn’t even getting paychecks. But we wanted to give children that sense of accomplishment and personal ownership, so they can have something to pass on to their child. That’s the idea that we build our ukuleles upon.”
KoAloha Ukulele now is regarded by many as one of the premier ukulele builders.
“And we have the best warranty, period,” adds Alan. “We call it the ‘better than the weather warranty’ and it’s a lifetime warranty. We’re the only company that warranties our instruments against change in climate.”
Ask Alan his theory on success and he’ll share what he tells students during his many visits to schools for career day: “Seek out the gift that you have.”
Happy 15th anniversary, KoAloha!
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