To be a car dealer today, one has to be driven, steered in the right direction and always in high gear, according to John Uekawa. He should know. Uekawa is president-general manager of New City Nissan and president of Hawai‘i Automobile Dealers Association (HADA) Aside from his business persona, Uekawa is a husband, father, coach, gender-equity champion and community service hero.
As the annual First Hawaiian International Auto Show prepares to roll into Hawai‘i Convention Center next week, we meet an individual who is a model of motoring leadership. It isn’t easy drawing out Uekawa, whose personal and professional mantra is humility. He never seeks the spotlight despite his many contributions to the auto industry and to community service.
As we learn of his remarkable path in the auto industry and selfless dedication to youth development, we become acquainted with someone who doesn’t take a back seat in inspired leadership.
FULLED BY AMBITION
Uekawa backed into the automotive business by “pure luck.” After graduating from Castle High School and University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, he was hired at Servco as a marketing coordinator. Within his 10-year tenure, he was promoted 15 times, reaching vice president in 1990.
He left Servco to serve Mazda of America as dealer operations manager for four years when he was approached by local business executives Duane Kurisu, Leighton Mau, Richard Ing and Frank Kudo to acquire the Nissan dealership from Shelly Motors.
Eventually, Uekawa and Kudo bought out their partners to establish New City Nissan that, to date, has enjoyed a 24-year run as the largest volume dealership in Nissan’s Northwest division. It is located in Kalihi at 2295 N. King St., where 129 employees and more than 600 vehicles are based.
“We’re a very business-oriented dealership,” Uekawa says. “Each department is run autonomously by well-qualified managers who approach their operation as if it were their own small business. They are both responsible and accountable.”
The auto exec likens the car business to parts of the human body:
“The brain is the communications center (customer relations),” he analogizes. “The hands are parts and service; legs, service and detail; with the backbone being accounting.”
The laissez-faire approach, with good coaching and support from Uekawa, seems geared for success. New City Nissan has been profitable since day one.
“I’m a numbers guy,” Uekawa says, proving the stats are aligned.
The positive momentum and truckload of dealer awards, including the coveted Nissan Global Award for Excellence, accelerates Uekawa and his team forward.
Work is underway on a West O‘ahu dealership in Kapolei, slated for completion in summer 2020. The 3-acre site near Wet‘n’Wild water park on Farrington Highway will serve a burgeoning second-city community where many car clients and employees reside.
Uekawa has not taken this journey alone. He is quick to credit the love and support of his family for being assets in his “blessed life.” Those life passengers are wife Sally, daughters Heather and Hillary, and son Mark.
He recalls when he worked seven days a week, 16 hours a day for five years during New City Nissan’s startup. His wife brought the kids to the dealership for dinner so they could see their father.
Now as adults, his offspring come willingly to help Dad, bringing with them impressive credentials in law, economics, marketing, education and business.
COACH WITH A CAUSE
Uekawa’s accomplishments extend beyond the car lot and home front to the world of prep sports as head coach for Maryknoll’s softball team and prime mover of Hawai‘i Softball Foundation.
When his daughters were at Maryknoll, he coached soccer and facilitated many programs to raise the visibility and feasibility of high school sports for girls.
“I noticed at the time that high school sports were dominated by the boys,” he recalls. “It’s all about gender equity. I thought there should be more opportunities for young girls to participate and compete in sports.
“I like seeing young people develop into positive, productive citizens,” he adds, underscoring the gratification of being a coach.
“It’s the blessing of all blessings when meeting a scholar-athlete years later who matures into a successful adult and says, ‘Thanks, Coach.'”
Uekawa also deserves thanks for taking six deteriorated playing fields at Sand Island beach park and transforming them into renovated sites for softball practice and contests. This has been done with the oversight of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
“Just putting a fence around the area was a major expense and undertaking,” Uekawa says.
But now, ILH softball champion Maryknoll and other teams across the state have a place to make their pitches and sock home runs. In addition, Hawai‘i Softball Foundation offers scholarships to encourage academic excellence among participants.
Mr. Softball Hawai‘i, as Uekawa is known to friends and supporters, wears another hat as incoming president of HADA. As he takes on a two-year term, the first order of business will be the staging of the First Hawaiian International Auto Show March 29-31 at Hawai‘i Convention Center.
HADA’s major promotional event annually draws thousands of car enthusiasts who rev up to see over 350 of the hottest cars and trucks in a one-stop showroom. The glitzy, family-friendly event, organized by MotorTrend Auto Shows, brings major car manufacturers to show off their new line of cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles.
Foresight Research reports that attendance at U.S. auto shows increased considerably from 2009 to 2015 as the economy improved and more millennials gained the means to buy new vehicles.
A new feature at Hawai‘i’s auto show, according to Uekawa, is electric vehicle test drives sponsored by Hawaiian Electric Co. and Ulupono Initiative. There will be product experts to accompany show-goers who want to get behind the wheel and experience new vehicle technology, including the world’s best-selling Nissan Leaf.
Uekawa admits that the industry has a lot of work to do with regard to renewable energy mandates and goals. Technology is at the top of his HADA agenda for building collaborative thinking to address Hawai‘i’s gaps in infrastructure needs, public policy, and the process to achieve 100 percent clean energy by 2045.
“The Europeans are ahead of America in this regard,” he explains. “We don’t know yet what state government aspires to do; a national movement is needed. Not everyone has bought into that.
“There were 99 bills affecting the auto industry introduced this year,” he says. “We must inform legislators of the facts so they can understand repercussions on the auto industry and address vulnerabilities.”
Electric vehicles are simply batteries on wheels. They are very special vehicles, the Nissan exec says.
“Delivery is everything,” Uekawa cites. “The No. 1 concern among skeptical consumers is mileage anxiety or how far an electric or hybrid vehicle can go on a charge. Yet these cars are extremely trouble-free. There is no engine and hardly any moving parts. There’s nothing to replace but brakes, tires and wiper blades.”
Obviously, the gas-guzzling drivers of today still need more education on alternative motoring options that are kinder to the environment.
But it comes at a price. “When monthly payments are right, we’ll sell a lot of EVs (electric vehicles),” he claims.
Yes, economics and vanity (car styling, color, and capacity) are all factors in the auto marketplace. Whether one is a car enthusiast for the latest models or classic collectibles like Corvettes and Mustangs, you’ll find them all at the Auto Show.
Tell them Coach Uekawa sent you.
First Hawaiian International Auto Show runs Friday, March 29, from noon to 10 p.m.; Saturday, March 30, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; and Sunday, March 31, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. at Hawai‘i Convention Center. Admission for adults is $9, seniors $7, military $8.
For more information, visit autoshowhawaii.com.
Among the 350-plus hottest new cars and trucks at the Auto Show are these must-see vehicles, according to organizers:
• ALFA ROMEO Giulia
• BENTLEY Continental
• FERRARI 488 Spider
• FORD F-150
• JEEP Wrangler
• HONDA CR-V
• HYUNDAI Kona
• INFINITI QX50
• KIA Niro Triathlon
• LAMBORGHINI Huracan Performante
• NISSAN Leaf
• VOLVO XC40