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Rebuilding Aloha United Way

City Mill is much more than a hardware store. It has been an integral part of our island community for 115 years. And just like his grandfather and father before him, president and CEO Steven Ai continues that tradition of ‘community-mindedness,’ including his commitment to Aloha United Way

There is a priceless commodity at City Mill that’s been there for 115 years. It’s never put on sale. You can’t fit it in a hardware kit. Yet it is the most powerful tool in the shop. If Steven Ai, City Mill president and chief executive officer, has anything to say about it — and he does — it will be a part of the company tradition for years to come.

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City Mill president and CEO Steven Ai is building support for Aloha United Way 2014 | Photo by Nathalie Walker

Family patriarchs Chung Kun Ai and David C. Ai, Steven’s grandfather and father, brought it to City Mill. It’s been an auspicious force ever since.

It is community-mindedness.

What? Not a faster, sharper, user-friendly tool for home builders and remodelers?

Well, there’s plenty of that and more in the stores. But being a merchant these days entails more than having merchandise and ringing cash registers. As Ai tells it, “My grandfather had a saying (old Chinese proverb) that when one drinks water, remember the source.

“That’s the key,” Ai adds. “Our source of success comes from our team members as well as the community.”

In other words, it’s where corporate and social responsibility intersect.

The culture and environment, both within the company and in the surrounding community, must be robust and viable in order to thrive.

Ai and his sister Carol Ai May, vice president, run City Mill in the spirit of their elders, who equated leadership with accountability to internal and external stakeholders.

City Mill’s products help build and maintain quality homes and other structures. Its corporate philosophy builds hope for a community.

It might sound like a lofty notion, but established kama’aina firms — of which there are fewer remaining — know it’s the sharpest tool in the shed for business survival.

But the philosophy and practice of building hope must come from the sincere soul of a company. It can’t just be a marketing slogan or façade.

That’s why City Mill’s CEO is in the spotlight this month. Steven Ai’s community-mindedness touches a chord with two established local entities.

First, City Mill, Hawaii’s top-rated hardware and home-improvement merchant, is observing its 115th anniversary. It is one of the few family-owned companies that has succeeded to third-generation leadership.

That is a landmark achievement in itself. Will it make it to the fourth generation? Read on to find out.

Second, Ai is chairman of 2014 Aloha United Way, the state’s most visible and established charitable organization. The 90-year-old AUW funds more than 300 nonprofit agencies and social help programs.

Under Ai’s volunteer leadership, AUW will mobilize more than 1,300 local companies and groups to join the annual fundraising campaign during September-October.

“I’m the head cheerleader,” Ai explains. “My role is to get everybody ready, moving and to inspire them.

“But also to get out of the way,” he adds, while acknowledging the AUW professionals and volunteers who “do a wonderful job.”

The goal this year is $9.6 million.

“You’re kidding,” exclaims Ai, with his characteristic wry humor. “I thought it was $9.6 thousand!”

Returning to seriousness, he cites a “rebuilding” period after the financial crisis of 2008, when it was “tough for everybody.”

While course corrections in the economy are being made, social service needs continue for those less fortunate and devastated by job loss or other personal setbacks.

AUW’s once-a-year giving, primarily through company payroll deductions, is an established and efficient means of distributing charitable resources where help is most needed.

“One can designate their donation to a cause or agency,” Ai reminds donors. “But I would encourage unrestricted giving. There are many smaller, lesser-known agencies that provide great services to the community.”