Gaming And Giving
Fun Factory vice president and COO Warren Asing is honored by Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce with its O‘o award
Playing games isn’t just child’s play — 63-year-old Warren Asing can tell you that. The Fun Factory executive vice president and chief operating officer’s very adult job is to visit the company’s 22 stores, be well-versed in the customer experience and maintain standards that began in 1903 with company founder E.K. Fernandez. He also has to buy and play the games they stock. Tough stuff.
Asing enjoys life, but to hear him speak of the challenges facing young Native Hawaiian entrepreneurs, it is easy to see why Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce (NHCC) selected him as a recipient of its O‘o Award. He joins Dr. S. Kalani Brady and kumu hula Vicky Holt Takamine as this year’s inductees into the organization’s Hall of Fame. Each year, NHCC honors two or three individuals who have made significant contributions to the Native Hawaiian community.
“I never expected to get the award,” says the former NHCC president. “I thought I would present them and honor them always, but I didn’t know if I’ve done enough for the Hawaiian people. Maybe this will spur me on to do more.”
Asing came to Fun Factory in 1981, when he became one of 300 workers laid off by United Airlines. For 15 years he had been an in-flight services supervisor, trainer and flight attendant, and suddenly, at the age of 35, he was in the midst of a forced career move. Some 22 interviews followed, to no avail. He admits to doing poorly in those opportunities.
“I didn’t think I could do anything else,” says Asing, sounding much like the young people he and NHCC target for training.
Then, Linda Fernandez, Fun Factory CEO, called. She had dumped her HR person, tossed a pile of applications on her desk and one fell to the floor — Asing’s. He got the job and six days later was bored.
“I felt like I was just a cashier, so I learned every game at the store,” he recalls. “I opened every game, pulled the manuals out and told the assistant operations manager I’d like to do something more than make change.”
He did, and quickly moved up the chain, including managing both Kalihi and Waianae stores, when current OHA trustee and then Waianae store manager Peter Apo moved on.
Game rooms were much different places when Asing came aboard. At the time, arcades inhabited dark rooms in shopping malls. They were places for children to escape adults or for adults to dump their kids while shopping. Since its inception, Fun Factory was different. It wasn’t a video game company but an entertainment company. That, notes Asing, is why it has survived while its competitors have all but disappeared.
After all, the company was designed as an indoor carnival.
“We want to get people out of their homes. We believe people want to talk to each other,” says Asing about the store’s entertainment concept. “It’s date night. See a movie, play some games, maybe win a teddy bear.”
The first store was in Pearlridge and it opened with crazy cars, Skee-Ball and a duck pond. Eventually, they were replaced with Space Invaders, Galaxia and Galaga. Change hasn’t stopped, nor does it come cheap. Pac-Man Smash (a Pac-Man-themed air hockey game) runs $15,000, as does his favorite game, Transformer.
Asing refers to NHCC as a mentorship program for young Hawaiians. In this aspect, he is just paying it forward.
Asing never knew his biological father, but his stepdad, a Croatian Yugoslavian from Joliet, Ill., named Robert Daniel Semitekol, was everything the young man needed.
“I was a real local boy. He couldn’t understand me and I couldn’t understand him. But he took me motorcycle riding in the Wahiawa quarry, taught me how to water ski, taught me how to fix engines (they raced powerboats in Keehi Lagoon) and he brought out the skill in me I didn’t know I had. He was a wonderful, wonderful man.”
The April 17 ceremony at Hilton Hawaiian Village is as much a fundraiser as it is an evening to honor three people. Since its scholarship program was created in 2003, the organization has awarded nearly $100,000 in scholarships to 75 Native Hawaiian students who want to pursue a career in entrepreneurship. The scholarships add to mentorship NHCC members provide.
“It is important for them to infuse their businesses with the traditions, with the mana of the host culture,” Asing explains. “Some of them did not realize that 1893 was a change in life for them, for the culture. We have to take them backward a little bit. If they don’t understand the past, they can’t know the future.”
NHCC isn’t the only organization helping Hawaii students.
In 1989, Fun Factory established its University of Hawaii scholarship program. The scholarships grew from the Fun Factory honor roll program, which awarded free tokens to students for each A or B they received. Since then, the company has donated $520,000 to UH Foundation to fund the scholarships. That donation is matched to provide 520 students with a free first year of study at the university. In 2003, Fun Factory began a second-year scholarship fund to help five of the 20 annual freshman scholarship winners with a second year of free education. Between both programs, $580,000 has been handed out. Fun Factory also provides financial aid to students wanting to attend Punahou School, and to students from the Queen Charlotte Islands (off British Columbia, Canada) to attend UH.