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Locations Is Everything

As Locations celebrates its 50th year in business, founder Bill Chee (left) and president and CEO Scott Higashi are committed to putting customers first as Hawai‘i’s premier real estate firm.

Locations founder Bill Chee estimates there are roughly 11,000 licensed real estate agents on O‘ahu alone (about 6,000 of whom are members of trade association REALTORS), and around 1,000 firms. The median number of sales the average agent makes? Zero. Meanwhile, the top 13 or so companies account for half of all sales.

“It’s really a disproportionate kind of marketplace,” he admits.

Despite this reality, Locations and its employees continue to thrive — a port in a storm of ever-changing and always-evolving trends.

In 2018, for example, over 300 agents generated more than $1.8 billion. Honolulu Star-Advertiser readers also have consistently voted the company Hawai‘i’s Best for eight years in a row, and today Locations counts five offices and three kiosks on O‘ahu, four offices on the Big Island and another on Maui.

A scene from Locations’ research department in the early 1990s.

And this year marks what is perhaps its greatest milestone yet: 50 years in business.

To be sure, it’s been no easy task. The secret: a deceptively simple philosophy.

“Our mission is to give our clients and our agents a competitive advantage in the marketplace, and those would be mere words until you realize that everything we think about is how do we advantage our clients,” says president and CEO Scott Higashi.

As a student at University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Chee became well-versed in the struggles of entrepreneurialism. He had, at one point, attempted to start up a janitorial business that floundered because his employees — fraternity brothers — didn’t show up for work, forcing Chee to complete jobs solo. The same thing happened after Chee attempted to offer up yard services.

“I did a lot of things and failed at most of them,” he says, smiling.

Then, as a junior, he got his real estate license, laying the foundation for all that was to come. As the story goes, it was during an evening at Café BonBon with Donald Lewis and Greg Kashiwa that Chee came up with his biggest venture yet: starting his very own real estate company.

“We wrote a business plan on a napkin,” he recalls.

Locations founder Bill Chee takes part in an office blessing. PHOTOS COURTESY LOCATIONS

They each contributed $400 in capital and set up shop in Chee’s apartment in the Punchbowl area.

The year was 1969, and Chee was only 24 years old.

“The first thing we did was have a big party,” he says with a laugh. “We invited 200 people, and we spent almost half of our capitalization on that party.”

But from the very beginning, Locations proved it was a force to be reckoned with. It was, for example, the first real estate company in the country to use computerized MLS (Multiple Listings Service) listings before the system even existed. By scanning newspapers and inputting listings into a computer database, Locations was able to ask clients what they sought — say, a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in Hawai‘i Kai — pull up the information and then print it.

It was a trailblazer in other ways, too. Focusing on researching and analyzing market trends, Locations launched its research department in 1979 with help from Mike Sklarz — who has a Ph.D. in math, and today is chairman and CEO of Collateral Analytics — filling a niche for what was an alien concept in the industry at the time.

The company has kept up with technological demands, too, with a website and mobile app that include the Locations Home Valuator as well as property search capabilities.

But for all its maverick moves, the success Locations has achieved, Chee believes, can be attributed to the way it empowers the individuals it serves. For all of its 50 years, for instance, the company has asked customers for feedback on their experience.

“If you’re a manager here, you don’t make a judgment about an agent,” says Chee. “It’s the customer that does.

“We’ve always thought the customer is the most important person.”

Today, Chee remains with Locations as an executive adviser and chairman of its holding company’s board, succeeded by Higashi.

Higashi, Chee explains, joined Locations at a time when the company sought young talent. Though he had been working for another real estate company at the time, his background hardly hinted at a blueprint for a career in real estate.

An Asian studies major, Higashi had previously worked in operations and sales for the likes of Hawaiian Airlines and American Hawai‘i Cruises — though none of that stopped Chee from spotting his potential.

“Scott has a talent for relating to sales people,” says Chee.

But, says Higashi — who will make 15 years with Locations in May — it’s exactly the atypical path he took in finding his way to Locations that represents all the company has to offer.

“It’s a demonstration of the company’s belief that we appreciate diverse talent and seek that out,” Higashi explains. “In a company that has this long a legacy, for it to continue required Bill to say, ‘OK, we’re ready to have you step forward’ — it’s a testament to how Bill thinks about the company and our clients.

“In terms of mentoring, and in terms of the guidance and growth, there’s no doubt he’s had a direct impact on me,” he adds. “And so did dozens of our longtime partners and agents. I would not be in this position if we didn’t have a culture of inclusion and appreciation for new ideas and points of view. Remember, I came from outside the industry. The gratitude I have for a lot of people here is immense.”

As Higashi looks to Locations’ future, don’t expect too much to change. Real estate sales, he believes, are contingent on the relationship agents have with their clients and will remain so — a nuanced balance the company has down pat.

But that doesn’t mean the company won’t continue to grow. Last year, for example, Locations acquired Clark Realty on the Big Island, and while Higashi can’t say for certain that becoming a statewide organization is part of the long-term plan, it isn’t entirely out of the question either.

The biz also continues to diversify its services, with a mortgage and title company, as well as property management division now included in its menu of offerings. The goal, he says, is not only to complete a sale but also encompass vertical services, as Higashi refers to it, all the while maintaining top-notch customer relationship management.

So no matter what the future holds, Higashi is certain Locations is more than up to the task.

“We’re not afraid of changing markets because we’ve seen those come and go,” he says. “Markets go up and down, but real estate needs don’t change with markets.

We’re there to help as lives change and needs change.”

And it seems that the very thing Higashi has grown to love about the company is what continues to draw all those who choose Locations, too.

“The part that I love most is the direct connection and relationships with all our sales professionals,” he says. “They are interesting, diverse, they each have a fascinating story to tell, and I can see why our clients really bond with them.”

About That Market

“How’s the market?” is no easy question to answer.

In its earliest days, the company quickly discovered that a “market” could be narrowed down to a specific street in a particular neighborhood.

“We’ve gotten it down to where one side of the street is different from another side of the street in marketplaces, and that’s true of all neighborhoods on O‘ahu,” says Locations president and CEO Scott Higashi.

Fortunately, the company shares its breadth of knowledge at first-time homebuyers seminars it offers at least once a month in communities throughout the island, and via its website and mobile app.

For more information, visit locationshawaii.com.

Learn More About Locations Foundation

Established in 1988, Locations Foundation serves as the charitable arm of Locations and celebrated its 30th anniversary last year.

According to Locations president and CEO Scott Higashi, more than 200 employees commit 1 percent of their income to the cause and volunteer their time to at least two community events each month. In fact, it’s estimated that Locations donates more than 1,400 in volunteer hours annually, and has given more than $2 million to local organizations since 2000.

“You don’t last as any kind of company in Hawai‘i for 50 years without having a really keen sense of community awareness and participation,” says Higashi. “When you volunteer with each other, what you do in the company is not relevant; it’s really what you’re doing in the community together that becomes relevant.

“I think the strength of the Foundation is more of how it brings people in the company together,” he adds. “It really brings our values to life, and gives all of us gratification when we’re doing our part to make our community better.”