Carol Ai May

Photo courtesy Carol Ai May

Photo courtesy Carol Ai May

At a young age, Carol Ai May learned from her father that nothing in life is free.

As the daughter of David C. Ai, president of City Mill, her earliest memories are of understanding that in order to have products to sell, customers must pay — herself included.

“We would walk around the store and he made sure we paid for everything we wanted,” she says.

It’s that mentality and humble understanding of what it means to operate a business that has been the backbone of the now-115-year-old company — one that May credits to her grandfather Chung Kun Ai, founder of City Mill.

“He was a man of great moral character, so he was given a chance to rebuild his business after the Great Depression because he was a man of his word,” she says. “Those lessons of never giving up and to keep trying, changing with the times and giving back to the community, are the lessons that he and my father taught us.”

Today, Ai serves as vice president of City Mill, working alongside her brother, CEO and president Steven C. Ai.

While her brother’s path with the family business always was clear, Ai admits her desire to work for the company wasn’t immediate. Prior to joining City Mill in 1989, she worked in marketing and advertising here, as well as in Boston and New York. At one point, she also owned Hawaii’s Own, a juice manufacturing company.

She sold Hawaii’s Own with the intention of spending some time as a stay-at-home mom. But then her father considered selling the business, and May found herself looking for real estate to open branches of the company in Hawaii Kai and Mililani.

“It wasn’t until after I had my own business did I realize and fully appreciate City Mill and its long legacy in Hawaii,” she says.

Despite the company’s age, it shows no signs of slowing down. In addition to eight City Mill locations, its sister company Simply Organized also is thriving, now with two stores. Future expansion is, it seems, inevitable.

“We’re looking for growth opportunities, whether it is to establish branches in locations where we’re not, or other opportunities that are complementary to our business,” says May.

In keeping with her grandfather’s philosophies, in October City Mill also drastically upgraded its computer system.

“Technology will be key to retailing in the future,” she predicts. “It already is. We want to use technology to help us service our customers more effectively and efficiently.”

Still, what remains most important at City Mill are the values that have been so deeply ingrained in the business since its inception. May is quick to point to three things: customer service, convenience and competitive pricing. But really, what it comes down to are the employees.

“This is what we strive for and that is why we work hard to hire only nice, friendly, helpful team members,” she says.

As a leader in the industry, City Mill continues to embed itself within the community by teaming up with more than 300 nonprofit organizations throughout each year.

“It’s an honor to be part of the fabric of Hawaii and the community over the past 115 years,” May says. “We are happy to give back to the community that has supported us for so long.”