Rebuilding Aloha United Way

Ai’s familiarity and knowledge of AUW’s reach comes from years of company and personal involvement. City Mill has been a pacesetter company for 20 years, donating nearly half-a-million dollars to kick-start the community-wide campaign.

But Ai’s philanthropic and community outreach isn’t limited to AUW.

Ai sits on 17 nonprofit boards, including YMCA, Air Force Civilian Advisory Council and American Cancer Society.


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

You’d think that running City Mill, with its eight stores — Honolulu, Hawaii Kai, Kaneohe, Mililani, Pearl City, Waianae, Waipahu and Kaimuki — plus Simply Organized home-storage store and their nearly 500 employees would be enough to keep Ai occupied ’round the clock.

Well, he does that, gets to all his board meetings and events, plus irons his own shirts. Yes, that’s right. The bachelor CEO presses his own shirts as a form of relaxation and stress relief.

The Iolani-Whittier College-University of Denver grad says there is no family entitlement to management positions at City Mill. Just as he and his sister were challenged by their parents not to “take the company down the tubes,” Carol’s fourth-generation children must earn their way into City Mill.

“My sister has two sons, 27 and 30 years old,” Ai says. “We set the succession standards at an early age. There is no entitlement here just because you’re a family member.

“They have to work twice as hard to prove they belong here,” he says. “They need bachelor and master’s degrees. They must work outside the business for at least five years, get three promotions and have the right attitude.

“Then and only then will we consider them,” Uncle Steven admonishes.

“Shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations,” states the proverb that claims wealth does not pass three generations.

“The Chinese equivalent is rice paddy to rice paddy in three generations,” Ai recites.

Historically, only 5 percent of family-owned businesses make it to the third generation. City Mill’s family-run enterprise is a case study in sustainability.

The company has survived setbacks including several fires, financial panic, a failed sideline pineapple business, two world wars, the Great Depression and stiff competition from big-box discounters in the marketplace.

Today, City Mill’s sibling executives and their associates are hailed with awards and citations, including Best Place to Work, Hawaii’s No. 1 Favorite Hardware Store, Kama’aina of the Year and Sales Persons of the Year.

Because of its long history in the community, it is distinguished by its neighborly ambiance.

What gives City Mill its kama’aina cache?

“Well, first of all, we can say it and know what it means,” Ai quips. “Kamaaina service is being able to talk story with customers and understand their unique needs. For instance, we have sickles, Japanese saws, jalousies and know about single-wall construction. We know that if you put a screw in the wall, after one inch you’re outside.”

Is there no end to Ai’s good-natured brilliance?

Reflecting on City Mill’s 115th anniversary and Aloha

United Way’s 90th year, Ai lauds longevity but claims it doesn’t guarantee success.

“We have to constantly look ahead and respond to change,” he says. “We are but stewards of our organizations. The key is to leave it better than we got it.”

Lest he forget that obligation, Ai has this bit of wisdom posted on his office wall:

“Never quit. Never do the expected. Never rest on your laurels. Never think great is good enough. Never follow.”