One Tough Cookieby Allison Schaefers
Big Island Candies’ Allan Ikawa dips into rich profits.
IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE THAT ALLAN IKAWA, THE GUY WHO PUT BIG ISLAND CANDIES AND ITS SIGNATURE CHOCOLATE-DIPPED MACADAMIA SHORTBREAD COOK-ies on the map, has ever tasted anything but sweet success. During the last three decades, the 64-year-old Ikawa has grown his company from the one-person shop that he founded in 1977 into one of the state’s most iconic global on-site, mail-order and Internet retail businesses. Big Island Candies now employs more than 100 people and has expanded its core Hilo market into a 57,000-square-foot-facility and testing lab. The company also is working on moving its Ala Moana Center store, which opened in 2011, into a larger space. Its mail-order business is one of the largest in the state and its online business, now spans from Bahrain to Italy, Japan, the U.S. West Coast and many points in between.
“We’re still climbing,” Ikawa says of his company, which has been steadily growing since 1986. “I don’t think that we’ve hit our peak yet.” However, Ikawa, whose rise to the top was hardly sugar-coated, is reasonably certain that the lowest point in his career has already come and gone. During the early years of his business, Ikawa said he learned why 80-percent of new businesses fail in the first decade. “If it wasn’t for the Small Business Administration loan program, there would be no Big Island Candies,” Ikawa says. “As a former banker, I thought I could get the money to start the business, but everybody turned me down, including the credit union.”
With such a limited budget, Ikawa found himself literally slinging a hammer to build his company from the ground up. Cash flow also was a problem in the early days and retaining workers was difficult. Eventually, he was working 90-hour weeks and most of his employees were drawing bigger paychecks.
“It was rough man, those first 10 years,” Ikawa says. “We went through three periods of really difficult times when I almost had to close. One month I sold $7 worth of products. It was so ridiculous.”
He remembers the last crisis, when he only had a week’s worth of cash and most of the company’s investors had bailed, as a turning point in his life and the life of his company.
“When I was going to go belly up that last time, I was seriously thinking about jumping off a bridge,” Ikawa says. “It was so dark.”
Ikawa saved his company by picking up an account with a Japanese trading company that allowed Big Island Candies to move into a bigger facility and get into retailing. Shortly after, Ikawa hit the stride that allowed him to stabilize his company and spur it onto profitability.
“Big Island Candies represents his dream, his highs and his lows, but most of all, it is his legacy of quality products, great packaging, outstanding customer service and giving back generously to the community,” says long-time friend and golf partner Warren Haruki, also a formidable business giant in Hawai’i.
Haruki’s opinon is supported by many others, who have chosen to recognize Ikawa for his contributions to business and his community. Earlier this year, the U.S. Small Business Administration honored the specialty food manufacturer and retailer with an Entrepreneurial Success Award, which recognizes business that start small by SBA standards and develop into big businesses. Hawaii Business Magazine also named Ikawa and his company the year’s best entrepreneurial success.
“What impresses me the most about him is his generosity and his ability to be really humble,” says his Director of Retail Operations Lance Duyao, who has worked for him for the past 12 years. “On one of my first days of working at Big Island Candies, Allan threw me the keys to his Benz and asked me to take him to the airport. On the drive, he could tell that I was nervous. He cracked a joke and from that definitive moment I knew going forward that I could talk to him about anything.”
If there’s one thing Ikawa has learned during his 35 years in business, it’s that people matter most. His biggest reward is knowing that together with his family, wife Irma and daughter Sherrie Ann, and his employees he has built a company that has the potential to stay in existence long after he’s gone.
“I remember I once said that when a guy turns 50 he should get out of the way. I don’t think that anymore, but I took it to heart that at a certain point the young guys should run the business,” he says. “I didn’t want to go to O’ahu, but my daughter (the company’s COO) and her group wanted to open at Ala Moana and man was it unbelievable. I remember sitting on the bench with Duane Kurisu and hearing people say how glad that they were that we finally came to O’ahu. Big Island Candies belongs to Hawai’i, not just Hilo.”
While only time can tell what the future holds for Big Island Candies, the company’s primary visionary is reasonably certain that they’ll be more expansion and at least another new building in the works.
“Staff rolls their eyes when I tell them it could happen in five years,” Ikawa says. “They think I’m crazy.”