Hawaii dealer Mike Fujimoto wouldn’t trade living in paradise for a yard on the mainland, but island living does pose challenges for a lumberman—the largest one being geography.
Fujimoto, the fourth-generation head of HPM Building Supply, has to keep finding new ways to boost revenue (it totaled about $100 million last year, good for 64th place on the 2016 ProSales 100) without the option of opening branches in other states, an opportunity mainland dealers take for granted. Most of HPM’s eight locations are situated on the Big Island—also called Hawaii—but the company does operate two stores on Kauai and one on Oahu.
HPM also faces challenges that come from a spread-out population. Opening locations on other islands can prove difficult, Fujimoto says, since consumer preferences and climactic conditions can vary, sometimes greatly, from the Big Island; and finding local employees is sometimes challenging, a situation not helped by workers’ lack of enthusiasm for inter-island commutes.
Success Through Diversity
He meets the challenge of continuing to grow revenue “by increasing our assortment of products, and getting into other market segments.” This has included manufacturing components, like trusses and wall panels; offering 16 different house plans with the building materials conveniently packaged for customers looking to build a new home; putting in hardlines; getting into commercial work; and most recently, adding a complete line of concrete accessories as well as composite roofing and accessories.
Fujimoto keeps a close eye on his clients’ shifting needs, and is careful to cater to his pro base while still maintaining products and services that appeal to his retail customers, who make up about a third of all sales.
The state’s tropical climate zone, while delightful to experience, also comes at the price of termites with voracious appetites, and the real threat of tsunamis. (In 1946 the company experienced major losses from a tsunami, and in 1960 a tsunami wiped out its Hilo facility.)
To counter these conditions, all lumber needs to be treated with a preservative to render it impervious to the predations of termites, as well as meet the beefed-up local building codes, which call for hardier structural requirements for wind and seismic activities, says Fujimoto. In 1978, HPM opened a facility to pressure-treat all its own lumber and wood products.
Importing from Afar
All construction-grade lumber that HPM sells is still imported from the Pacific Northwest, since Hawaii does not produce its own timber. Though there are dense hardwood indigenous to the islands, like o’hia and koa, they aren’t really suitable for structural members, because the wood is too hard and too heavy, or not straight enough, and is not available in quantities sufficient to support a lumber industry, Fujimoto says.
HPM Building Supply originally was known as Hawaii Planing Mill when it was founded by Fujimoto’s great-grandfather Kametaro, a skilled carpenter who emigrated to the islands in the 1880s to escape his native land’s political upheaval and devastating famines. (See company history.) When Kametaro first came to Hawaii, it was still a sovereign kingdom. Fujimoto says his great-grandfather worked on the sugar plantations until he was able to open his own mill. At that time, lumber was distributed to the various communities from the mainland, and each community had its own mill. As Hawaii grew and prospered, so did HPM.
Fujimoto didn’t plan on making lumber his career, nor was he subject to familial expectations to do so. He went to college and graduate school on the mainland, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Back then I really wanted to see what the rest of the U.S. looked like,” he says. His goal was a job in investment banking, but his father “presented me an opportunity that was compelling,” that drew him back home.
“Coming back here gave me a chance to make a difference to a company that had existed for four generations,” he says, through a time that took his island home from kingdom to territory to U.S. statehood.
While Fujimoto is not yet ready to retire, there is a succession plan in place. Jason, the fifth generation of the Fujimoto family, is vice president and handles much of HPM’s day-to-day operations. “In about two or three years, I think he will be taking over the CEO position,” Fujimoto says. “The plan would be for me to stay on as non-executive chairman of the board.”
Jason, like his own father, was not always interested in joining the family business. Since high school he had been intent on becoming an investment banker, and in fact did so, spending three years working in mergers and acquisitions for JPMorgan Chase, Fujimoto says. But as they did for Jason’s father, the islands drew him home.