By Patti Fukada, Membership Development Committee Member
On Thursday, April 11, 2019, over thirty Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce (HJCC) members attended the “Executive Forum Series – Leaders Growing Leaders –“ event featuring Russell Hata, Chairman & CEO of Y. Hata & Co. Limited. Upon our arrival at ChefZone we were greeted by Russell Hata and his staff including Chefs Ernesto, Matt and Will. Everyone had a chance introduce themselves to Russell and took a seat at beautiful tables set with linens and flower arrangements and enjoyed a delicious lunch.
The family business started back in 1913 when Russell’s great-grandfather Yoichi Hata, an immigrant from Hiroshima and his wife Nacko opened a small wholesale products operation and sold candies in front of their residence in Hilo where they lived with their ten children. Frank (Russell’s father) worked in the family business and his brother Minoru moved to Honolulu in 1938 to expand Y. Hata. Frank led the company’s expansion by diversifying the business. However in 1971 the company nearly went bankrupt due to the shipping strike and in 1994 they had to move from their Kaka‘ako distribution center, which is now the site of the UH medical school. By the mid-1990s, the company had divested from their non-food service businesses to focus on supplying restaurants and institutions. In 1995 they won a bid on a Sand Island warehouse that was in bankruptcy. A year after moving to their current location in 1996 they installed freezers and in 1997 they were awarded a military contract, and for the first time in more than 10 years the company projected a profit.
Russell started working in the family business at a young age. He would work after school in the stock room and did janitorial chores. After graduating from Kalani High School in 1973, he attended the University of Hawai‘i and earned his business/finance degree and
completed the Executive MBA program. The knowledge he gained in college and his work experience in Hawai‘i and the Mainland prepared Russell for a call from his father in 2008 to return to Y. Hata. At this time the company was struggling from a stagnant economy, challenging competition, and the need for better technology. Russell, the third-generation Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, is credited for orchestrating the turnaround and saving the company from what seemed like certain bankruptcy.
When Russell took the helm, the company operated seven warehouses on O‘ahu, Maui and the Big Island. Today, there is one warehouse on each island. The thriving enterprise operates in a 107,000-square-foot office and warehouse which runs 24 hours a day and boasts state-of-the-art systems. As a broad line distributor they supply everything a restaurant might buy: cleaning supplies, dishes, tabletop items, to food—they have it all. ChefZone carries over 9,000 items from 400 manufacturers. The revitalization of the company resulted in the development of a number of firsts in Hawai‘i’s food distribution industry. Among them are technology-based management systems, activity-based costing, as well as unique organizational and sales support programs. They are probably the most technologically advanced distributor in the state.
Russell had asked during lunch each table decide together on a question that we wanted to ask him. There were many interesting questions and Russell did take time to answer all of them. He also shared with us a question he had been asked before – “Why did you work so hard to save the company?” – he smiled and said “because my name is on the sign.”
The Executive Forum Series is a rare opportunity for members to network with some of Hawai‘i’s most successful business executives through a series of small group, “talk story” sessions, featuring HJCC member and non-member executives and business leaders. They share their management philosophies, keys to success, visions for the future, and personal stories with chamber members. Through the Executive Forum Series, the HJCC members have the opportunity to meet with some of Hawai‘i’s most accomplished CEOs.
We would like to extend a big Mahalo to Russell Hata, the staff at Y. Hata & Co., Limited and also Chefs Ernesto, Matt, and Will for preparing the attendees a wonderful meal!! Thank you to Patti Fukada of the Membership Development Committee as well for coordinating the entire event.