Hawaii Business Nov, 2005
David K. Choo
There aren’t too many companies that get their names from a building or a job site. But in Gary Shinn’s case, Hokuahi, “flaming star” in Hawaiian and the name of an apartment complex in Mililani, seemed wholly appropriate. You see, Shinn and his co-workers had just landed a maintenance contract with the celestial apartment house and, by coincidence, they were all moonlighting fire fighters.
“The name just stuck,” says Shinn. “Firemen, fiery star–it seemed like fate.”
Although he had grown up in the business, working in his mother’s orchid shop since boyhood, Shinn had taken a roundabout journey to the landscaping business. He joined the Honolulu Fire Department (HFD) in 1974, and one of his on-duty chores was to maintain the grounds of his Pearl City firehouse. It was work he enjoyed and at which he was good.
Working 10 days a month on 24-hour shifts meant that Shinn and his colleagues had a lot of extra time on their hands. He convinced four of his buddies to join him in starting up a landscaping company on the side. Things went so well that, several years later, Shinn quit the fire department to devote all of his time to his growing company. In addition, in the mid ’80s, with business booming, he opened a garden and supply store in Aiea. The shop provided plants, supplies and advice to do-it-yourselfers in the area, as well furnishing his landscaping business with raw materials.
But the retired fire fighter would still have to put out a few fires. In 1993, big-box retailer Eagle Hardware moved in down the street and Shinn’s garden shop’s business dried up in a matter of weeks. He quickly changed course, dissolving his interest in the store and concentrating his resources on his landscaping business. But times were tough, and the business had to weather a few more lean years before Hokuahi found its footing by diversifying its operations between residential, commercial and government work.
Today, Hokuahi has never been busier or on more solid ground. Shinn was able to do something he hasn’t done in years–take a vacation.
“The impact that Eagle had on my shop was shocking. But that’s what happens in business,” says Shinn. “You have to go with the flow of the times and adjust to the moment. I didn’t study business in school, but I’ve learned that, if you don’t react to the trends, they will bury you.”