Ideas and Inspiration

At table (seated) co-owners Paul Mizoguchi and Lynn Ushijima; Karen Ontai, office manager; (standing, from left) Kami Murashige, accounting; Kelly Ann Nakamoto, advertising manager; Jay Jacinth, advertising coordinator; Lu Gabriel, store associate. Nathalie Walker photo.

A family store that began on Maui and grew into Ben Franklin Crafts and Ace Hardware celebrates its 60th anniversary, including at three Kaua’i stores

Gail and her 9-yearold daughter wait anxiously in front of Ben Franklin Crafts in Mapunapuna. They are the first customers through the door when the store opens. As they enter, the youngster gasps in amazement at the cheerful holiday décor.

“Wow!” she says, pointing to the twinkling tree lights, decorative wreaths, and aisles of red-and-green décor. “Is Santa Claus here?”

Indeed, the festive scene looks like Santa’s workshop.

Meanwhile Nancy and her husband are on a quest.

“Where’s the nylon netting?” Nancy asks a sales associate.

Nancy needs materials to create dishwashing scrubbies, a popular gift item requested by family and friends. Getting one of Nancy’s handmade scrubbies is an expression of love.

Moving through the aisles of Ben Franklin Craft’s “ideas and inspiration,” we encounter Alicia, who wants to know how many rolls of decorative ribbon she needs to make a glittery Christmas wreath she sees on display.

Second generation Tadami Kamitaki (left) shows merchandise

And so it goes on a typical day at Ben Franklin Crafts. It’s a journey of discovery, like stepping into Willy Wonka’s “wondrous world of pure imagination” made of chocolate.

But unlike fictional character Wonka who professes “what you see will defy explanation,” we do have an explanation of how one of Hawaii’s established retail wonderlands came about.

In fact, the local family enterprise is celebrating its 60th anniversary as Hawaii’s neighborhood home improvement and craft leader.

Maui Varieties Limited is parent company to the popular Ace Hardware and Ben Franklin Craft stores.

The family-owned and operated business is run by siblings Wayne Kamitaki, Guy Kamitaki, Lynn Ushijima and cousin Paul Mizoguchi.

“We are now going through the third generation of our family in our business,” says MVL chief executive officer and co-owner Wayne Kamitaki. “We are transitioning intergenerationally, and to have reached the third generation of our family business is special.”

Special indeed.

Intergenerational succession is one of the biggest challenges of corporate America. Any company experiencing six decades of profitability and sustainability deserves applause. In the case of Ben Franklin Crafts, voted the Best Craft Supply Store in a Honolulu StarAdvertiser poll, it is a saga of how a retail enterprise evolved with changing times to reinvent itself as a niche specialty shop.

The original Ben Franklin Store in Kahului, Maui Photos courtesy of Ben Franklin / Ace

Some call it strategic. Others might label it survival.

The MVL family had its humble beginnings in Kahului, Maui, at a small dry goods store started by grandmother Shikano Kamitaki. The modest K. Kamitaki Store sold customized aloha shirts and other merchandise.

The store, later known as Kahului Dry Goods, was run by Tadami Kamitaki and sister Matsuko Mizoguchi. The pair’s dreams and hard work eventually led in 1951 to acquiring the franchise rights for Ben Franklin stores on Maui, Hawaii, Oahu and Kauai. The company’s first Ace Hardware store opened in 1984 in Hilo.

In 1975, cousins Wayne, Guy, Paul and Lynn teamed up to run the business, and since then have molded it into a multimillion-dollar corporation, employing more than 400 workers.

“Looking back at our grandmother’s legacy of the business, to the second generation, now to us in the third generation, we’ve had a strong determination to make it successful and keep it going,” says Mizoguchi. “I’ve always like the saying ‘the only thing constant is change.’ If we can maintain that, not accepting how things were, build upon the past instead of living in it, continue to communicate with each other, being honest and up front with each other, then we will be able to sustain our success.”

Joy Shimabukuro, host of TV show ‘Joy of Crafting

Today MVL has 20 stores in Hawaii: nine on the Big Island, four on Oahu , four on Maui and three on Kaua’i: Ben Franklin Crafts in Ele’ele, Ace Hardware in Ele’ele (both at 4469 Waialo Road), and Kapa’a Ace Hardware (1105 Kuhio Hwy.). There are 11 stores in Nevada, Washington and Oregon.

Are there fourth-generation apprentices waiting the wings?

Kamitaki-Mizoguchi descendants, 10 children ranging in ages from 18 to 29, have spent summers being oriented in the family business. Each is currently pursuing individual career interests but amassing knowledge and experience that can be called upon, if needed.

The mechanics of the retail business can be taught, but more tricky to pass on is the essence of the customer experience. From the start, this has been something homespun and genuine that no franchise manual provides.

Fortunately the Ben Franklin and Ace branding philosophies fit the Kamitaki-Mizoguchi approach to doing business. It’s the inviting intimacy of a country store, the helpfulness of a neighbor, and a sense of community built on honesty and ingenuity.

Ben Franklin calls it “a walk down Main Street USA.”

Ah yes, those traditional, conservative values. There’s always a place for that as we fast track from a simple society to a global village.

Grandmother Shikano Kamitaki at the first store

In fact, the name Ben Franklin was inspired by America’s founding father, Benjamin Franklin, who uttered those famous words, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” The retail chain’s original founders admired the statesman-inventor’s sense of thriftiness.

“As our communities grew, we wanted to contribute and grow with them,” says Guy Kamitaki. As time moved on the big box competition started arriving, our merchandising changed to the craft format that exists today. We are able to support our community for its everyday and seasonal needs from Halloween costumes to Christmas parties.”

On the Neighbor Islands, that has come in the form of hybrid stores that carry both hardware and crafting merchandise.

“Ace is a convenience hardware store,” Guy Kamitaki explains. “Folks run in for specific home improvement or repair items and don’t want to take a long time finding what they want. You can get nails by the pound, if you want.”

Sister Lynn Ushijima says hybrid stores feature crossover items in fine arts, home décor and remodeling/repair needs. It underscores the changing demographics of shoppers.

“Where hardware was once a maledominated market, we are seeing more women and do-it-yourselfers at the stores,” she says. “Where crafting was once for the ladies, we find men who express their creative side in handcrafts and fine arts.”

While sustaining sales on a yearround basis is essential for the bottom line, there clearly is a seasonality to their business.

Mainstream retailers relish Christmas as the key selling period. It is for Ben Franklin Crafts and Ace as well, but by mid-December, when most stores are gearing up for their biggest sales, craft supply stores are winding down for the year. Folks are buying holiday essentials earlier in the year.

The other big selling season is graduation. Mizoguchi points out that this is unique to Hawaii. The handcrafted feather and other lei, plus party paraphernalia, are in peak demand during spring and summer. In appropriate school colors, of course.

“Ideas and inspiration,” as Ben Franklin Crafts refers to merchandise branding, come from many sources, including the weekly OC-16 cable program known as The Joy of Crafting. Affable host Joy Shimabukuro invites guest crafters to demonstrate clever hobby and gift projects. The TV series airs its 200th show in the new year.

Joy Shimabukuro, also creative director at MVL, discusses upcoming craft events with Paul Mizoguchi. Photos courtesy of Ben Franklin / Ace

It seems continued growth for the home improvement and craft supply sectors is inevitable. Despite competing for a share of folks’ leisure time, handcrafting remains a treasured skill and commodity. In today’s mass-produced market of products, there is still a luxury cache for things that are manually made and one-of-a-kind.

Whether it’s nylon net scrubbies, eyelash-yarn leis or a home improvement project with a signature look, there is something heartwarming and personal about the business.

No doubt Grandma Shikano Kamitaki would be amazed and delighted at what 60 years have achieved.