In July, City Mill Ltd. will celebrate 120 years of business in Honolulu. Their success is grounded in four generations of family wisdom. Our grandparents and parents loved shopping there, and today, we receive that same kindly respect and assistance every time we visit the store.
Vice President Carol Ai May and President Steven Ai are the third generation of their family running City Mill. This brother and sister are also part of a group of family caregivers who assist their mother and stepmother, now in their nineties. Their family culture of helping others began in the 1890s.
“Our father, David C. Ai, took over City Mill from his father, Chung Kun Ai, in 1961,” says Steven. “C.K. Ai was mentored in business by James I. Dowsett at the end of the 19th century, and became a respected businessman and leader of the Chinese community in the Territory of Hawai‘i. His ‘mill’ was once the biggest rice mill in the islands, hence ‘City Mill.’ The other side of his business was importing lumber from the Northwest. In the 1950s, many single-wall wood homes were built with our lumber, and we still try to sell hardware and fixtures for maintaining these homes. Later, Dad moved from commercial lumber into retail hardware.”
City Mill Company Culture Values Community
Carol explains how their compassionate way of working with the O‘ahu community developed.
“We were in elementary school when Gung Gung (grandfather) passed away, but our grandparents lived in our home and we watched our parents care for them,” Carol says. “Our dad is gone now, too, but he passed down Gung Gung’s wise teaching: ‘When you drink water, remember the source.’ It means that everything we have is due to the community support of our business, so be humble and honor those who helped make you successful along the way. This adage is still our family and company value. We donate to community charities and treat our employees like family; when disasters strike and power goes down, we stay open so people can get the supplies they need to protect their homes.”
“Respect and compassion for others is the heart of our City Mill customer service,” says Carol. “Up until 1998, we used to hire people with plumbing, electrical or carpentry background. But now we hire people with good attitudes who like helping others. We figured that we can train associates about our products, but attitude and empathy come from within. We are looking for people who can help others and manage with compassion.”
Seniors Make Great Employees
Almost 300 employees are the face of City Mill to its many thousands of customers. The Ai family demonstrates how they value seniors by providing excellent customer service, but they also place a high value on senior employees.
“Seniors make great employees because they are helpful and knowledgeable,” says Carol. “We observe that they are less likely to regard their job as a steppingstone and they eagerly bond with the ‘team’ at any one of City Mill’s six stores.”
Ruby Cooper, Inventory Control Supervisor, Age 70
Ruby applied at the Mililani store 19 years ago, when she was 51 years old. Her husband was career military and they saw a lot of the world, but when they settled in Honolulu, Ruby was looking for a career where she could interact with people.
“I’m not good with names, but I know all our repeat customers’ faces,” says Ruby. “What our company does best is making eye contact and acknowledging the presence of every customer, every day. That’s our expertise. All who come in the door get the same help, young or old. Hey, people know what they want. All we have to do is listen and get them what they need. It’s a big store, but our garden guys are happy to escort a customer all the way to electrical — with a smile.”
Ruby oversees receiving, stocking and taking inventory of all the items in the Mililani store. She is a certified forklift operator and gets to work at 5 a.m., to manage inventory. When the doors open, she becomes a floor manager, handling customers calls and backing up the cashiers. Ruby says her job keeps both her mind and body active, and customers never guess that she is 70 years old. On Ruby’s bucket list is a little more traveling, walking the beach with her Cavalier Spaniel and spending more time with her family.
“At my age, I have to accept that I can’t load a 94-pound bag of cement anymore,” says Carol. “So I say to seniors — realize your limitations, be smart and find new ways to work around activities that have become risky. Don’t stop doing what makes you happy — just do it differently. I love my job, so I plan to work here as long as I can contribute to the team — that’s a great comfort.”
Steven Ai says senior employees like Ruby add value to City Mill because they stick around and get very good at their jobs. They are eager to fit in and make friends with the other employees. In time, they develop good working relationships with customers. City Mill’s oldest employees are in their 80s, and common reasons seniors leave are: 1) they have to give up their driver’s license; or 2) their family wants them to stay home.
Christopher Griffin, Sales Associate, Age 67
Christopher Griffin is a human resources manager from Massachusetts. When he retired and moved to Hawai‘i, he opted for a more physically active job. He says his sales associate job is like a daily yoga class or a workout at the gym because the large City Mill floor plan requires him to cover a lot of ground.
“My job is healthy in so many ways,” says Christopher. “When I shopped at City Mill, I was so impressed. As a human resources guy, I knew this was a great company by the generous way the employees treated me and each other. The hiring process required me to interview with a whole panel of employees. What a novel idea — workers instinctively know who is going to fit in and work hard. I am so grateful that they picked me.”
Here’s what the employees saw in Griffin: he is politely upbeat and engaging. He calls himself a “MacGyver” because he likes to help people find solutions for their maintenance and home improvement problems. And that’s what clients want.
“Everybody who comes in here is looking for answers,” says Christopher. “Even when we don’t share the same native tongue, we can find the perfect material, hardware or fitting they need.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie among the employees, too — most have worked here many years, and when I started, they taught me about all these products,” says Christopher, “The more I learned, the better I could help customers. City Mill’s commitment to the O‘ahu community means our team is helping folks all over this island. I am so grateful for the team I work with: Donna, Tina, Irene, Ricky, Devon, Russell … I could name them all!
From Shirtsleeves to Shirtsleeves in Three Generations”
David Ai was the second generation. He encouraged Steven and Carol to pursue their passions and provided them with excellent educations. Both have business experiences outside City Mill. Steven studied business, and then worked in financial accounting and management consulting. After Carol earned her degree at Tufts University, she worked in commercial bank marketing and advertising before starting a juice company. Later, they became the third generation of City Mill.
Carol says, “My dad warned us about the old adage, ‘Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.’ It refers to the typical life cycle of a family-owned business: the first two generations grow the company and it fails in the third generation. Steven and I were determined not to fail, but when mainland big box home stores came to Hawai‘i in the ’90s, we faced a considerable challenge. Lowe’s and Home Depot moved in and built their stores near ours, but folks still come to us for personalized service; we see a strong future.”
Carol raised her two sons with this challenge: “If you decide that you want to work at City Mill, you must first earn bachelor degrees and MBAs, work outside the company for five or more years and get promoted along the way.” Both sons met this high standard and now one is working at City Mill. Before joining the team, he earned his MBA, did retail consulting, was a financial planner at Nike and Gap Inc., and then started two of his own businesses.
“As the fourth generation, my son brings technology, supply chain and digital/social media knowledge — current ways of doing business,” says Carol. “We don’t have to teach him our City Mill company culture because he grew up with it. He designed an online store so our customers can shop at home and pick up their orders in the store. Everything we do continues to focus on the very best service we can deliver to our customers.”
Helping Seniors Add Value to Their Lives
Behind every City Mill customer is a home or office repair, or a maintenance or improvement project. Seniors are replacing old stuff, downsizing, renovating or simplifying their active lifestyles. They are continually adding value to their homes, retirement businesses or pastimes. City Mill provides them materials and personalized, helpful tips.
Earl Omoto, Commercial Diver & Homeowner, Age 72
Many City Mill senior customers are entrepreneurs. Earl Omoto is a semi-retired commercial diver who specializes in installing and repairing moorings — some up to 3,000 pounds. He also owns a rental property, which he recently renovated himself. His project included “snow coating” the shingle roof, replacing the flooring, retiling and re plumbing bathrooms, interior and exterior painting, and building custom counters and tables.
“I always shop City Mill first for supplies,” says Earl. “I like to be treated like a customer, not a browser. They have enough staff so you never have to hunt for a salesperson. The guys in red shirts know where everything is! I always compliment the team because I want them to keep doing exactly what they are doing.”
“Another thing I like is that nobody is ‘king’ at City Mill,” says Earl. “All the sales people work together — if one can’t help, he calls the next one to get you what you want. Wendell in plumbing, Gary and John in lumber, Glenn and Ron — are plenty helpful with a smile. When I needed help on my remodel, they gave me good suggestions.”
Earl’s rental house is all ready to go. He says he took his time and did a good job. He considers himself lucky because he has no health challenges, and to stay that way, he works out at the gym three or four days a week. He also likes to play his guitar. On his bucket list is a second trip to Hong Kong and Macau for sightseeing, shopping and fun.
Owen Oda, Handyman & Small Renovations, Age 65
“I go to City Mill a lot because it’s a store that makes sense,” says Owen. “They sell hardware in bins that are clearly labeled with a picture and specs for each bolt, nut, screw or washer. It’s easy to find what you need and you can buy the exact number you want. I appreciate efficiency.
“For my small jobs, I need pieces of plywood and two by fours cut to exact lengths and dimensions. City Mill employees in the lumber dept will do the precise cuts for me — no waiting around. They can cut jalousie glass to size and thread pipes — and it’s not expensive. Best of all, their employees know what they’re doing, and they are eager to help.”
A handyman for 15 years, Owen says he may be just a little weaker than in his youth, but he stays very healthy by drinking lots of water every day. His bucket list includes seeing his kids settled and then helping with the grandchildren.
“Another thing; when I walk into the store, they always ask me if I need a wagon and if I will need help getting items off the upper shelves,” says Owen. “That’s a good service for seniors like me, but I watch them do the same thing for every customer! Do you know that all the cashiers know me by name? There are very few stores like City Mill — it’s a good place.”
Seniors Value Kindness
Seniors respond positively to authentic respect and kind concern. We repay kindly businesses with loyalty and referrals. We remember the days when most companies focused on serving the customer — when personal attention and pampering was not restricted to high-end boutiques or hotel spas. Every shopkeeper appreciated our purchases; we were served with respect at the feed store, bakery, barber shop and corner seed shop.
Hoo-ray for City Mill! The Ai family business model values people, including seniors. Their genius is not only preserving a deeply held family ideal, but also practicing it in their lumber and hardware business, and teaching generations of employees and customers to value each other and to respect the sources of their success.
In July, the City Mill team will celebrate 120 years of business — helping generations of Honolulu builders and homeowners find the right materials for their projects. When you next visit City Mill, congratulate the salespersons, cashiers and managers. Let them know how much you appreciate the way they value seniors. The message on the backs of their red T-shirts sounds like an ad, but it’s the wisdom of the Ai family business: “What are you working on? I can help.”
CITY MILL COMPANY LTD.
660 N. Nimitz Highway, Honolulu HI 96817
808-533-3811 | www.citymill.com
Check online for details of their other locations:
Ewa Beach, Hawaii Kai, Kaimuki, Kaneohe and Mililani.