Cause for Success

Old Lahaina Lu‘au’s high performance goes beyond the stage to embrace community.

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Ashley Stepanek

old lahaina luauI often see people picking up trash on Honoapi‘ilani Highway. They’re in ordinary clothes, sans official-looking patches that read I’m a Trash Picker-Upper. One time, curious to identify these good Samaritans, I decelerated my car, rubbernecked out the window, and stared in the rearview mirror.

I almost drove off the road.
It couldn’t be.
Is that . . . Michael Moore?

It was—one of the three owners of Old Lahaina Lu‘au, arguably the most successful venture of its kind in Hawai‘i.

Moore is a busy man. So why was he collecting empty beer bottles from the side of the road on a Saturday?

I needed to learn more about this company.

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“Don’t think about the bottom line,” says Moore, when I ask him for business advice. “Think about great leaders, inspired employees, helping the community . . . and then the product.”

What’s last on Moore’s list comes first for the typical business owner. But this ranking of priorities works fine for Old Lahaina Lu‘au. Dinner shows are booked a month in advance throughout the year—and summer’s sold out by June.

A subsidiary of parent company Hoaloha Na Eha Ltd., Old Lahaina Lu‘au began in 1986 with 21 people, and grossed $600,000. Today the company employs 250 people and earns millions. Last July, owners Michael Moore, Tim Moore and Rob Aguiar celebrated 20 successful years in business by throwing their employees a party, complete with fireworks.

A tight management team has worked with the owners since they purchased and developed the land where Old Lahaina Lu‘au now stands. A few years ago they launched Ho‘omana‘o (To Remember), a Hawaiian cultural program that puts the venue to use in the mornings. A sister business, Aloha Mixed Plate, is next door, and at 505 Front Street, where the lu‘au used to be, Feast at Lele operates as a partnership between Old Lahaina Lu‘au and the owners of I’o and Pacific’O.

“We love what we do,” Michael says with a grin. “I love the creative part and the development part. Fortunately, we have great people to handle operations.” Which is good, because the owners are still adding to their family of businesses: Next up, Star Noodle restaurant. Stay tuned.

Before opening Old Lahaina Lu‘au, Michael was in sales for Ocean Activity Center; Tim Moore, no relation, worked part time in the accounting department. When they learned that the center was developing a lu‘au, both men saw opportunities.

But not in the way you might think. Michael recalls, “I remember Tim asking me, ‘Hey, don’t bartenders make a lot of money? All I’ll have to do is make mai tais!’” At first, that’s what he did. Tim bartended, Michael served food, and Rob, self-described as “the lu‘au boy of Maui,” was recruited for chanting, dancing and managing the show.

Seeing guests leave happy each night, the three decided to pool their savings and buy the lu‘au. After many meetings, Ocean Activity Center agreed to sell.

“We knew we were doing something different,” says Michael. “It’s not Tutu’s backyard lu‘au, nor is it King Kamehameha’s royal court. We’re the fine line in between. We keep it true while addressing people’s expectations.”

In local readers’ polls, Old Lahaina Lu‘au consistently sweeps the “Best Lu‘au” category. (Even ours—see page 47, MNKO’s ‘Aipono Winners.) National publications pay attention, too: Zagat gave top marks, and The New York Times wrote them up when the Lu‘au’s dancers performed in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

***

 

And it isn’t all just show. Old Lahaina Lu‘au ranked fourth in Hawai‘i Business magazine’s Top 25 “Best Places to Work” in the state.

“Everybody has to make a living. Why not make it fun?” asks Rob, explaining the win—and why Hoaloha Na Eha Ltd. has such a high staff-retention rate. “I want our employees to like it [here].” When I walk into their corporate office, the atmosphere is warm, the people friendly. I’ve gotten the same feeling on two separate occasions at the lu‘au: Everybody looks like they’re having fun and wants to share it with you.

“It’s hard to smile every night,” says Tim. “But the biggest comment on survey cards is, ‘Your employees seem to be having a good time.’”

It’s great showmanship, of course, but this also has to do with morale. Some employees are related; many are friends; most were raised in the Islands. By blood or by culture, their closeness has created an extended ‘ohana, or family, that is nurtured by the owners. Like the heads of any good family, they lead by example and promote growth, looking to bring up the next generation from within.

Take Kapono Kama‘unu. Hired as a chanter, he is now the show’s stage manager—and Rob Aguiar’s right-hand man. “I always say he was born in a ti leaf,” says Rob, “because he’s living so Hawaiiana.”

He is one example of many.

Judee Mae Aki, a graduate of Lahainaluna High School and Maui Community College, was told by her first boss she would never succeed in life. Then she was hired by Old Lahaina Lu‘au. A decade later, Aki oversees food and beverage for the Lu‘au and Aloha Mixed Plate, and is part of the “let’s talk story” management team that deals with Hoaloha’s corporate vision.

The owners recently flew with this team to San Francisco for a week of FranklinCovey leadership training—then brought Franklin trainers back to Maui to teach a seminar in the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” Managers, junior managers, and potential leaders were paid to attend.

To the Moores and Aguiar, “it doesn’t matter about money,” says Corporate Chef Lyndon Honda. “You never put a price tag on people learning and growing.”

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“Learning and growing” is important in more ways than professionally. Yes, the owners hire people who are eager—choosing attitude over skill—and support them in getting better at their jobs. But improvement extends beyond the office walls, often also enriching employees’ personal lives and ultimately benefiting the community.

Old Lahaina Lu‘au strongly advocates community service. So, Michael picks up trash and encourages employees do the same. “I never did as much as I do now,” explains Faith Sandi, a part-time greeter and reservationist. “I was never motivated by my other jobs to volunteer. They [the owners] give you the inspiration.” The owners and employees volunteer with Ed Lindsey to restore Honok¯owai Valley, and they walk with folks from Lahaina Seniors Center to help them exercise. Lu‘au employees run school drives for Kamehameha III and give to Toys for Tots at the annual holiday party. These are small gestures.

There are also big gestures, where money is involved.

Four times a year, Old Lahaina Lu‘au donates its venue and all that night’s proceeds to nonprofits like Maui Coastal Land Trust. If the nonprofit helps sell tickets, and hotel concierges waive their commission fees, they can fundraise as much as $30,000 in a single evening.

And every year, the owners host a private dinner for 10 employees who have gone above and beyond in their volunteer commitments. At the last one, representatives from 10 nonprofits were also invited. And here’s what made me gasp: After the meal, the owners gave each of those 10 employees $20,000 to present to one of the nonprofits.

Sandi gave her check to Maui Aids Foundation. “They let us give it as if it was coming from us,” she says, inspiration shining in her eyes.

“It’s amazing what they give.”

From the owners to the employees to the community . . . Old Lahaina Lu‘au proves it:

You get back what you give.

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