The I. Kitagawa and Co. Story is All About Perseverance in the Face of Adversity
Arnold T. Hiura
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
People unfamiliar with Big Island history might not know that I. Kitagawa and Co. is one of the island’s largest and most successful businesses with $90 million in sales and some 200 employees. But why wouldn’t the name of one of Hawaii Business magazine’s Top 250 companies (87th in 2016 and perennially in the Top 10 amongst neighbor island businesses) be more widely recognized by everyone?
Today, I. Kitagawa is probably better known by the four major companies that it owns and operates: Kama‘aina Motors, Kama‘aina Nissan, Kona Auto Center and five Parts Center Hawaii (NAPA) outlets on Hawai‘i island.
Old-time Hiloans, on the other hand, still refer to the state’s longest-running automobile dealership’s corporate headquarters on Kawili Street as “Kitagawa’s,” no matter what the sign out front might say. And, once inside the spacious complex, customers will indeed find the company’s four-generation legacy respectfully displayed and cared for by its current president, Brian Kitagawa, great-grandson of founder Isojiro Kitagawa.
According to Brian, Isojiro first arrived in Hawai‘i from Hiroshima in 1903 to work on the sugar plantation. He did not last a day, however, and returned to Japan. When he decided to come back to Hilo in 1905, Isojiro quickly proved that what he may have lacked as a field laborer was far exceeded by his skills as an entrepreneur.
Isojiro started by opening a fish market, which he expanded to carry fishing supplies such as line, rope, nets . . . and even groceries. Isojiro’s active involvement with other businessmen of the time eventually led to the formation of Suisan and Hawaii Planing Mill (HPM), two other long-standing and influential Big Island businesses.
Isojiro was a visionary and foresaw the future of gasoline-powered engines that were bound to transform the local fishing fleet. In 1908, he became a supplier of gas and oil, and eventually added engine parts and repair services to his growing enterprise. In 1913, he opened a service station and later expanded that business to include auto parts and tires.
Although many would be satisfied with this success, the intrepid Isojiro was just getting started and boldly ventured into the brave new world of gasoline-powered automobiles. Although he spoke no English, he managed to conduct business with American companies with the help of an interpreter.
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