Bob and Christine French top small business persons

WAIPOULI — If Bob and Christine French had their way, there would be room on the plaque for all 100 Lealani Corporation employees.

While they gladly accepted the 2001 Kaua’i Small Business Person(s) of the Year Award from the U.S. Small Business Administration small business awards program, they just as quickly gave credit to family and other long-time employees for the success of the corporation and its various entities, principally Brennecke’s Beach Broiler.

“Surrounding yourself with good people and taking care of them” is Bob French’s simple secret to corporate success, he said. With many of the company’s employees being with the French family for 20 or more years, it’s clear that the secret works.

Many were in attendance last week as the Kaua’i Chamber of Commerce Business After Hours function at the Kaua’i Coconut Beach Resort was held to honor this year’s Kaua’i SBA Small Business Award winners.

Mayor Maryanne Kusaka was named Women in Business Advocate of the Year at the function, also (her story next week). Around 100 people attended the function.

Bob French said having good employees who make good decisions makes it comfortable for the owners when they’re not around.

Christine French pointed out that children and grandchildren of Lealani Corporation workers are now working for the company, and men who were teenagers when they started at Brennecke’s are still there as well.

The French children also have taken turns working at the various entities that make up Lealani Corporation: Brennecke’s Beach Broiler, Brennecke’s Deli, Beach Activities Shop and Nukumoi Beach & Surf Shop, all strategically located right across Ho’one Road from Po’ipu Beach Park.

The children are Rochelle Ballard, 30; Hoku Gordines, 24; Kelly Lealani French, 17; Jessica French, 15; and Kainoa French, seven.

The real challenge, Bob French said, is going to be keeping the ball rolling. It’s easy to start a business, he says from experience, but harder to maintain it. While he won’t force any of his children to take over the businesses, he’s trying to get Gordines excited about that prospect.

The family business, which includes Bob’s father Clyde French as treasurer, has considered expanding out of Po’ipu, and within Po’ipu, “as long as we can do a good job,” Christine French says.

Actually, leaving the south shore, even for expansion purposes, wasn’t a viable option, as that would physically split a family which is very close, and guards family time as a precious commodity, both the parent partners said.

“Our family is so important,” and they didn’t want to spread things too thin by expanding off the south shore, Christine French said.

Since becoming a partner in the old Beach House restaurant in 1975, Bob French has been in the restaurant business on the island, at Po’ipu Kai’s Kona’s (now House of Seafood), and at Brennecke’s on Po’ipu Beach.

Through two hurricanes and various economic and visitor-arrival valleys, he has never considered giving up, he said. Part of the reason is that his “project” isn’t about padding his bank account.

“If you worry about the money, you’d never get to the end of the game,” he said.

Bob French met and began working with Christine Gordines in 1978, and over the years there have been lots of compromises in their business partnership, though not very often did they bring work or work-related differences home with them.

Bob French is corporation president, and Christine French is vice president. She handles the beach center and surf company operations. According to the nomination form submitted by Steve Hunt of Bank of Hawai’i’s Po’ipu Shopping Village location, “Bob’s forte is marketing and operations, whereas Christine’s talents lie in merchandising and innovation.”

About Clyde French, a career-long employee of First Hawaiian Bank, Christine French says, “great role model.” He has done business on Kaua’i since 1961, and has had an obvious impact on his son and the business.

“It’s like a big keel having my father around.” He’s helped Lealani Corporation’s credibility, though “I think that we’ve earned it, too,” said Bob French.

With four separate businesses, the family still finds it important to donate substantial time, energy and resources to community concerns. Bob French is west Kaua’i regional commissioner for AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization), for example, and Christine French, 48, serves on the boards of the YMCA, Kaua’i Surfing Association and Kaua’i Women of Faith.

“It’s just part of participating in the community. Business is part of the community,” Bob French says. “You make time,” Christine French adds.

When they first started the business, they were at the business location all the time, he recalls. But, as those they surrounded themselves with began showing their ability to literally run the businesses for them, they easily eased into important areas like family life, community and church concerns, while never neglecting the business functions.

“It’s a lot more fun that way,” Bob French said. “I’m never going to retire.”

The Kaua’i winners say a lot about why Kaua’i is a special place, said Jane Sawyer, SBA assistant Honolulu district director.

The outstanding Kaua’i and Hawai’i winners help spread the word about why Hawai’i is a good place to live and do business, she said. Lealani Corporation has been successful, she said, because it has kept its employees, and grew and changed with the community.

Bob French recalled getting two SBA loans to rebuild two separate restaurants after two separate hurricanes, and is proud to be able to say Lealani Corporation is in good standing with the SBA.

Besides the SBA award, Bob and Christine French and Lealani Corporation also received Mayor Maryanne Kusaka’s Aloha Award. Kusaka also declared the week beginning Sunday, May 6 as Small Business Week for the County of Kaua’i.

The Kaua’i small business persons of the year also received a certificate from the County Council, with Chair Ron Kouchi commenting on how Lealani Corporation’s various entities have survived two hurricanes and economic and tourism arrival downturns by paying attention to the needs of customers and being involved in the community.

Councilmembers Bryan Baptiste and Daryl Kaneshiro were also on hand for the presentation.

Sam Pratt, Kaua’i Chamber of Commerce board chair, also complimented the fine work of Brennecke’s and the Frenches. “They are truly a strong model for small business.”

Small business and the county should work together, Bob French said upon accepting the award, adding in different words the simple secret for the corporation’s success: “You’re only as good as the people who work with you, or for you.”

Christine French thanked the Chamber for hosting the awards event, and added, “We are truly a family business.” She thanked kitchen manager Ligia Baylon, father in law Clyde French (corporation treasurer), daughter Kelly Lealani French, whom the corporation is named for, and biological and worker families for their continued support and hard work.

Bob French, 50, said the corporation has a long way to go. “I figure we’re only about halfway there.”

Business Editor Paul C. Curtis can be reached at mailto:pcurtis@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 224).

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