No Ka Oi co-owner named woman entrepreneur of the year

HANAPEPE — Abigail Santos says she attributes 40 years of business success to her husband, her team of employees and her community on Kauai.

Recently, Santos was named woman entrepreneur of the year by the National Association of Landscape Professionals for demonstrating entrepreneurial spirit and initiative, ensuring the advancement of the landscape industry by her actions and endeavors, and serving as an example to current and future female entrepreneurs in the industry.

“It’s a national award, so I was pretty excited about it,” said Santos, co-owner of No Ka Oi Landscape Services. “To be a woman in this business, which is a predominantly male business, it was an honor.”

Sabeena Hickman, NALP CEO, said the 67-year-old business owner has shown great entrepreneurship building her company.

“She is a great example for the young women who are coming up in the industry,” Hickman said.

The NALP represents an industry of nearly 1 million landscape, lawn care, irrigation and tree care experts who create and maintain green spaces for society and the environment.

With her husband, Frank, by her side, Santos started No Ka Oi Plants in 1977.

“We started the business as a plant rental company,” she said. “My husband was working at Plantation Gardens and they had some interior plants, so he offered to take care of them.”

With a clientele of about 20 in the beginning, Santos said “just had so much fun with it.”

“I was very ambitious and wanted to become the best plant rental company on the island,” she said. “I just really got into doing that and tried to get all the restaurants on the Southside to hire me. We started doing the Beach House and the Sheraton and some places that aren’t around anymore.”

In 1980, Santos said, the company evolved into a landscaping service that now encompasses about 80 percent of their business.

“After that, because we were doing the plant rentals, we were asked to take care of their grounds, too,” she said. “We just grew into that and did landscaping.We were really small.”

It wasn’t always easy for Santos.

“We were bootstrapping it, so we didn’t have any money or anything,” she said. “We didn’t have any business experience on how to run it. I think the first time we tried to borrow money from the bank, it was really hard.”

But a frugal lifestyle assisted with keeping the business afloat, Santos said.

“We lived within our means, always, from the beginning,” she said.

The biggest moment for Santos was the re-branding of the company after the 2008 recession.

“We got our team together and hired a consultant. I started delegating more work, and I didn’t have to work so hard and do everything all myself,” she said. “Now I have this great team, and life is good now.”

The re-branding included a new website, name change, logo and a concentration on the maintenance aspect of the landscaping business.

With 60 employees, Santos’ clientele includes Kukui Grove Center, Costco and the Shops at Kukuiula.

“We’ve never been bored — not for one single minute. I’ve always enjoyed the people aspect of it — the employees, the clients. I just love the social part of it,” she said. “There’s a constant learning. There’s never been a moment where I thought this job was so boring. Every day, I can’t wait to get started, try new ideas and I get excited about life and what’s our next opportunity.”

One community project Santos is particularly proud of is the Tree Tunnel cleanup No Ka Oi volunteers in every year before the Koloa Plantation Days.

“We have 30-40 people come. It’s a community effort,” she said. “The Hyatt comes and makes lunch, people from the community come, and some tourists come. It’s very rewarding.”

For women aspiring to go into business, Santos said putting in the hours is a must.

“They have to be willing to work harder and longer,” she said. “If you’re willing to do that and don’t lose sight of your goals, you’re going to succeed. You just have to stick with it.”

Having mentors is another key to success.

“Seek out trade organizations that match up with what you are doing,” she said. “That was huge for me, finding the NALP. They had so much great advice. I wish I had known about that when I first started the business.”

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