Sunday, February 1, 2004



Moonbow Tropics got off to a slow start in Paia, Maui, which allowed the Jay family to learn the retail business at their own pace.

All in the family

A visit to Maui turns into
an adventure in business
and life for a family
originally from New York

One of the most challenging of lifestyles is working with your spouse in a thriving business, much less a start-up. How about also working with your parents and brother and sister?

Family Tree logo That's what Alan and Jill Jay have done in establishing their decade-old resort-wear business Moonbow Tropics, which grew from a single outlet in Paia on Maui to four stores, including the newest at the historic Sheraton Moana Surfrider in Waikiki.

But the family's legacy is less about dollars and cents than about dedication, mutual respect, trust and values. To hear Alan tell the family's history -- moving from New York City to Palm Springs to Paia -- sounds like the stuff of a G-rated movie, though few would really believe this tale.

Alan's family -- mom, dad, sister and brother -- left the Big Apple in 1980 for the warmer climes of the California desert town Palm Springs. Ten years later, 25-year-old Alan had a successful career as a convention sales planner for Marriott, and his new wife had an equally high-ranking job with the Ritz-Carlton.

The young couple took a vacation to Maui in 1989, returning for their honeymoon two years later. They loved the place and shot plenty of video to show their parents.

"Our wheels started turning because it was such a beautiful place that we fantasized about living in paradise," he said. "Jill and I brought back the (phone directory) and looked at real estate."

Neither his grandparents nor parents -- then in their 50s -- had been to Maui. After viewing the couple's honeymoon video, dad said, "Let's do it!"

"We literally sold everything: the house, furniture, cars," Alan said. "Once we made the decision to move to Maui, it was a whirlwind. ... Everything started falling into place fast. And then we were there (in 1993), just like that."

"They" included sister Cyndi, 23, brother Greg, 19, and grandparents Jack and Rhoda Hersch. The family lived in a west-side vacation rental for a month before finding jobs became a priority.

"Jill and I really liked Lahaina and thought all those little shops were very cute," said Alan. "We didn't know what we wanted to do, but we had a lot of skills and thought retail might be a good thing for us."

The whirlwind, which was beginning to look like Lady Luck, blew again. The family found "a perfect house" to rent in Sprecklesville in Windward Maui. The five-bedroom home was just right for all seven family members and Jill and Alan's baby, due any moment.

"The house was for sale, but we signed a lease on a handshake and the owner took it off the market," Alan said.

The family was unfamiliar with the area but "discovered" Paia town, falling instantly in love with its charm and community feeling. This would be where the family's business would begin, they agreed.

They found a cottagelike building on Baldwin Avenue, small at 500 square feet but "a perfect fit for us starting out," Alan said.

There were several interested parties, but Alan and company passionately told the owners of their plans, then offered a lump lease payment of $5,000. An hour later the store was theirs.

"We had no experience in retail, so Paia let us get our foot in the door to get on-the-job experience," he said.

Start-up costs were $30,000 fronted by dad. Now they needed a name and Alan pushed for Coconuts.

When the family had taken a trip to Haleakala's summit, they saw their first moonbow "with all the colors," Alan remembers. The experience was so special that the family overruled his Coconuts for Moonbow Tropics.

Four generations of a family moved to Maui together in 1993 and started up Moonbow Tropics clothing store in Paia. They are, from left: Cyndi Jay and husband, Stephan; Lynn Jay, with her arms around husband, Steve; Jill and Alan Jay with young son, Austin; grandparents Rhoda and Jack Hersch; and Jennifer and Greg Jay.

TODAY, EVERY member of the family is involved in the business: Alan is president, Greg is vice president. Alan, Jill and Greg manage and operate all aspects of Moonbow Tropics Inc. Mom and dad are the accountants. Sister Cyndi makes all the jewelry sold exclusively in Moonbow stores, and her husband, Stephan, fashions all the stores' custom fixtures from Hawaiian woods.

Moonbow Tropics carries high-end tropical wear, including an enormous selection by Tommy Bahama, Reyn Spooner, Kahala, Kilauea and Kamehameha, with prices ranging from about $55 to $120.

"One of our requirements for the vintage wear is that the companies had to have been around for about 50 years," Alan said.

But success took its sweet time for Moonbow Tropics. Alan estimates it was four years before the store actually made money.

"I couldn't understand it," he said. "We had this beautiful store with top-of-the-line merchandise, and we weren't selling while stores right down the street were."

He realized it takes time for customers to find a new business, but that gave the family the chance to continually grow, one item at a time. The business survived the tough times because of the family involvement.

"While we were growing the business in those early days, we weren't even paying ourselves," Alan said. "It's a family who keeps things going, and we just stayed focused.

"We never thought about failure. We had this vision of success from day one. With persevering and working hard, we started to slowly bear fruit, and now there is abundance."

The family opened a second Paia business -- Moonbow Cabana, dedicated to women's fashion -- in 1997, a 2,500-square-foot store in Maalaea in 2001 and, just last month, the flagship 2,500-square-foot, 12-employee Moana outlet run by Willy Shum.

Alan won't reveal sales figures, but says Moonbow Tropics Inc. has grown every year. Last year, Moonbow Tropics won the Governor's Award for the Best Specialty Stores in Hawaii. Alan's not reluctant to reveal, however, the secret behind a family working and staying together.

"There's no room for egos," he said. "We all feel so lucky to be living and working as a family in paradise.

"We allow everyone to demonstrate what they do best and be as creative as possible. We like people and all believe that having fun while you work is very important."

He swears there is no jealously within the business structure.

"Honestly, no one cares who has more or takes more out of the business, because everybody's needs are met. I have two children, 10 years old and 15 months, so our needs are greater right now."

Alan confesses that a key to the business' success is treating each store like a member of the family.

"We nurture and care for them," he said.

Alan's grandparents died a few years ago, three months apart after 68 years of marriage, but were there for the first store's opening.

"They were so proud of us," he said. "Every day, I keep them in my thoughts, thinking how brave they were to come here with us. I know they're still with us."

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