Humble shoe salesman built family shop into empire
Paul Kwai Tung Chun / Chun Kim Chow Ltd. / 1922-2007
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Paul Kwai Tung "KT" Chun, the son of a cobbler who rose to head a widely known shoe and clothing business, never let his success go to his head.
"My dad was unpretentious," said daughter Pamela Chun-Ganske, who became a clothing buyer for the family company. "He would always say he didn't have money. We all started working when we were about 8 or 9 years old, and we all started from the bottom."
Chun, president and chief executive officer of Chun Kim Chow Ltd., which also had real estate holdings including the Waikiki Circle Hotel, died at home June 21 at age 84.
From his father's Chinatown shop -- Chun Kim Chow Shoe Store, begun in 1908 -- the family expanded the business to nearly 80 outlets across the state and $60 million annually in gross receipts at its peak, with Paul Chun at the helm of the retail end of the business.
Up to 2001, Chun Kim Chow Ltd. was the state's largest independent shoe retailer.
But with all his success, Chun remained humble.
"'If I had a million dollars, I'd retire today.' He always said that," said Chun-Ganske. "Even when he had it, we didn't know he had it." So the family worked harder, believing that they were poor.
He wanted to teach his children the value of hard work and money, and the importance of "earning your own way because it made you a better person," she said.
In retail and in death, his family believed his timing was impeccable.
Chun-Ganske said her father was having a hard time sleeping the night of his death, so she suggested he meditate and recite the word om, a sacred word. He died an hour later.
"I guess he must have known it was the time to cross over," and om was the last word he spoke, said daughter Paula Chun-Vetter.
"Dad did have a sense of timing," she said with a laugh.
His development of different concepts for his stores came at the right time, too, she said.
Renton Nip, Chun's nephew and the company president, agreed, saying his uncle began opening Robins in the late 1950s when shopping centers started developing in Honolulu. The first Robins opened at the newly developed Ala Moana Center and became the company's most familiar outlet.
"He recognized that the local merchants had to move into the shopping centers," he said. "At one time, Pearlridge Shopping Center probably had at least 10 different concepts owned by the company," and Ala Moana Center had at least six at one time.
They include the early stores Smart Shoe Shop, Leaders and Red Coach, later expanding to Wildflowers, Nicole, Body Shop, Gem's shoe and other concessions, and even the Gloria Jean's coffee franchise, predating Starbucks.
Chun-Vetter said, "My dad taught about gut feeling, you follow your intuition."
As a shoe buyer, he noticed what women wore so he knew what to buy, she added.
Son Rodney, who now runs Robins, recalled his dad starting his day at 6 a.m. at Waikiki Circle Hotel's restaurant to cook breakfast when the chef was out, going to his office to do paperwork, doing the buying and helping at the warehouse if someone was sick.
With little time for hobbies, he was able to pursue his passions for cooking and retail on the job, his family said.
A pancake recipe he developed from scratch turned the hotel restaurant around and drew long lines of customers.
Born in Honolulu, Chun graduated from Saint Louis School.
He is also survived by wife Rachel, son Randall, daughter Patricia Tom, brother Frederic K.T., sister Victoria Fong, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.