CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Kaleo and Davian Keeno have grown Keeno Farms Construction Co. Inc. to 30 employees from two since starting their Waimanalo business in 2003. The company often serves as a subcontractor on large commercial jobs as big as $10 million.
Let bulldozers bloom
Flowers and construction equipment really do mix for Keeno familySTORY SUMMARY »
Kaleo Keeno and his family have gone from living in an 8-by-12-foot shack on their flower farm to running a 30-employee construction company.
The construction side came about slowly, as Keeno bought equipment to help tend the family farm. But eventually a few outside jobs -- such as digging a nearby farm's banana patch and even burying a neighbor's dead horse -- grew by word of mouth into a steady stream.
In 2003, prompted by an uncle's suggestion, Keeno and his wife took the plunge and started Keeno Farms Construction Co. Inc.
"We just kind of winged it and prayed hard," he said.
It seems to be working. The company now serves as a subcontractor on commercial jobs as big as $10 million, and is hoping to hire at least 20 more workers. And they still take time to tend to the flowers.
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CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Davian and Kaleo Keeno have seen their growing business, Keeno Farms Construction Co. Inc., record $5 million in gross revenue over the past three years.
For two years, Kaleo Keeno and his family of five lived in a tiny, 8-by-12-foot shack amid the shrubbery on his two-acre flower farm in Waimanalo.
Keeno, his wife Davian and two children, along with his mother-in-law and large pit bull, Mana, shared a single room, while he built a four-bedroom home on the rural land they bought for $225,000 in 1999 to raise heliconia and ginger, which the family sells weekly at the Kamehameha Swap Meet.
The family used a makeshift shower with a water heater beneath a small lanai, which also doubled as a kitchen and dining area. For months, the husband-and-wife team worked into the night to pluck and transplant about 2,000 plants to organize the hodgepodge of scattered crops inherited from the farm's previous owner.
Meanwhile, Keeno continued his full-time job in construction, where for 15 years he learned the intricacies of the industry while slowly assembling a collection of heavy equipment, including a loader and backhoe, which he used for excavation and grading on the farm.
The family reinvested most of the profits back into the business to buy more equipment, now valued at $2.5 million.
But it wasn't until a suggestion from the uncle who had employed him for years that he seriously considered the idea of starting a business of his own.
Keeno, 34, obtained his general contractor's license and started Keeno Farms Construction Co. Inc. in 2003, which proved to be the turning point in his career.
Davian, 32, also gave up a career in social work to handle the administrative side of the family business, which has grown from two to 30 employees.
"When we go to sleep every night we need to remember that we've got 30 families to feed so we have to keep that in mind with the decisions we make in the company," Kaleo said.
At first, the couple landed odd jobs such as digging banana patches at nearby farms and burying a neighbor's dead horse.
But slowly the company started landing larger gigs, mostly through word of mouth, and later received federal designation as a minority-owned business, which allows it to negotiate directly for federal projects set aside for small, disadvantaged companies.
"We just kind of winged it and prayed hard," Kaleo said. "With God by my side, I was moving 100 miles an hour."
However, running a family business didn't come without challenges.
In the first year of operations, Keeno was shocked when his accountant told him that he owed $600,000 in employee withholding taxes because of fringe benefits the company had given to workers. The company still owes $90,000 in back taxes.
"We had a bunch of growing pains," he said. "But a lesson bought is a lesson taught."
After eight years, the hard work and sacrifices have paid off.
The company has recorded $5 million in gross revenue over the past three years.
Now with a $200,000-a-month payroll, the company often serves as a subcontractor on large commercial projects ranging from $500,000 to $10 million.
"We didn't realize it would get this big," Davian said. "It's really gotten to the point where the more jobs you get, the more people you have to hire, the more competitive you want to be. Now we're competing with large companies."
Keeno Farms is looking to expand into larger projects and plans to hire at least 20 more workers as contracts increase.
The latest challenge is bringing down the debt used to purchase the farm and equipment, and building a track record so that the company can acquire bond insurance needed for larger commercial projects.
In addition, the company is investing in new technology to increase efficiency in production and reduce the cost of manpower.
"Our strategy now is to try and move with the technological advances in construction and earth-moving," Kaleo said, adding that the company has invested $250,000 in equipment that uses the Global Positioning Systems to help workers follow land contours.
The couple, who now have five children and still work at least three hours a day on the farm, are passionate about raising their family in a simple country lifestyle. While they have labored long and hard to build the family business -- evidenced by the numerous calluses on their hands and scars from cutting thousands of flowers each year -- it has been worth their labor of love.