Star Markets' new Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Karl Wissmann talks apples with clerk Laura Kiriu in the produce department of its Kamehameha Shopping Center store.

Grocery veteran takes
a shine to Star Market

Karl Wissmann

>> New job: Vice president and chief operating officer of Star Markets.

>> Previous jobs: Consultant to Star Markets, senior vice president for Ralphs Grocery Co. in California.

>> Company: The Fujieki family opened the first Star Market in 1954. The grocery retailer operates 10 stores on Oahu, Maui and Kauai.

When did you start?

I started work as a consultant in April of 2000 and was hired as vice president and chief operating officer in October.

Were you familiar with Hawaii?

I'd just been here on vacation until starting the consulting work. That brought me to the islands about one week of every month.

Have you brought your family here?

No. I'm still living on the mainland and commuting here about three weeks a month. It's a little crazy, but there are worse places to be working and doing something like that. It's not a permanent solution. My family is established in California and I have kids in school. It's a bad time to uproot them.

What prompted the move from a large corporate grocer to a small family chain?

I had decided to leave Ralphs when the consulting opportunity with Star was presented by a friend of mine. And I've spent most of my career in small businesses. I managed a 25-store chain in Northern California for years, so I was used to a small chain.

Were you nervous about being such a highly placed outsider in a family business?

No. I had worked for chains in Northern California that had started as family companies. They had been bought by corporations, but there was still a family presence.

Your job is operations, what are some of the major issues in operating a grocery chain?

Coming up with a marketing strategy to move the company forward and increase market share. Bringing in new technology to all aspects of the system. We are in the process of bringing in a new front system. The front end software (at the check out) will speed up the process for the customer.

What do you think of the level of supermarket competition in Hawaii?

It's interesting. You have Safeway, which is the large corporate influence, and you have the other chains, which are family businesses. Times is now owned by a company from Northern California, but it still is being run like a family business. So, compared to the mainland, Hawaii is a little more family oriented and independent. It has an independent flair.

Do you expect Wal-Mart will eventually be the threat here that it has been on the mainland?

Sure, I think it will. I think it's slower to come in Hawaii, but certainly the Wal-Marts and the Costcos of the world, which are entirely price driven, are a factor. But that leaves a huge opportunity for the small family chain. It has that independent, customer-centered flair that a corporate giant doesn't have.

What are Star's competitive strengths?

The biggest competitive strength Star has is they are really known in the islands as being a locally owned family company. It's Hawaii's store, that's really their strength. They are very focused on the islands' ethnic communities and what they need. Safeway, of course, is completely corporate and even Times and the other chains are moving away from that.

What are its weaknesses?

I don't think they have any weakness that everybody doesn't have from time to time -- in terms of controlling expenses and proper pricing. Those things aren't so much problems as that's where the focus is always. We're continually working on those issues.

Inside Hawaii Inc. is a conversation with a member of the
Hawaii business community who has changed jobs, been
elected to a board or been recognized for accomplishments.
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