Decades ago, my boss at KTA Superstores, Tony Taniguchi, gave me an assignment that changed my life. He asked me to develop an in-house leadership program to upgrade the knowledge and skills of KTA managers and supervisors. Tony passionately believed that leadership was a key ingredient to KTA’s future success and was willing to invest in it. He asked me to lead the effort. In the subsequent thirty years, thousands have participated in Leadership Works programs because Tony had confidence in one of his young leaders, who by-the-way, knew nothing about the concept of leadership.
Decades after his passing, I still reflect on the many leadership qualities Tony embodied. Although there are no perfect leaders, he came pretty close. Those of us who were fortunate enough to have worked for him, learned invaluable lessons, by example and word, on how to lead.
Here are some of those gems that Tony possessed:
A PASSION FOR HIS BUSINESS
Tony loved the supermarket business. You could see it in his enthusiasm for creative merchandising, his zeal for serving customers, and his eager embrace of state-of-the art retail technologies.
CLARITY, CURIOSITY AND CREATIVITY
Tony had broad visions of where he wanted to take KTA. One vision he had was to position KTA stores strategically in all key geographic areas to, as we all came to call it, “conquer the island.”
Despite these ambitious goals and substantial accomplishments, he remained humble. Once, in my role as advertising manager, I started submitting public relations articles on KTA’s many virtues to the local newspaper. He told me to stop, explaining that people will know when you do good works and that it was unnecessary to boast about it.
Tony made annual visits to supermarkets around the country to capture ideas to improve KTA. One idea that enamored him was an early prototype of what is today the checkout scanner. Convinced it was the way of the future, KTA installed the first integrated chain-wide scanner system in Hawaii.
Tony was an “out-of-the-box” thinker. Never satisfied with the status quo, he always sought new and better ways of doing things. Under his leadership, KTA become one of the first retailers in Hawaii to provide electric carts for people with disabilities, as well as launching one of Hawaii’s first coupon books.
PLAYING TO WIN
In basketball terms, Tony was not afraid to “shoot the ball.” He surrounded himself with talented players, set the plays, and executed. He never subscribed to the “play not to lose” approach. He invested in initiatives that leveraged growth in his people and the organization. Regarding competition, I remember him telling us, “It’s cheaper to defend your market share, than to lose it and buy it back later.” As a result, we never back down from any competitive threats.
In the seventies, Tony foresaw the demise of the sugar industry in Hawaii. His premonition came to him while sugar fields dominated the Big Island landscape. Always proactive in his approach, he charged one of his young leaders, Derek Kurisu, to find ways KTA could contribute to the viability of the Big Island economy.
Mountain Apple Brand emerged from this challenge. Mountain Apple is a line of products produced by Big Island farmers, ranchers, bakers, and cooks, all sold under a unified label. The concept merged the talents of local small business people with the marketing and distribution prowess of KTA. Today, KTA shelves are line with approximately 240 Mountain Apple products and 60 partnerships. It has definitely contributed to helping sustain the Big Island economy and provided employment for many.
As a practicing Buddhist, Tony embrace the concept of compassion. As a result, he epitomized the virtues of a gentleness, kindness and benevolence. He gave generously to his family, employees and community. He gave me two precious gifts - confidence to chase my dream and the opportunity get it launched at KTA. I will forever be grateful for what Tony instilled in me!
Tony truly was my mentor, model and leadership hero.