Susan Irie: Founder of Kilohana Lighting, Hawaii

Susan Irie: Founder of Kilohana Lighting, Hawaii

Susan Irie: Founder of Kilohana Lighting, HawaiienLIGHTenment Magazine is proud to present the recipients of our annual awards series honoring those individuals in our industry who have been nominated by their peers for leading by example, standing out in their field, and inspiring others.



How did you enter the industry?

It was fate! My then-husband (an electrical contractor) and I were newly married, having just arrived on Kauai for our honeymoon.  The following day, Hurricane Iniki – a Category 4 hurricane – struck Hawaii with its heaviest concentration on Kauai. Everything in the storm’s path was devastated or destroyed and our honeymoon went from fun to serious in a matter of seconds. 

In an effort to pitch in and help, we became immediately involved with local people and the community. Having just married with no real roots set anywhere and the economic climate being one of recovery from the Savings & Loan Crisis of the mid-1980s, we decided to start our planned electrical contracting business on Kauai. It was only when we realized the difficulty in sourcing ceiling fans and lighting that I decided to become our own factor of supply.

My father managed Sears stores in my early childhood and my first job was in retail. My education was in Economics and Finance so I was comfortable jumping into this new venture as I had an “in” with the electrical side of the business. If there was anything I didn’t know about the product, I had an experienced electrician to help me choose merchandise, repair/troubleshoot issues, and solve customers’ problems creatively. I had no idea how passionate I would eventually become about lighting.

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen?

I have seen many changes in my 23 years of business. Technology in product development is obviously the big one with the game-changing advances in LEDs as a white light source. Plus the IoT (Internet of Things) and automation of devices is bringing control and management of energy consumption to the residential market.

Another really big change is the shift in distribution channels across all product categories. Businesses like ours struggle to maintain our relevance to the customers we serve. Pricing pressures from big box stores skew the consumers’ perception of the real cost of products, the Internet brings a convenient and time-effective way for buyers to research and evaluate information quickly to make decisions and purchase immediately, and the general decline in product quality and reliability (of course not in every case) all affect a showroom’s ability to be the most relevant option for any consumer type. The lighting industry has fared better than most I must add. In most cases, the complexity of the product we sell requires some education and hand-holding by a knowledgeable sales/customer support person. Bringing value to the client while gaining their trust is the big hurdle.

What do you think has been the key to your success?

I have a passion for lighting, architecture, and business in general. I am very organized and very process driven. I have treated my business as if it is much larger than its financial statements present. Everyone on my staff knows what our goals are, where we stand at any point in time, and understands their role in the team environment. My success in leadership is inspiring everyone to think like an owner, believe in what we are doing in the growth goals we have set forth, meeting consistently as a team, and spending as much time as possible investing in their own personal growth and development for their careers and for Kilohana Lighting.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?

That my perception of customer loyalty was inaccurate and that many of the vendors we source from would also become our competitors. I also learned that I was always going to have to live with the uncertainty of the health of viability of our business. This is an element of stress that never goes away. I would have embraced the continuous evolving much earlier as a learning process. What I wish I knew now is that business owners like myself remain relevant and profitable in the market based on integrity, superior knowledge, efficient business processes, and consistent efforts to educate and innovate.

Where do you see you/your business in the next 5 to 10 years?

Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges ahead, I remain very optimistic for our future growth in the Pacific on a regional level. Our unique location, our consistent investment in technology, and our efforts to diversify revenue streams (i.e. design/specification and technical support services) will keep us closer to clients within the building industry along with those sophisticated consumers seeking the latest in technology and aesthetic trends. This will help define and promote Kilohana Lighting’s unique brand.

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