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Bold moves keep C.S. Wo a Hawaii furniture giant

Article from Star-Advertiser by Bob Sigall on July 12, 2013

Many companies fumble the ball in passing from one generation to the next. One local company that transitioned well from the founder to his sons and now grandsons is C.S. Wo

"Many people think our family name is Wo," third-generation executive Robert "Bub" Wo Jr. told me. "But Wo is not a Chinese surname. My grandfather's full name was Ching Sing Wo. Ching was his surname. Sing Wo was his first name. My dad, Bob Wo Sr. was a Ching. We changed the family name to Wo in the 1950's."

Ching Sing Wo grew up on the sugar plantation fields of Hanalei, Kauai, but always had a dream of owning his own business. He prudently saved his money, moved to Oahu and opened up a general merchandise store on King and Smith streets in 1909 named C.S. Wo & Brother. The small store was jam packed with hardware items, baby cribs, gardening tools and a variety of household products.

In the 1940s, Ching Sing Wo's oldest son, bob, while away at college in California, would spend his time visiting furniture stores."While his college buddies were enjoying their free weekends, Dad would spend hours at Frank Newman's store, learning all he could about furniture," Bub Wo recalls. It was the start of a lifelong love for the furniture industry.

Ching Sing Wo retired in 1948 and turned the business over to sons Bob, Jim, and Bill, who had just graduated from college. The company was renamed C.S. Wo & Sons and turned its focus to the furniture business.

"Dad wanted to be the best at one thing, and furniture was his passion. If not, we would probably have stayed a mom-and-pop general store."

A year later a major crisis faced the company. The dock strike of 1949 shut down the shipping of furniture and other products to Hawaii for six months. Quickly reacting, the company bought up local timber and started manufacturing furniture here in Hawaii. What could have been a disaster turned into a blessing. Bob, Jim, and Bill discovered a love for manufacturing, and their new perspective led to the company's successful development of direct import programs and overseas expansion.

In 1957, while Japan was still recovering from World War II, bob took American designs to Asia and made the furniture to their specifications. "With the advent of containerized shipping, it was cost-effective and easy to bring product into the state," Bub Wo says.

Bob Wo's dream was to have an overseas factory of his own. In 1972, while on a flight to Taiwan, he happened to be seated next to a gentleman from China. Through conversation, he learned they were both in the furniture business and in search of setting up a factory in Twain. A partnership was created and the rest is history.

Bob, along with partner Larry Moh, formed Teakwood Holdings and its marketing arm, Universal Furniture. They were the first to recognize Asia's potential as a large-scale furniture producer, and over the next 15 years, the highly successful company grew to become one of the top 10 largest furniture manufacturers in the world, with factories in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Indonesia, and more than 5,000 employees.

Proceeds from Universal Furniture, which was bought out by an even larger home furnishings conglomerate in the late 1980s, allowed the Wos to fund a substantial investment portfolio to weather the ups and downs of the retail business and ease the transition to the third generation. Brother Jim was initiating a family buyout, which allowed Bob and his five sons to continue ownership and management of the company.

Unlike many family-owned businesses that were slow to change, C.S. Wo was bold. To complement the many initiatives on the manufacturing side of the business, an array of retail concepts have also been developed. Over the year, C.S. Wo has introduced retail store names including Vans, BJ, Marsh Furniture Mart, Scandinavian Gallery, Basic Concepts, Z Interiors and Rooms Hawaii.

Today it operates under four divisions: C.S. Wo Gallery, HomeWorld, SlumberWorld, and Ashley Furniture Home Store. The 15 stores spread throughout Oahu, Maui and Hawaii Island gross more than $60 million a year. Bob Wo serves as chairman, and the executive management team consists of his five sons: Bub, Wendell, Mike, Bennett, and Scott Wo.

Ching Sing Wo would certainly be surprised to see how his dream of owning a business has grown over the past 104 years!