From the islands of Hawaii to more than a dozen countries worldwide, the Peoria-based sunglasses company is testament that a quality product backed by superb customer service can thrive in any global market.
It was an easy sell on the islands. Surrounded by all that water and its constant glare, the Maui Jim brand was born in the mid-1980s on the shores of Lahaina, catering first to locals, offering welcome relief to strained eyes. Pairing advanced polarization technologies with bi-gradient mirrors and anti-reflective treatments, company founder and CEO Walter F. Hester developed a line of sunglasses that effectively blocked glare from above, below and behind each lens, shielding the sun in a new, sensational way. And then there was the color…
“If you’re standing on the beach and you put on Maui Jim sunglasses, all of a sudden you see these turquoises and colors you didn’t see [before],” says Jay Black, vice president of global brand marketing. “I think it’s that experience that really started the brand, and it’s just had a viral effect.”
It didn’t take long for the company to go global. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the islands of Hawaii see some eight million global tourists each year, or that the market for sunglasses has an international appeal of its own. In fact, you might say the brand was destined to reach far beyond the beaches of Maui. Backed by Hester’s dedication to quality, service and the “Aloha spirit,” Maui Jim has thrived in its calculated approach to international growth and commitment to serving customers beyond industry standards.
The company quickly outgrew the islands. “You can’t realistically fulfill product out of Maui,” explains Mark Porto, vice president of operations, who focuses on distribution, transportation, logistics, purchasing and information technology from Maui Jim headquarters in Peoria. “So practically speaking, the Midwest—centrally located… for cost of operations and accessibility for air freight and ground logistics—[is] a good place to be.”
In 1994, Peoria’s RLI Vision Corporation, one of the world’s first insurers of contact lenses, was enlisted as mainland distributor of Maui Jim Sunglasses for the ophthalmic market. Two years later, when RLI retired its contact lens insurance product, it sold the RLI Vision unit and Maui Jim, Inc. was established. Reminders of the company’s tropical roots run deep throughout its headquarters on Allen Road. Each conference room is named after an island in the Hawaiian archipelago; leis hang from cubicle corners; employees sport flip flops; and healthy lifestyles are promoted through 24-hour access to an on-site gym with personal trainers.
Of Maui Jim’s 900 employees worldwide, about a third are based in Peoria, where the company houses its domestic and international human resources, accounting, repair, quality control, inventory, customer service and production departments. Today, all Maui Jim lenses are manufactured in the 25,000-square-foot lens lab in Peoria—a state-of-the-art facility defined by its staunch commitment to quality control.
Worldwide Quality and Service
“It’s very, very, very rare that somebody opens up a pair of our sunglasses and finds any kind of a defect,” Porto declares. “We do things very few people in the industry do. We check every single shipment of sunglasses. We don’t check every single sunglass once we have stability and quality, but we sample every shipment. And for new product, we do 100-percent inspections.”
On a recent tour of the headquarters building, Janet Thompson, key account specialist, breaks down the quality-check process. “The temples are moved to make sure they spring,” she explains. “The logo is inspected to be sure it’s on correctly; the patent number and style number are [verified].” Over the last 12 months, Black and Porto have been working to transfer these intensive quality-control processes, as the company’s German distribution center is transformed into a central European warehouse and distribution hub. The site now holds an inventory of all Maui Jim products, displays and collateral materials, and staff has been trained in Peoria’s rigorous quality processes.
“Until recently, we shipped all the glasses [to Peoria] for quality-control checks [before] we would ship them out to our distribution centers,” Black explains. “As our global footprint expands… we now have our glasses shipped directly to Germany, and they distribute to the distribution center offices in Europe. We’re just starting that implementation now. Down the road, we’re looking to start the same thing in the Asia-Pacific market.”
Porto describes the company’s 12 regional distribution centers as “essentially large storerooms.” “If you walk into any Maui Jim office anywhere in the world, you will find an inventory of product such that if you… want your order fulfilled, you can call the local office, and you will get it the next day.” In fact, he adds, it’s company policy. “If a call is received by three in the afternoon… we will get it to you by the next morning. That’s a strategic advantage. There are not a lot of companies that will place high-value inventory of this kind… in local markets for overnight fulfillment. It’s an expensive model.” But for him, it’s a no-brainer. “We invest in it because we put a premium on service.”
“We’re very careful about our growth because… we own our own distribution,” adds Black. “We don’t go through brokers; we don’t use independent agents; we ‘hire ourselves.’ Outside of the large players like Luxottica and Safilo, we’re really the only ones that do that… It’s pretty phenomenal for a company this size to have that type of distribution system.”
A Global Campaign
Establishing the company’s international distribution centers took time and a conscious approach to expansion, adding one “new geography” at a time. In addition to carrying product, each facility offers foreign language support and on-site repairs, says Porto. “If you walk into our office in Canada and you broke your temple… someone will fix your sunglasses because we hold inventory of repair parts all around the world—not just finished products. The service model is very much about local delivery and local service—but with centralized support and centralized infrastructure.”
In 1998, Maui Jim expanded first into Canada and then France, followed by Australia (2000), Mexico (2002), United Kingdom (2003), Italy (2004), Germany (2004), Spain (2006), Sweden (2006), United Arab Emirates (2006), India (2009) and China (2012). “We find a market where there’s an opening or we have good relationships, then we’ll usually hire somebody we trust… purchase a facility and plant the flag in that market,” Porto explains. “It’s a very incremental growth strategy.” South Africa is the company’s latest target for expansion—it fits the model, he notes. “There are people who have disposable income, there are a lot of hotels and resorts, [and] we have access to the market. So, that’s where we go.”
The company has recently consolidated its marketing efforts to achieve a more “global look and feel” that “resonates around the world,” Black says. While its tactical approach varies country by country based on the retail landscape, needs and opportunity, it is a global campaign. “There are always nuances in language… [but] strategically, we’re going to be the same. Our position is about what you see through the lenses—not necessarily how the glasses look on you. That resonates with consumers around the world.”
And sunglasses have a broad cultural appeal, adds Porto. “There are some parts of the world where people don’t cover their eyes generally as a social norm, but [for] most of the world, wearing sunglasses is either for utility, or it can be seen as a lifestyle or fashion accessory.”
“They’re the best lenses on the market,” Black declares. “It doesn’t matter where you are.” He equates sunglasses to sunscreen—essential for protection. “I think when people realize the benefit of having Maui Jim sunglasses on during the day… they can’t stand not to have them.”
As if to confirm this assertion, Maui Jim recently completed a study in which they paid customers to give up their sunglasses for five days and report on the experience. Black reports that on the first day, participants expressed general irritation, with less enjoyment driving and going through daily tasks. By the fifth day, he says, some were at their wit’s end. “They’re like: ‘I can’t stand this!’” he exclaims. “It is addicting: that’s why our average consumer owns three-plus pairs.”
Balancing the Brand
Until recently, Maui Jim has grown solely through word-of-mouth appeal, expanding the brick-and-mortar retail locations that encourage customers to try on the glasses and see the difference for themselves. This year, however, the company launched its first-ever national media campaign, which is confined to the U.S.—for now.
“Our brand lifecycle in a lot of countries is not to the point where we’re ready to invest in media,” Black explains. “As our brand matures, we’ll be ready to look at other international markets from a media perspective. Still, our number-one objective is driving awareness and trial.”
The company has also been busy investing in information technology, piloting SAP enterprise software for business operations management and working to merge its B2B and B2C websites from twenty-some international storefronts into a single site. “It goes back to that consistency,” Black explains. “Before, [the sites] were housed and managed by each country based on the language. Now we’ve consolidated into one website, [which] is still localized by language. The consumer didn’t notice a difference, but it allows us to be much more consistent throughout the world. Because today’s consumer—especially our consumer, who does have a higher discretionary income—is global… we want to make sure that wherever that consumer is touched by our marketing material, it is consistent.”
The major challenge of this IT push is simply its scale, Porto adds. “We are still a middle-market company—we’re not a multi-billion-dollar international company. But we have presence in 15 countries… and we’re in multiple lines of business… so we have the footprint and complexities of a business that’s actually bigger than we are. When you put in the infrastructure behind it, it’s a significant effort.”
According to Porto, the real task lies in the balance of growing the company while maintaining the business—and all the while rethinking its infrastructure. “That divides people’s attention,” he laughs. “You’ve got to mind the register and make the doughnuts while at the same time, you’re renovating the kitchen.”
Still, the company stays true to its core, which is at the heart of every product. “A lot of companies would describe their target consumer as an age, a demographic [and] how much money they make,” says Black. “We really say it’s more of a lifestyle. It’s what you choose, how you choose to spend your money, and if you appreciate good things.”
Each year, Maui Jim hosts an international sales meeting in the state of its origin to discuss its global operations, bringing all of its sales managers and their spouses from around the world to Maui. “It’s a huge expense,” Porto admits, but “we like to stay close to our colleagues… Everybody knows everybody in the company, and we see each other fairly frequently. I think that’s an important point to make. It’s part of the strategy.”
“It’s a nice event—we do it right,” adds Black. “That’s a tribute to Walter. He always puts his full effort behind everything he does.”
Indeed, Hester’s “Living Aloha” mantra is a call for acceptance and appreciation of the spirit within everyone, a philosophy that informs every aspect of Maui Jim’s business. Equally important is the firm’s commitment to community, a tradition embraced in Peoria through annual events like the Maka Maka Run, a fundraiser for Peoria’s Friendship House; the Maui Jim/Children’s Home Charity Golf Classic; and the Dive for Cover “polar plunge” to benefit South Side Mission.
Speaking enthusiastically about their most recent golf benefit—an event that’s raised more than $3.5 million for Children’s Home to date—Black notes, “I think our charitable contributions are pretty large for the size of our company. And each international distribution center manages individual charity events that mirror what we do here in the U.S.”
Back in Hawaii, Hester is busy with charitable contributions of his own, donating to several local healthcare and community organizations on the islands. ”Obviously, the beneficiaries are different, and the approach is different, but that’s one of the cornerstones of our company: giving back to the community,” says Black. After all, “affection, peace, compassion and mercy” is the Aloha way. iBi