Fueling Hawaii

Living healthy in Hawaii

This article was originally published on People of Saltchuk on December 31, 2017

Hawaii Petroleum’s Laura Alfonso has a passion for helping her fellow Hawaiians lead healthier lives.

By Hilary Reeves

Laura Alfonso knew from a young age that she wanted to help people – and she didn’t waste any time getting started.

“Shortly before graduating from high school, I had to decide whether to go to college or get a job,” she explained. “I decided to go straight to work and started interviewing for jobs during my last few months of high school. One of my interviewers asked when I could start. I was graduating on June 6, so I said ‘I can start June 7,’ and I was hired on the spot working for a large, local bank in downtown Honolulu.”

Born and raised in Honolulu, Alfonso’s now a Senior Account Manager at Hawaii Petroleum on Maui. Her parents met and married when her father was stationed on Oahu. The marriage was short-lived, ending before she was born. Her grandparents, first generation immigrants from Japan, raised Alfonso.

“My grandmother was a ‘picture bride,” she said. “My grandfather came to Hawaii at age 16. As was custom at the time, my grandparent’s marriage was arranged by both families. My grandparents only had a picture of each other before my grandmother was sent from Japan to Hawaii to marry in 1932. They were happily married for 58 years.”

Alfonso’s grandparents had seven children. Although her grandmother couldn’t read, write or speak English, she ran a successful delicatessen on Oahu where Alfonso began helping when she was seven years old. Through the mentoring of her grandmother Alfonso learned the importance of servitude, a custom of her grandmother’s samurai heritage.

“We were taught in our family home that the life of a samurai is the life of a servant, and it was ingrained in us early on to help and serve anyone we could.”

Alfonso began her career as a file clerk at a local bank, and married in 1979. She married her high school sweetheart; the couple now has two daughters and six grandchildren.

Alfonso’s husband was in the U.S. Army, and the couple moved to Germany with their two young daughters in 1984.

“We came from Hawaii, and we learned really quickly what cold was,” she laughed. “It was the coldest winter in Germany in more than a decade. Temperatures dropped to 30 (degrees) below (zero). I developed a wonderful friendship with our landlady there in Germany, and she taught me some German and I taught her some English. We were well loved there in Germany.”

After Alfonso moved to Germany, she was hired at American Express on post.

“I’d always wanted to be a loan officer, and after meeting with the branch manager, he created a loan department for me to work in. I loved my job, and helping the soldiers and community there.”

One of the most rewarding times of Alfonso’s career came every year during her Christmases overseas.

“I remember in particular I processed as many as 26 loan applications in one day to send soldiers back home for Christmas,” she said. “My manager thought I was crazy, but it was worth everything to see the soldiers get home to their ‘ohana’ [family].”

The family moved back to Hawaii in 1988, this time to Maui.

“Maui was always intriguing to me,” said Alfonso. “There’s something magical about this island. I promised myself that I would live there someday, and here I am.”
Alfonso again landed a job in loan servicing, this time for GE Capital. When the company closed its Hawaii operation, she went in heavy equipment sales.

“I made a lot of friends in the construction industry. When the opportunity came for me to build our home, I had so much help and support from a lot of my contacts and friends,” she laughed. “The thing about Hawaii is we have strong relationships with people.”

Alfonso was hired at Hawaii Petroleum in 2010.

“Once again, I get to focus all my customer service and sales experience in a new way to help the people and businesses of Maui,” she said.
Joining Hawaii Petroleum has also allowed Alfonso to continue helping others outside of the office as well.

“I’m a Type 1 Diabetic,” she said. “Doctors – they diagnose and prescribe medication, but it was up to me to learn to become my own doctor, in a sense. I researched what works and doesn’t work for me. I started to learn about the benefits of healthful living.”
Alfonso learned of a community-based health program and wanted to learn more about the lifestyle.

“I started testing all the lifestyle principles (of the program) on myself and made some simple changes, and it made a big impact on my disease,” she said. “I saw a big improvement.”

This motivated her to travel to New Mexico to get her certification to conduct the community health program, so she could begin helping others. She wasted no time, and began running the program on Maui in 2008.

“We built up a team, and organized to get them trained and certified to move forward in helping our community with this amazing health program,” she said. “We have helped hundreds of people get off medications, lose weight, eat better, and live longer and happier lives. It’s a powerful way to help and serve other people in need.”

Out of the 700 certified community health chapters across the country, Alfonso and her team’s hard work resulting in Maui being ranked third in results.

“The program’s founder flew to Maui to see the incredible results we were having here,” she said.

In addition to the program, Alfonso stresses the importance of a sustained lifestyle change.

“We keep participants connected through cooking classes, outdoor activities, and other community-building activities,” she said.

Recently, she and the eldest of her six grandchildren started a healthy, plant-based meal prep-delivery service.

“I plan the menu and prep while my granddaughter takes the orders and manages the business,” she explained. “Everything is fresh and healthy. It’s geared toward busy working people who are looking for healthy meals, but are too busy to cook.”

Alfonso said she looks forward to a future full of friends, family, new recipes, and sharing her food with others.

Courageous convenience

This article was originally published on People of Saltchuk on June 20, 2016

Kim Robello in front of Lahaina Minit Stop location on Maui

Minit Stop marketing manager Kim Robello continues to chart new waters

By Hilary Reeves

Kim Robello graduated from high school on the Hawaiian island of Oahu in 1978. He immediately went to work as the graveyard cashier for a local 7-Eleven, and never looked back.

“I’ve been in the convenience-store business all of my working life.”

Robello was the only one of four children to be born on the mainland. His father, a career U.S. Marine, moved back and forth, and just so happened to be stationed in Barstow, Calif. when Robello was born. The family moved back to Hawaii in 1968.

“My mother was a very proud, but generous and gracious Hawaiian,” he said. “She taught elementary school, and specialized in teaching kids who were rough, on the edge, who didn’t want to be in school. My father always said my mother made no money teaching because she spent so much of what she earned on her students, who didn’t have much. She made sure we studied hard, showed compassion and empathy toward others, and always lived our lives with Aloha.”

Robello said he learned from his mother an empathetic approach – something he employs to this day when confronting adversity.

“When dealing with others, you have to always look at a given situation with empathy for that person’s position and try very hard to work out a win-win situation,” he explained. “Sometimes circumstances don’t allow this, but if I try hard to understand the other person’s issues and challenges, they know I had their best interests in mind and that I dealt with them honestly and fairly.”

Robello’s father went to war in Korea, in addition to three tours in Vietnam.

“If you asked him what he did during those tours, he would only say that he was glad to be home knowing his family and fellow Americans were safe.”

After landing the 7-Eleven cashier job when he was 18, Robello was soon promoted to Store Manager. He “took a beating” during his first management stint and decided to step back to learn more about the industry. After a year as an assistant manager, he was again promoted to a store manager position at 7-Eleven when he was 19. Then a training manager. After 10 years with the company, he left to join Pacific Resources, now known as Tesoro, where he worked as a supervisor for just 10 days before he was awarded the position of Convenience Store Coordinator. He later accepted the position of Operations/Marketing Manager, and took over marketing as his full-time position after the company acquired an additional 33 stores.

“I always wanted to live on a neighbor island, and when given the chance by my old boss from Tesoro, along with Jim and Kimo Haynes (former owners of Minit Stop), I jumped at the chance to work for Minit Stop on beautiful Maui as the Marketing Manager. I’ve been at my current position for 16 years. When Saltchuk purchased Minit Stop, I was a little hesitant, as working for the Haynes family was wonderful, but the change to Saltchuk turned out to be equally wonderful, albeit a bigger family operation.”

Minit Stop was awarded top honors amongst all of Hawai`i’s advertising and designs for their new logo and carry-out food boxes.

Minit Stop is a popular chain of convenience stores known throughout the islands for their fried chicken and Aloha – Robello clearly serves as inspiration for the latter. He said the best thing about his job is the challenge of keeping the company relevant in the small marketplace.

“We’re a small, but feisty group,” he said. “When the bigger companies try to match up with us, they know we’re all-in and ready to rumble. My biggest challenge is not to miss opportunities when they present themselves, simply because I’m not watching. I don’t want to fail my team. But the Minit Stop team sees what I can’t, and together we don’t miss much.”

Robello regrets not attending college after high school, but believes that everything happens for a reason.

“My school counselors thought college would be wasted on me, and I believed them,” he said. “I wish hadn’t taken their advice and had gone to college, if not for the experience than for the education and leg-up it would have provided me. That said, the ‘school of hard knocks’ worked for me, though I met and received help from a lot of good folks. I’m proud to have made my parents proud, and blessed that my children have done the same for me.”

Robello is close to his brother, a retired U.S. Air Force veteran and Federal fireman; his sister, a loan officer; and another sister, the “free spirit.” He and his wife of 37 years are the proud parents of a son who works as a hospice care management nurse, and a daughter, the mother of Robello’s three grandchildren.

Robello and his wife at a Minit Stop holiday gathering last year

“I also have five Chihuahuas, who are a pain,” he laughed. “Really, my family is my hobby, along with my reason for living. By family, I mean my immediate family in addition to all the people I’ve met in my life, who are my ‘Hanai’ family. If they’re happy, I’m happy.”

Robello’s latest claim to fame was starring as the voice of the Saltchuk Hawaii video. He said he hopes to finish his career at Minit Stop.

“I hope to continue to make Minit Stop a profitable entity, and retire from the company with good memories, knowing I have it 110 percent,” he added. “Minit Stop was built on family values, and continues to be successful because Saltchuk operates with the same train of thought. Hawaii folks in general are welcoming, compassionate, and generally want you to be part of the Hawaiian Ohana. You can’t just say ‘Aloha,’ you have to live it.

“I’ve been very blessed in my life,” he concluded. “I have a wonderful immediate and Hanai family; I live in peace and tranquility in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I have my health, and I’m gainfully employed at a very good company. If other folks had half the blessings I have, they would have a lot.”

Robello as the “Voice of Saltchuk Hawaii”!

Bridging the gap: Hawaii Petroleum, industry straddle past and future sources of energy

This article was originally published on People of Saltchuk on March 20, 2018.

Steve Wetter, Vice President of Wholesale Operations at Hawaii Petroleum

“We know that if we don’t change with the market, we’re not going survive.”

By Hilary Reeves

Steve Wetter moved from Camden, New Jersey to Maui in 1970. His father, a chemical engineer turned attorney who worked for Arco in Philadelphia, had flown to Honolulu for a work conference the previous year and decided to tour an outer island before returning home to the East Coast. From there, Wetter said, began a family adventure for the ages.

“He came back and immediately put the house on the market and moved us all out to the island,” said Wetter, who was five years old and accompanied by his parents and four brothers. “At the time, he was probably considered a bit crazy, because it wasn’t necessarily a good career move. It was a pretty bold move that he made.”

Wetter and his four brothers, all close in age, adapted quickly, and spent their formative years windsurfing and indulging in all the island has to offer. His father joined an island law firm specializing in contract law, and eventually became a real estate broker. When Wetter was 14 years old – nine years after the move – his father died.

“Things really changed,” he said. “My mom went back to work as a lab tech. My brothers and I all worked from an early age, because we attended a private high school and we wanted to continue there, so we worked to put ourselves through.”

After stints mowing lawns and working a paper route, Wetter landed a job in high school that would change his life forever as a Service Station Attendant at a ’76 dealer in Kihei. After graduation, he enrolled in the University of Hawaii’s Business Management program and began work for another ’76 dealer in Honolulu.

“When I graduated in 1991, the owner of the service station I worked for through high school and during the summers during college wanted to move to North Carolina, but continue to own the station. I became a dealer for him and ran the station for three years.”

When that station was eventually sold, Wetter moved to Honolulu and got a job in sales for Pacific Petroleum.

“At that time, we had taken over a warehouse and distributorship on Maui, but it was small. I contracted Hawaii Petroleum to distribute the lubricants, and they ended up offering me a job.”

Wetter joined Hawaii Petroleum in 1998, and now works as the company’s Vice President of Wholesale Operations. He counts himself among the few who remember the islands’ first self-service station.

“I sometimes come across people in the industry who asked me how long I’ve been involved, and they’re shocked when I say ‘38 years.’ It’s funny, because I’m still relatively young. When I came to work for Hawaii Petroleum, my boss didn’t know that I knew everyone as well as I did. Some of the guys were employees of the ’76 jobber [wholesale distributors] when I was working in high school. They delivered the fuel to us, so I got to know all the drivers.”

Along with Wetter, the company has grown, not only organizationally, but also via new sites, including two new convenience store locations on the Big Island. There are 35 employees on Maui and the Big Island in wholesale distribution.

“We’re a pretty small crew,” said Wetter, “and we’re responsible for distributing all the fuel. We have accounts ranging from government to commercial to retail service stations and, of course, our own stations.”

The industry, he said, is competitive, but shrinking – as is the number of wholesale distributors – or “jobbers.”

“Hawaii is a big alternative-energy state,” Wetter explained. “We harness solar power, wind power – even the waves. The Legislature would like to see everyone off fossil fuels for both power and transportation. Electric cars, bio fuel…that will change our industry here in the long run.”

The change is welcome, he said, but the trick is bridging the gap between what is the status quo now, and what will come in the future.

“Change is difficult,” said Wetter. “We know that if we don’t change with the market, we’re not going survive. I put solar panels on my house, and we have them here at the office. It’s not something we intent to ignore. The first step in bridging the gap. No one wants to make investments here in refineries if they’re going to be obsolete within a few decades. And if that happens, what’s going to happen to people who can’t afford electric cars? Gas may be cheap, but what if they can’t get to it? We’re hoping to be among the problem-solvers who figure out how to phase in alternative energy while still maintaining affordable petroleum products. The key is phasing it in, and allowing time for technology to catch up.”

Wetter sits on the board of the Hawaii Petroleum Marketers Association, a board composed of industry leaders and representatives of the state. He also sits on the board of the Western Petroleum Marketers Association, a collaborative effort of seven western states.

“Our biggest challenge is how to transition during the next 20 years to alternative energy,” he said. “It’s a tricky, but exciting prospect.”

Wetter’s daughter attends the University of Hawaii on Maui; his wife is the concierge of the Four Seasons Maui at Wailea. An active Rotarian, he counts education as an essential building block of success.

“We’ve done many wonderful projects in the community,” said Wetter, who served on the board of the Rotary Club of Kahului for 10 years.

With the help of a grant, Wetter and his fellow Rotarians recently completed a complete re-painting of the Maui MEO Head Start Preschool, a preschool created as part of an area homeless shelter. Wetter also serves on the club’s scholarship board.

“I’m a big supporter of education, having put myself through college,” he said. “I’m an especially big supporter of those who are under-privileged and unable to pay for it. I get very excited by those who are the first in their family to be able to go. I think if I had been a little more driven, I couldn’t have expanded past my bachelor’s degree.”

To that end, Wetter enrolled last summer in a six-week leadership course at Stanford University in California.

“I had a long weekend in the middle of it, and my daughter flew over and stayed in the dorm with me – she was blown away by the campus and the level of education offered there.”

Wetter acknowledges he’s come a long way since his days of windsurfing.

“A lot of people probably don’t know that while two of my brothers were professional windsurfers, my mom was the last family member doing it,” he laughed. “Our family was even featured in an ‘80s television ad for the Hawaiian Moving Company. Life’s worked out differently than I envisioned, but better than I could have imagined when I first stepped off the plane as a five-year-old boy from New Jersey.”

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