From hostess to CEO
In 2015, Jackie Reed took the helm of a Maui institution — now celebrating 40 years
Jackie Reed is the epitome of a business success story and the American Dream, working her way up from hostess to chief executive officer of a 13-restaurant chain with four Maui restaurants, including Kimo’s and Leilani’s on the Beach on the west side.
“I think it speaks to the culture of the company, which is all about ohana,” she said Friday in a phone interview. T S Restaurants, which is celebrating its 40-year anniversary this year, hired the 18-year-old Reed as a hostess for Leilani’s on the Beach in 1989. She had come home to Maui, where her mom had moved, to regroup following a difficult year at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
It was family that got Reed the job of her life. Her mom, an immigrant from Samoa, worked at the Musashi restaurant in Lahaina, whose owners were partners in Leilani’s. She got her daughter the job without having to interview through her connections with Musashi executives,
“When I started as a hostess, I didn’t know it would be my career,” said Reed, 46.
She would move up the ranks of the company with restaurants in Hawaii and California from hostess to office manager to controller — and finally in November 2015 to CEO.
“If you’re willing to listen and do the work, you have all these opportunities open to you” with T S Restaurants, Reed said, adding the caveat — if that’s what you want.
The founders of the company, Sandy Saxten and Rob Thibaut, both of whom have passed, set that foundation based on a culture of family and friendship. T S’ founders came to the islands to open their first restaurant, Kimo’s in Lahaina town in 1977, because of the culture, she said.
The company has expanded from Kimo’s to add 12 more restaurants in Hawaii and California, including Leilani’s in 1982; Hula Grill Kaanapali in 1994; and Duke’s Beach House Maui in Kaanapali in 2009.
T S has restaurants on Kauai and in Waikiki, as well as Lake Tahoe, Huntington Beach and Malibu.
The growth has been gradual and measured. Reed said T S seeks out long-term commitments, such as the 50-year lease for its newest restaurant, Duke’s La Jolla.
“It’s not ‘Oh, how much money can we make?’ “ she said. “We want to be part of the community.”
T S seeks to “create a sense of place,” she said.
“If you are opening too many or expanding too fast, you can lose authenticity of the brand,” Reed said. “We make sure we are very careful in what we choose.”
The choice involves picking places “where we would like to live, work and play,” Reed said.
Being a part of a community means being a good, charitable citizen. T S’ Legacy of Aloha philanthropic efforts, which have included honoring teachers and offering scholarships on the west side, are meant to be selfless without expecting anything in return. T S truly can give and volunteer selflessly, Reed said, because it is a privately held family company without shareholders to satisfy.
Philanthropy is “very important” to the Saxten and Thibaut families, she said. “There isn’t the pressure of ‘what can we get out of it,’ “ said Reed. “It’s more about the impact.”
“That’s what the T S legacy is meant to be,” she said.
When asked if T S might consider expanding outside its havens of Hawaii and California, Reed left open the possibility, noting that there are many locations that fit T S’ philosophical eye, quickly adding: “Hawaii is where we started, and Hawaii will always be home.”
Reed declined to disclose income and profit data for the privately held family company but said that T S’ profit margins are higher than average, and that 2016 was the busiest year for the company, with 2017 topping that so far.
“We have grown every year outside of the recession years” of 9-11 and the Great Recession, she said.
She also was guarded about her specific vision for the company.
“We are in our second generation, so we are doing a lot of work at the board level of making sure our restaurants are relevant well into the next generation,” Reed said.
That means maintaining the “authentic connection, family feeling, waterfront locations, friendships,” she said.
“What I hope for my stamp is No. 1 to perpetuate the culture because it is a wonderfully nurturing environment,” Reed said. “It is very important for me to maintain that for future generations.”
Other factors lending to the company’s success include solid systems of accountability, removing temptation to not follow the systems, doing audits to make sure to have the right checks and balances and employing technology, she said.
T S also offers general managers and some chefs partnerships in the restaurants they are managing or cooking in, she said.
But everything the company does revolves around the foundation of culture.
“We are in the hospitality business,” Reed said. “We want people to feel like they are in a family environment. We have to create that family environment with T S.
“We have strong values, and we have our mission statement. It doesn’t matter what we say it is. It matters what people show it is.”
“That is the beautiful thing about T S,” said Reed. “There is a good foundation, and the company is filled with people who believe in the culture and carry it on every day.”
The T S culture enveloped Reed at a young age and nurtured her to run the company years later. It is part of the “culture of people matter” that Saxen and Thibaut created, she said.
“It felt so perfect being around people where the owners know your name and care about you,” she said. “It really resonated with me as a young person starting out.”
Saxen “took on the father role” for her, Reed said. He knew that she grew up without a father in her life. Her biological dad left when she was 3 years old, and they maybe have had two interactions in her life.
Saxen “decided he wanted to be one of those people who wanted to guide me. I was fortunate,” she said.
Reed was born in Honolulu and grew up in the San Diego area, but visited family in the islands often. Her mom eventually moved back to Maui to be with family when Reed began at Leilani’s.
Saxen took the time to learn about his employees and in Reed’s case that “I had a lot of dreams and a lot of ambition.”
Reed transferred to a restaurant on the Mainland with the intention of continuing her education. At 19, she became an office manager and would tell herself that she would go back to school next year “and it turned out to be 10.”
Saxen knew that earning a degree was important to her. He sat her down, made her write out a plan and then presented opportunities for her to earn her degree while working.
Reed would go on to earn her bachelor’s degree and her master’s in business administration in 2015 from San Diego State University.
“I would like to think I would have gone back eventually,” she said. “I was in that space where I was so busy working and I was living with this regret and he didn’t allow me to forget.”
Saxen died three years ago.
“I am extremely grateful . . . I was able to be as close to him as I was,” she said.
It was when she began her pursuit of her MBA that she got an inkling that the company had big plans for her. Bill Parsons, the longtime CEO and her predecessor, approved of her seeking the MBA and threw in, “we have other plans for you.”
“I really just had my head down and was just trying to achieve and learn as much as I could,” she said.
Parsons would later disclose his plans to retire and that she would succeed him.
“To be honest, I was terrified,” Reed recalled. “I was scared of messing things up.
“I love this company so much. I wanted to do right by everybody. I still feel that to some extent.”
And she wanted to do right by Saxen.
“Sandy was a father figure to me,” she said. “I really want to make him proud.”
* Lee Imada can be reached at email@example.com.