President, M. K. Equipment Corp.
Certification counseling client
M. K. Equipment Corp. has been serving Hawaii since 1973, renting construction equipment to contractors and homeowners throughout the island of Oahu. The company began when a young Marvin Kurisu, who was always mechanically inclined, decided to open a small repair shop after high school, and he eventually added a fleet of equipment, including air compressors, backhoes, excavators, and rollers.
“He enjoyed it and he put his whole life toward that,” said his daughter and now company president, Michelle Nelson. “My grandpa also had a huge part and really encouraged my dad. My dad is really humble, and growing up, I thought my grandpa owned the company and gave it to my dad, but he didn’t.”
Michelle grew up in the family business but didn’t necessarily think she’d one day take the helm. “It was hot, it was dirty. I wasn’t thrilled about it. I didn’t want to be as busy as my dad was,” she recalled. “So my dad said, ‘Just get a good education and get a good job.’” And that’s exactly what Michelle did. She earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in planning at the University of Southern California and had a successful 20-year career as an environmental planner.
One day as her dad was approaching retirement, he asked her, “Are you ready to come work for me yet?” Michelle decided to take this as an opportunity for herself as well as for her family. “Owning a construction equipment rental business wasn’t within my comfort zone, but I realized it was more about others—the employees and customers who had been with working with my dad for many years—than about me,” she recalled.
When Michelle became president in 2015, she had two toddlers and a five-year-old. She constantly shares with them about what it’s like being a mother and business owner. “I tell them that the reason I’m always busy and working is the same reason I’m able to spend a lot of time with them and go on field trips with them,” she said. “I want them to understand that business ownership is hard work, but really great.”
Today, M. K. Equipment Corp. has 13 employees, the longest of whom has been with the company for 35 years. When asked how Michelle and her dad have been able to retain employees for so long, she said, “It’s about the culture. It’s the way my dad has always treated them as if they’re family. He was able to find people with a good work ethic, who do what they do out of enjoyment and fulfillment, and he put their needs very high. I’m doing what I can to maintain that culture.”
Michelle and her team take pride in three key differentiators that set them apart from other rental stores: 1) The company’s 50-year track record means that long-time employees have a lot of ownership in how they operate and carry themselves; 2) The atmosphere is warm and welcoming, and customers are treated like a guest in their home; 3) Service is a top priority where team members immediately stop what they’re doing to make sure customers are being helped.
Despite construction being male-dominated, Michelle has found that the rental business has been very welcoming. “I’ve never felt less. They’re very respectful and open to women in the industry and being a part of it. The rental community is amazing,” she said. “Construction in general has some challenges. A lot of men don’t feel comfortable working with us yet. They go out of their way to try not to be offensive, but they can just be themselves. We need to work together and help each other learn and grow.”
Michelle’s team is very important to her, and it makes her happy to see them grow personally and professionally. Her operations manager recently shared in a meeting that he wished his direct reports would give him more feedback and be more participative. “I saw that he was really taking ownership of the culture of the team, which he calls TeaMK,” she said. “I’m so proud of his growth.”
As Michelle plans to grow M. K. Equipment Corp. and take it to the next level, she and her dad have been discussing certifications. Her office manager found the MBDA Enterprising Women of Color Business Center online and she’s now going through certification counseling. Michelle is grateful for the help that she’s been receiving and said she would’ve either given up or paid for it had she not connected with the Center and other resources.
To her fellow woman entrepreneurs and small business owners, Michelle offers the following advice: “Reach out and learn more about what it takes to start, run, and manage your own business because we don’t know what we don’t know and that paralyzes us, then we don’t do anything about it.”