Frank Suster, who has worked at City Mill for 36 years, is legendary for his ability to fix or make anything including holiday decorations for his yard that take three days to set up. He also makes ukuleles, writes songs and does a good elvis
By Alice Keesing
Where do you start with a guy like Frank Suster? At first glance he seems so quiet. So serious. After all, his job at City Mill is to take care of safety, and safety is a serious thing.
Yet underneath that red fleece City Mill jacket is a person who can only be described as a real character Suster is not only Mr. Fix-it, but he makes things, he sings, he dances, he plays guitar, he impersonates Elvis and he takes his co-workers and family along for the fun.
The man just comes up with surprises every which way you turn. And it’s so surprising because you don’t see it coming from such an unassuming guy.
“The guy is, like, amazing,” says City Mill president Steven Ai. “He can fix anything. And he does everything yesterday.”
Case in point: When the Nimitz store needed painting five years ago, Suster didn’t like the contractor’s price, so he got out there himself and painted the entire building (and it ain’t small) in four weekends.
Perhaps that’s why his wife Wanda fondly calls him Mr. Workaholic.
Ai remembers the time the company gave the Susters a thank-you gift of a trip to Maui with air fare, car and hotel.
“So there they are on Maui, and he jumps in the car and where did he go? To hardware stores on Maui,” Ai laughs. “To have idle time is the worst thing to do to him. So I wondered, did we reward him or penalize him (with the trip)?”
Suster is a reminder of the way we used to work. He has been with the kamaaina hardware store for 36 years his entire working life. His mother also worked there. Same with his brothers and sisters, and his daughter.
“City Mill that’s been my life,” Suster says.
He started with the company when he was 17 and still finishing up at Campbell High School. Then he put in 30 hours a week while attending Chaminade University. When he graduated with his degree in business administration in 1973, he became the manager of the Waipahu store.
He went on to manage all the first five stores twice (there are now eight) before joining the executive team as facilities and safety manager.
“The thing I don’t like about this,” he says pointing to his yellow City Mill name tag, which states that he has been a team member since 1969, “is that people come up to me and say, ‘Oh wow, you started at City Mill before I was born.’ But now what I’m getting is, ‘Oh wow, you started at City Mill before my mother was born.’ That’s what blows my mind.”
City Mill staff call Suster their own Bob Villa. Want to know anything? Ask Frank. He’s also a familiar face to the public. For years he has written a DIY column for Hawaii Home + Remodeling magazine on everything from choosing a hammer to installing a pre-hung door. He also had a spot on KHNL’s former Hawaii Remodeling show.
Wanda Suster remembers how some viewers would look Suster up in the phone book and call him at home asking if he could come over and help with a project.
“Everyone knows what kind of person Frank is,” she says. “He will help anybody.” (And, no, he doesn’t do house calls, she adds, although being the kind of guy he is, he invariably gives what help he can over the phone.)
As City Mill’s appointed Safety Sheriff, Suster has taken the often unwelcome job of safety and turned it into something that every employee thinks about. Ten years ago, worker’s comp claims were going through the roof. With Suster’s incentive campaign accident rates are way down and other companies are calling to ask his secret.
It started with steak and shrimp dinners. If a store went 100 days without injury, Suster promised the executive team would come out and cook everyone a steak and shrimp dinner. That first year, Suster was running back and forth for supplies for 400 dinners.
Then Suster upped the ante. Three hundred days without injury, and every store member gets $100 cash in their hand the company doled out $32,000 last year.
And then there are the songs. Along with every reward comes a song, specially written, played and sung by Suster for the store employees.
Here’s how Waipahu was serenaded:
“And we’re very proud
of our safety record you see
We celebrate today 300 days injury-free
But our goal is now 600 days
More money from Steven Ai.”
Suster has a black binder chock full of the hundreds of songs he has written over the years for family and co-workers for weddings, births, anniversaries, arrivals, departures and everything in between. That’s why his co-workers call him Mr. Music Man.
He also organizes the company’s Halloween dress-up contest and make no mistake, these City Mill folks go to town for this kind of thing. Frank’s latest apparition was Saw Man he put a string and pick-up on a hand saw and plugged it into an amp for a rocking rendition of Chicago’s 25 or 6 to 4.
“Frank is very quiet,” Wanda Suster says. “But once you get him on the guitar, that’s it.”
Suster always is carrying his guitar when they go to their large family gatherings. One of their favorite sing-alongs is Suster’s Portuguese anthem a rousing tune about pork and beans and gravy and the Portagee navy.
Which brings us to the story of his family. Of course, Suster is a proud Portagee. He is fifth generation in Hawaii. His great-great-grandparents came on the second ship from Portugal in 1879 to work on the plantations. As soon as his great-great-grandfather, Manuel Nunes, had worked his time in the sugar cane fields, he returned to his trade as a maker of fine furniture and instruments.
“My great-great-grandfather is actually acknowledged as being the creator of the modern ukulele,” Suster says.
Nunes adapted the small Portuguese guitar called the machete de braga and came up with the Hawaii version. One of his apprentices was Samuel Kamaka and you know the history from there.
Inspired by his heritage, Suster recently taught himself to make ukuleles from scratch. In four years he’s made 50 of them. First he started using scrap lumber like maple from old kitchen cabinets, but he’s since graduated into fine woods like koa. No one ukulele looks the same, and they invariably have a bit of that Suster flair, sporting something like a square body or two necks or an ukulele/fiddle hybrid.
“I’m not a professional ukulele maker, this is all fun,” he says.
And he does have a lot of fun in his home workshop the kind of space that most guys would drool over. It’s big, and it’s stocked with every tool he’s accumulated over the last three decades.
It’s in this workshop that he turns out his plywood Christmas characters.
“I’m one of those guys who goes all out over Christmas,” he says.
An understatement, perhaps. The Suster’s yard display takes three days to set up. There are more than 5,000 lights (the electricity bill goes up $40) and a hundred or so of the characters Suster crafts. There’s often a traffic backlog as people come by to gaze on the sight.
“I sit upstairs and all I can hear is the kids going, ‘Oooh, aaah, oooh, aaah,’” Wanda Suster says. “And then they cry because they don’t want to go home.”
Suster also has developed quite a following for his whirligigs, small characters with legs or wings that spin in the wind. He’s done roosters and bees and flamingoes and Tweety Bird and Tigger he’s even presented Warrior quarterback Timmy Chang and mascot Vili Fehoko with whirligigs of themselves.
For a long time Suster sold the whirligigs outside his parents’ house on the main highway. In two years he made enough money to take his entire extended family of 17 to Disneyland.
That’s just the kind of guy Frank Suster is.
Published December 22, 2004 by MidWeek©