Ayko Group owner Chris Lee ’17 hammers home his commitment to Habitat for Humanity
It wasn’t all bad. In fact, some good did emerge from COVID-19. Vaccine production ramped up. Economic stimulus programs helped families weather financial hardships. And businesses—small and large—received Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to keep their workforce employed during the pandemic. For Chris Lee ’17, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) allowed him to build a relationship with Honolulu Habitat for Humanity.
“During the coronavirus scare, some of our planned/negotiated projects were suspended due to government restrictions,” says Lee, a Chaminade MBA graduate and owner of the construction company, Ayko Group. “Luckily, we received the PPP loans and we were able to keep the employees paid during the shut downs.”
A community-service-oriented business owner, Lee talked to a friend—the president of a local HVAC company—about business slowdowns, and because of this stagnation, he learned his friend’s company started taking on philanthropic endeavors with their employees. This prompted Lee to call Habitat for Humanity Honolulu and Habitat for Humanity West O‘ahu to see if Ayko could lend a hand in their home builds.
“My thought process being we are carpenters, and knowing that we could assist others at the same time as keeping our skills honed, would be a win-win,” Lee notes. “Habitat for Humanity Honolulu replied and was interested in this partnership, and we helped them on a few new builds along with some critical repairs.”
In pre-pandemic times, Ayko Group strictly focused on commercial and military projects, given Lee’s background as a former U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Corps officer, who has worked as a civilian manager for both Navy Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Not keen on pursuing residential builds—because he’s uncomfortable about taking people’s money—his own admission—the 43-year-old entrepreneur decided to make an exception.
“The timing could not have been any better,” says Honolulu Habitat for Humanity CEO TJ Joseph, who is also a beneficiary of a Habitat for Humanity home. “Because of COVID, we had to stop all volunteer efforts, which we largely rely on to start and finish all our projects. So Chris’ call was a true godsend, and if it wasn’t for him coming out, we would not have finished the homes.”
The jobs started small, with some carpentry, drywalling, fire blocks, flooring issues, and leveling and patching a driveway for a new homestead home. Then came the Sniffen home in Waimānalo, which had only reached the demolition stage before the pandemic hit.
“It was just a slab,” Lee says. “So we brought in seven guys to work on-site and we finished the build in probably two, three weeks. I only like to do residential projects with organizations like Habitat.”
In comparison, Joseph says the timeline for Habitat for Humanity to complete a single project could take months since the workforce consists of volunteers, who may or may not have any construction experience.
“Habitat for Humanity’s business model is based on a community building together,” Joseph explains. “With this old model, we were only able to finish one or two homes a year since we were only building on Saturdays. But now we’re using sub-contractors to lay the foundation, and install the roof, drywall, electric and plumbing.”
The concept that became Habitat for Humanity first grew from the fertile soil of Koinonia Farm, a community farm outside of Americus, Georgia, founded by farmer and biblical scholar Clarence Jordan.
On the farm, Jordan and Habitat’s eventual founders, Millard and Linda Fuller, developed the idea of “partnership housing,” which centered on those in need of adequate shelter working side-by-side with volunteers to build quality, affordable residences. The homes would be built at no profit. New homeowners’ housing payments would be combined with no-interest loans provided by supporters and money earned by fundraising to create “The Fund for Humanity,” which would then be used to build more houses.
Thanks in no small part to the personal involvement of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn, and the awareness they have raised, Habitat now works in all 50 states in the U.S. and more than 70 countries. Habitat’s advocacy efforts focus on policy reform to remove systemic barriers preventing low-income and historically underserved families from accessing adequate, affordable shelter.
“Right now, we have 16 families on our waiting list,” Joseph says. “And of the 16, 14 or 15 of them already have funding.”
Lee plans to continue to help Habitat for Humanity, whenever he is able to do so. Quoting former Hogan Entrepreneur Program director, John Webster, Lee says he is abiding his creed: “Doing business things that make social sense and doing social things that make business sense.”
“John always stated that before the Wednesday speaker sessions,” Lee says.
“It has always rang true to me, and when given the opportunity to help, I will, especially during a time like Covid. I’m fulfilling my service mission, which lines up with the values of a Chaminade education, and it also matches what my mom instilled in me when I was a kid.”