Gary and Jeri met in 1971 and Gary’s military career quickly took them around the world. Two of their sons, Justin and Jonathan were born in Yokosuka, Japan.  Jordan was born in Virginia while the family was getting ready for another overseas tour and this time to the American Embassy in the former Soviet Union.   Living through spy dust, Chernobyl and general life in Russia, they were ready for a change of scenery.  The next tour would be Hawaii in 1987.  And what a change it was!  Jams were the rage and local manufacturing of Aloha clothing was at its peak in Hawaii. Jeri knew this was where she wanted to stay so Gary challenged her to find a way to buy him out of the military. 

The way came in the form of an idea when during a rain spell, Jeri watched as women in beautiful muumuus pulled out black umbrellas. That weekend she bought some Aloha print fabric and they invented the first product of many to come. An Aloha print umbrella cut in such a way that each umbrella created a one-of-a-kind unique kaleidoscope. 

Jeri could cut and sew the covers in the day while the kids were at school and Gary was at work. Gary would turn Koa wood handles on the lathe in the garage on the weekends and assemble the umbrellas with the family at night. The family would bag and tag the finished product and would sell the product at craft fairs.  But they needed a name.

Jeri is one of  6 sisters and 2 brothers with names that all start with the letter J; Gary and Jeri named their children Justin, Jonathan, and Jordan. One day on a phone call with her sisters who all still lived in Kansas, she bemoaned about not having a great business name.  A few weeks later, a package arrived with business cards, stationery, envelopes and many other items emblazoned with the name and logo Tropical J’s. The year was 1988.

Handheld Umbrellas

The umbrellas were a big hit at craft fairs.  Gary and Jeri have always been known for their problem-solving ability, and their umbrellas quickly became known for their beauty and quality.  It caught the attention of local designers like Sig Zane and Mamo Howell who wanted to collaborate with the couple. This challenged the two to solve waterproofing issues as Aloha print fabric is not waterproof.  Gary approached this by befriending a scientist at a DuPont facility on the East Coast, who certified the Barnes’ Mililani home as a DuPont research facility.  This way they could order Teflon to their home and apply it to designer fabrics. 

In 1993 they submitted their handheld umbrella to the QVC home shopping network which was held at Hyatt Regency Waikiki but were denied because each product was unique. Their policy was that each product had to be the same.  While at the Hyatt, the GM saw a market framed umbrella that Gary and Jeri had silkscreened with a Hawaiian tapa print and brought for backdrop to their handheld umbrellas.  He immediately ordered 27 umbrellas with the Hawaiian tapa print.  Jeri took the order and told Gary they may have a small problem.

Tropical J’s Inc.

In 1993, their talent had led the couple to start to explore selling custom fabric goods.  This order for the Hyatt and an even bigger order for the renovated Aloha Tower warranted moving to the Kapalama Military Reservation.  They set up a woodshop and a sew shop and started selling custom work.  Their oldest son designed the pattern for the Sheraton Waikiki and they sent out their first custom outdoor market umbrella order.  Gary and Jeri invested so much time in researching why umbrellas failed in Hawaii and rigorously developed and fine-tuned their market umbrella collection.  35 sizes were available and some other custom sizes were possible if you ask Gary nicely.

As is typical with most awning shops, a talented couple with a healthy risk appetite began offering custom manufacturing services and their real business was born.  Custom solutions require problem-solving with a great team and tool selection. The company grew over the years focusing on solving problems with a large product portfolio of manufactured and resell products.  Installations grew from homes to commercial properties to construction sites. In 2006, their oldest son, Justin, came back to Hawaii after college followed by Jonathan and Jordan. 

These years are marked by the most wonderful and wild projects you can imagine. Tropical J’s manufactured all the tents for Molokai Ranch which in turn earned them the tent project at an eco-destination in Bermuda. They worked with designers, architects and structural engineers.  They executed complicated structures using 2D software, templating and ingenuity.  As the business grew, departments within the company had dedicated people and then managers. The company stayed at the forefront of manufacturing and got into machines that allowed them to push the limits of their ability. They did this quite often. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes not, and the company and its experience grew.

In 2013 the state gave them 3 months’ notice to move out of their 20,000 square foot warehouse. They were going to widen the harbor and Tropical J’s had to move.  Jeri had applied for the right to move into the Sand Island Business Association’s property located on Sand Island and they were approved. They started building in November 2013 and moved into their custom designed factory in February 2014. This is our current property at 1052 Ulupono Street Honolulu.

Tropical J’s 2.0

In 2018 Justin went back to school and earned an executive MBA from the University of Hawaii.  His team had developed the systems to manage the company. In 2023 he became CEO of the company and implemented two big initiatives.

Tropical J’s will reduce the barriers of selling custom canopies that required engineering by pre-engineering them. We engineered a design that is efficient to manufacture with the least amount of steel to meet our wind speed required and with standardized parts.

We plan to grow the commodity (umbrellas/furniture) arm of the company.  To support this, Tropical J’s made an unsolicited proposal for partnership to a property managed by OHA, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. The property holds a 12,000 square foot deck and will become Honolulu’s gathering space with food, music and art.  We are honored to be a part of this worthwhile partnership.  We will be providing beautiful (and comfortable) furniture with ample shade from umbrellas and canopies.  QR codes will take locals and visitors alike to an interactive website.  We are launching this endeavor this year!

Currently, Tropical J’s serves commercial customers for awnings, canopies, market umbrellas, large architectural umbrellas and commercial furniture.  

See the awards page or featured for some of the projects were known for.  

A warm Aloha and Mahalo for taking the time to learn about where we’ve come from and where we’re going.