Tea Boy to Tycoon: Sir Henry Francis Chow

Updated on January 17, 2018
Romney Tabara profile image

Romney Charles Tabara received an MBA from the University of Papua New Guinea, and has served in government and corporate management.

Snax Cracker
Snax Cracker

The humble Snax Cracker, a biscuit many Papua New Guineans take for granted at prices between 80t to K1.00, is what most people can afford, and what many reach for when they go to the nearest canteen or roadside market.

But take a closer look at this cracker. Believe it or not, there is a ‘rags to riches’ story behind it. This is a Papua New Guinean story that spans three generations.

Sir Henry Chow

The grandson of a tea boy who served a German master in Rabaul, Sir Henry Chow headed one of the most successful businesses in the country, with over 1,200 employees involved in shipping, manufacturing, and logging. His businesses involved stevedores and transport; ship repairs and maintenance; manufacturing and distribution of biscuits; manufacturing of sausages, small goods, ham and bacon; fishing and export of marine products to Asian countries; logging and sawmill operation; and export of products to Australia and to Asian, European, and Pacific Countries.

Sir Henry Francis Chow was born a Papua New Guinean on the 10th of July 1933 in Rabaul, East New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea. Educated in Rabaul and Australia, he was the first person from the country, after the Second World War, to serve an apprenticeship and be trained as a boat designer/builder in Australia.

He started Toboi Shipbuilding Company with only eight employees in 1958 after returning to Rabual with his wife. By 1972, Toboi Shipbuilding Company had 120 employees and had designed and built 170 vessels.

Sir Henry Chow has been actively involved in local and community service, politics and commerce, the People’s Progress Party as well as Philanthropy. He was awarded the Title of “Officer of the British Empire” (OBE) by the Queen on the 16th of September 1975 and promoted to “Knight Bachelor” (Kt.) on the 1st of January 2000 for his long service to the people of Papua New Guinea.

He was appointed Chairman of the National Research Institute (NRI) in January 2007. On the 6th of March, 2001 Sir Henry Chow became the Honorary Consul General resident in Port Moresby of the Republic of Singapore. In recognition of his contributions to the people in the Southern Region of Guangdong Province, in the Republic of China, Sir Chow was presented a Golden Medal.

I was first formally introduced to the Chow family during a PNG NRI delegation visit to Lae to inspect the major food manufacturing facilities as part of the ‘PNG NRI Leadership Development Program’ initiative from the 20th to 22nd September 2016. This was indeed an eye-opening and humbling experience.

As the business representative and Chairman of the National Research Institute Council, Sir Henry was indeed a visionary leader, one who embodied the NRI Way and brought a whole new dimension to the meaning of the term Public-Private Partnership.

The story of the Chow family is similar to that of many other generational Papua New Guinean Chinese and prominent expatriate business families who decided to stay on and operate in PNG after independence despite the predictions of anarchy by observers at the time.

Eight Fundamental Lessons

This list comes from my short time with the Chow family and the many lessons eloquently pointed out by Sir Henry during NRI staff meetings. These are eight fundamental principles needed to stand out in the business or the corporate world, and life in general.

1. Manage Your Time

Time is essential. It is important to manage your time and yourself. Even if it is just an informal meeting, or something that does not need to be done right away, manage your time or it will get the better of you.

2. Be Humble

Always be humble. There is no need to try to pretend to be more than you really are. Believe it or not, the Lae Biscuit Group of companies' head office in Port Moresby is located ,of all places, in the notorious Gerehu Stage six. Up until his passing Sir Henry drove three different types of the same model of car, the 2002 Nissan Primera 2002, blue, black and silver, around Moresby. He was well known to the admin staff for driving up to NRI unannounced just to chat with the Director.

3. Know Who You Are

Know who you are, as a person and where you come from. Know your roots. Sir Henry finally visited his ancestral home in Guangdong province in the Republic of China after many years. The Chow family still actively contributes to the development of the province and he was later officially recognized by the Chinese government.

4. Always Challenge Yourself

Always challenge yourself. On the eve of his 80th birthday, Sir Henry was travelling to China to work on specifications for his new ships that were soon to be launched as part of Chebu Shipping. This is quite contrary to other eighty-year-olds, who would be either be retired in the village, bed-ridden, or in a nursing home overseas.

5. Respect Your Workers

The Lae Biscuit Group of companies presents itself as an employee of choice. It offers very competitive remuneration packages to employees including housing and dining facilities. “Take care of your workers and they will take care of you,” Sir Henry would often remark.

6. Specialize in a Core Business and Grow

From humble beginnings in 1975 as a small bakery located near Voco Point, the Lae Biscuit Group has grown to several companies, divided among Sir Henry’s children, each specializing in related industries.

7. Recognize When it is Time to Seek Outside Expertise

There comes a time when a family business does not have the capacity to completely manage its operations. It is important to recognize this at an early stage and be willing to seek outside assistance, that is, to recruit outside the family to continue to grow the business.

8. Always Give Back to Your Community

The Lae Biscuit Company and the Prima Small Goods Company are both Digicel Cup franchise owners, of the Lae Snax Tigers and the Gulf Ispaeas respectively. Sir Henry was an active member of the Catholic Archdiocese of Rabaul and a large benefactor to the Catholic Church and several other charities.

Now on the 30th February 2017, sitting at his memorial service at the Don Bosco Technological Institute (DBTI) in Port Moresby, I find it hard to believe that this one man was able to achieve so much in his life time until his passing on 21st January 2017.

He was a simple man who lived a fulfilling life, a true Papua New Guinean whose life should be an example for others. The life of Sir Henry Francis Chow was a truly unique Papua New Guinean story of transforming a Small to Medium Enterprise (SME) into a Multi-Regional Company (MRC), a challenge to all those entrepreneurs who dare to dream big.

© 2017 Romney Charles Tabara

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