|Sir Brian…a friend and humanitarian|
|Sir Brian Bell was a passionate supporter of sports such as cricket, and was, until the time of his death, patron of Cricket PNG|
Sir Brian Bell…leaves behind a legacy in the Brian Bell and Company Ltd
Sir Brian receiving his award from the Salvation Army for his services during the Army’s 50th anniversary in PNG in 2006. He is flanked by Andrew Kalai on his right and General Shaw Clifton, international leader of Salvation Army
By ROBERT KEITH-REID in
Paradise Magazine, June 2004
April, 2004. It’s the month in which Brian Bell rings up 50 years of life and business in
. Papua New Guinea
Back in April 1954, the then 26-yearold pharmacist arrived at
. Port Moresby
He wanted to escape a small town life in Chinchilla,
, with a population of 1500. His sense of adventure had been fired up by a newspaper report of the killing of two Australian patrol officers in the Queensland
“That’s the place for me,” he thought, and was told by a friend that “when you get there, get in touch with my brother at the government store. He might have a job for you.”
was an Australian colonial backwater. Papua New Guinea
Burns Philp and W R Carpenters with Steamships were the great mercantile trading names in the land.
“There were phones and they were free, no taxation, no public transport and we had to get a quota for our imports. When that was used up, you’d either try to get it extended or you went to the person down the road and paid them to use their quota. There was no tax, but then again there was no money either. There was no money going into the community. The houses were built of sisal. The expatriates would come up to work and save their money to go south and didn’t spend it here at all, so as a result there wasn’t much money here.
“The Australians drove all the tankers and trucks. Papua New Guineans didn’t do driving of any kind. Now, it’s the other way round. They weren’t allowed to drink until 1956. Things have changed, but in those days we had what was called the Native Women’s Protection Ordinance.
“All the whites were not allowed to go into the villages between six at night and six in the morning because they were having too many little babies.
“When I came in ‘54, we had the Australian Petroleum Company (APC) and they’d been drilling for oil in PNG since 1935. When they folded up and closed down, we thought the game’s over and that was the end of it. But it wasn’t, although APC used to keep Papua alive. We didn’t get much money from Papua because the Australian government didn’t put much into it because the United Nations gave us
to administer, so New Guinea put all their window dressing there to keep the UN happy. We still feel Papua has been a bit neglected.” Australia
That, says Sir Brian Bell, as he is now titled, was a little bit of
as it was 50 years ago. In ringing up his golden anniversary, Sir Brian can deservedly ring his bell loudly and clear. He’s chairman and managing director of Brian Bell & Company Ltd, one of Papua New Guinea ’s great business success stories. You’ll find Brian Bell outlets in 10 retail stores and represented by 25 distribution agencies throughout Papua New Guinea
W R Carpenters, as it was, and Burns Philp, as it was, are no more, although Steamships remains a competitor with such newcomers as Courts.
Brian Bell & Company flourished to absorb bits of the fading Carpenters and Burns Philp empires. One bit of that was a disaster. The company bought the Burns Philp branch at Rabaul 18 months before a volcano blew its top to destroy much of the historic old town. The insurance company denied cover. “It cost us millions and millions,” says Sir Brian. Today, the Brian Bell organisation employs 1100 people and sells and services practically everything except food and clothing.
It’s in refrigeration, electrical appliances, chemical cleaners, furniture, toys, agricultural machinery, seeds, tools and fertilisers.
When business conditions got tough and banks cut credit off to small borrowers, Brian Bell established its own credit divisions, enabling customers on small budgets to pay instalments from their fortnightly pay.
The Brian Bell business just grew and grew, its founder agrees. One opportunity led to another. How does the company rate, measured by volume of business? “About half of Steamies, I reckon.”
After first landing at
, young Brian landed a temporary job - thanks to his friend’s brother. A few months later he moved on to the government pharmacy. Port Moresby
“I got out of the pharmacy and started a small business at Boroko in agency lines. We used to bring in a lot of guns in the old days; a lot of guns from every part of the world.
The patrol officers used to take firearms out, shotguns and handguns and that continued for four or five years.
“We used to make the old Australian point-303 rifle, taking the barrel out and put in a conversion to a point-22. We used to re-barrel and rebuild guns. We used to do a lot of shooting at home in Chinchilla, pigs and ducks. That gave us a fair sort of income.
“I have nothing to do with them now, we don’t sell or repair them.
You don’t want to tell people you’ve got guns in the place because people might come and say ‘where’s that gun you’ve got here?’
“In ‘54, you see, there was no licensing. Some of these characters used to pick up sub-machine guns. I mean all these young patrol officers; they were a bit like footy players
. They used to shoot the trees, etcetera. That all ceased when licensing came in. Australia
“The first store was over at Boroko. It ran for about a year or two. Then we went into town at the igloo, as it was called, down at the beach where the multi-storey building right on the beach is now, then we came back to about somewhere where we were in 1969. The Brian Bell lines of business grew out of each other, more or less. One thing led to another.
“In 1955, the South Pacific Brewery had been built and was producing beer like onion water. Every Saturday morning they used to have this special on this beer of theirs. You could go down and buy it at a very cheap price because no one liked it. They liked
, Tiger and Becks, all imported foreign been. At one stage a fire burnt down the shed on the wharf, so there was no imported beer. Everyone had to drink SP. The beer changed for the better when ownership changed. Times have changed because now they make world class beers. The owners used to sell refrigerators and when they moved to Lae they used me as their agent in Richmond . Then they wanted to get out of refrigerators, so I raised the money and took the agencies over. Port Moresby
“That was how Brian Bell’s electrical appliance and refrigeration business began.
“I went down to
Sydney to see the manufacturer of Crosby refrigerators and Bendix washing machines and persuaded them to give me some refrigerators without payment untilI could pay them. I got the brewery manager to put them on his floor for 1% a month until they were sold or he would take them over on hire 21purchase.
“In those days the Commonwealth Government had a rule that if you live in a place where you needed assistance, you had a staff house, and if water and services were available you could have an automatic washing machine.
“So we sold hundreds and hundreds of washing machines and refrigerators. Then the PWD said, ‘okay it costs us thousands to build staff quarters, so how about we buy washing machines and put them on a back verandah’. That was the Hoovermatic. We sold thousands and used to bring them in containerloads from
. So I’ve a lot of good things happen and a lot of good luck. England
“The opportunities came and it grew like Topsy. When I first came here, we had Burns Philp here, and they used to come down and count the number of people that came in and came out of our doors. Competition was very keen.
“Now Burns Philp has gone and we bought quite a few of their stores. A lot of old timers have gone; W R Carpenters, we bought quite a few of their assets. Steamies used to sell electrical appliances, and Carpenters and Burns Philp.
“We specialise more in service, I suppose. Courts came in as a new competitors for us.”
“When independence came in 1975, we decided that we wouldn’t drop our business down to that of a general trade store. We realised that Papua New Guineans and expatriates and foreigners would want a reasonable standard of facilities, so we kept the standard up of giftware and chinaware and appliances, etcetera. It’s still the best store in town.
“Last year, we opened a new place in Lae. Bart Philemon says it’s the best store in
.” Papua New Guinea
Sir Brian’s family retains two-third of the business, with the remaining third held by the public service officers service fund.
At the age of 76, Sir Brian still retains a great head of steam for keeping competitors like Steamies at bay. It takes a few calls to catch him on the telephone because he’s liable to be on the phone talking to someone else.
“People ring me because I sort of get involved with everything. I’m secretary of half a dozen organisations.I’m chairman of the hospital board; chairman of the Salvation Army committee. I get involved with the community; the
city mission. They are the charitable organisations where you can help the community be a little bit better than it would otherwise have been. That’s what life is all about, isn’t it?” Port Moresby
Being a pharmacist, he’s got a soft spot for the hospital.
“It’s the biggest hospital in
. There’s 900 beds and there’s quite a lot to do there. Unfortunately, I spend more time in business than anything else. You go home and go to bed and think of the things you should have done today and you have to do tomorrow. Relaxing? A bit of swimming and TV.” Papua New Guinea
Ringing that golden anniversary bell is time for reflection. So much has happened during the passage of 50 years.
“Oh, there’s always a problem,” he says. “My people lived in Chinchilla and you get a letter once a month that the drought has hit us, the sheep are dying, the cattle are dying, that there’s no food.Three months later, you get a letter saying the cattle are dying, the sheep are dying because they’re all getting caught in the floods. In other words, you are up and down all the time.”
“Things go up and things go down. Generally, where
is concerned, there’s always a problem.The economy’s not very good at the moment, but it’s improving. Papua New Guinea
“Nothing ever goes the way you want it all the time. But we’re on a fairly level playing field now. The exchange rate of course shoots us in the bloody foot.”
By that he means that the exchange rate trends make it more costly to buy from
Australia, although it becomes cheaper to import from the . United States
Despite the ups and downs of business, the Brian Bell group is strong and intends to grow.
“We’re looking for new fields all the time,” Sir Brian says. “We’re looking around the Pacific. We’re looking at the Solomons and
. You see the place is growing all the time, Vanuatu Papua New Guinea and the .” Pacific Islands
“There’s very few old-timers left. There’s a couple over at Rabaul.
“Where’s the line drawn between old timers and not? Well, they used to talk about the Befores, the Before the Bloody War, but there’s a lot of 30-35-year-old people here”.
Looking back, looking at now, and looking ahead, the grand old man of Brian Bell becomes philosophical about
. Papua New Guinea
His wife, from Glebe, near
, died in 1992. His stepson is with him in PNG and his stepdaughter lives in Sydney . Brisbane
“I’ve got a good group of people in all the branches,” he says. Sitting in the company’s small boardroom, decorated with commissions that proclaim him to be honorary consul for
Sweden and , the ambience is one of an amiable family outfit. He is the big boss but his staff evidently don’t regard him as an ogre. On the wall also is a photograph of young Brian, as portrayed in the company logo, with Sir Albert Maori Kiki. Norway
“In the olden days village elders had more control,” he says.” They used to have a consensus attitude. They used to make sure that the younger generation behave themselves. I guess it’s the same in a lot of societies. ‘You’re old-fashioned dad
and mum, that’s gone by the board. This is the way we do it now,’modern kids say.”
“In PNG, we’re a bit like the Spanish and Mexicans. You know, at a football match they get excited and wreck the place. Papua New Guineans are having to make great adjustments in having moved so recently from centuries old traditional life to cope with the 21st century pressures, he says.
“You can’t expect them to be all a complete success in making that transition.”
“The community’s so small here that everybody knows each other and I don’t have any trouble, although there are some places to stay away from at night. There are places in
Sydney and Brisbane and where I wouldn’t go. England
“The thing is you’ve always got a commitment to your staff. I’ve got a thousand people. They’ve got women and kids; with the wantoks you’ve got a commitment to five or six thousand people. You might employ only a thousand but their income is spread over the community. That’s one side.
“Why get out of business? What would I do? It’s like going south. Up here you’ve got someone to look after you all the time. I’ve got staff to look after me. I’ve got a housekeeper at home working since 1974.
“I like to keep things going. I don’t like to see things going backwards. I don’t want to knock the community. The community looked after me well and it’s up to me to look after them.”