|Seeto Kui in Wau, 1939|
In James Seeto’s Lae office is a larged framed photograph of his father Seeto Kui, his mother, as well as places precious to him such as Salamaua, Wau and Lae.
Theirs is a story of Salamaua, Wau, Lae, the horrors of war, and starting a company with only 100 Australia Pounds in war-devastated Lae into what is now a thriving business.
Seeto Kui was the founder of the current Seeto Kui Organisation, now a substantial multi-million Kina business with nearly 1000 employees, distributing throughout Papua New Guinea in the grocery, variety, supermarket, plumbing supplies, hardware, construction, and stationery and office supplies market.
He traveled from Canton, China, by ship and arrived in Rabaul, East New Britain, in 1914, at the tender age of 13 years to work as a tailor.
Some years later, he was sent to the then-thriving Salamaua, Morobe, to work as a trade store manager, where he earned himself sufficient money to go back to China in the early 1930s, where he married and returned to continue work and traveling back and forth to China.
James Seeto, Seeto Kui’s first son, first arrived at Salamaua with his mother and sister, Joyce, in 1938, to be with their father.
Unfortunately, his mother died some time after and was buried in the local cemetery.
“My memories of Salamaua are very limited,” Mr Seeto tells me.
“I went there when I was two or three years old.
“I went there about a year ago and the people made me feel very welcome.”
The family then moved to the gold rush town of Wau from Salamaua, where Seeto Kui opened his own trade store.
“Wau has always had a very cool climate,” Mr Seeto remembers.
“I would run around, playing.
“I remember one day, when I went over a cliff and got hurt.”
In early 1942, World War 11 came to Wau with Japanese aircraft bombing the area.
“All I can remember about Wau is the bombing.
“We were glad to evacuate.”
Men women and children were to be evacuated by two aircraft but unfortunately, one of the aircraft was damaged when a vehicle accidentally struck its landing wheels, disabling it and leaving only one aircraft to take the women and children.
The men, including Seeto Kui, were forced to escape the invading Japanese by trekking the whole way from Wau to Port Moresby over the infamous Bulldog Trail.
The family was reunited in Port Moresby and then evacuated by the famous ship “Macdhui” MV to Sydney, Australia, where they stayed in a refugee camp until the war ended.
During April of 1948, the family returned to Lae by Qantas DC3 aircraft, which then took two days to arrive, with an overnight stop at the Queens Hotel, Townsville, Australia.
Seeto Kui arrived in Lae with only 100 Australian Pounds in his pocket from war compensation, and with this, he built his own trade store in the Lae Chinatown area.
He was assisted in building the store by fellow Chinese residents, displaying the community spirit that was possible in those days.
Young James Seeto commenced boarding school in Sydney during early 1950 but was recalled back to Lae in 1952 due to his father’s illness and to take over the running of the family trade store.
He has been involved in the running of the business ever since.
Seeto Kui passed away on March 18, 1972, and was buried in Lae.
James Seeto has been active in the Lae community over the years including participation in fundraising committees, social clubs and organisations, local government councils and government statutory institutions.
He has held the following positions in the past, by election, appointment, or voluntarily:
Lae Chinese Club – Foundation Member, President for many years;
Morobe Chinese Association – Foundation member, President for many years;
Lae Rotary Club – member, all directorships, President;
Lae Golf Club – member, Vice President, Life Member;
Bank of Papua New Guinea Board – board member by appointment;
Lae Harbour Board – board member by appointment;
Town Advisory Council – board member by appointment;
Lae City Council – Elected, as board member of 14 years, the various positions held from times as Executive Finance Chairman, Building Board Chairman, and Vice President.
Mr Seeto has also been a member of committees in various organisations including:
· Salvation Army;
· Red Cross Appeal;
· Heart Foundation Appeal;
· University of Technology Appeal;
· Lae Chamber of Commerce;
· Disaster appeals created as required from time to time and supported by the Seeto Kui Group of Companies.
His efforts and contribution to the community have been officially recognised with the award of an MBE in 1980, and more recently, a CSM and the PNG Anniversary Medal during 2006.
The Seeto Kui business was further developed extensively with the assistance of James’ brothers, Robert, Ronald and Danny, and included the establishment of further wholesale and distribution outlets in Lae, dealing in trade store goods, general merchandise and supermarket lines.
Additional branches were subsequently established in Port Moresby, Mount Hagen and Goroka.
The Mt Hagen and Goroka outlets have since been sold, but the business with the Highlands has in fact grown since then through trading with clients based in those areas, serviced by traveling representatives, who also travel extensively throughout the country to service customers.
James Seeto and the Seeto Kui Organisation has been involved in Mainland Plumbing Supplies (N.G.) Limited, based in Lae, since its incorporation in 1972, in both a managerial and minor equity capacity.
The majority shares in the company were purchased by the Seeto Kui organisation during 1989 and a branch has since been opened in Port Moresby.
Ardrossan Investments Pty Ltd, trading under the name of Bowmans – Lae, was purchased in 1991 and this hardware and construction business has further grown with diversification and the development of the stationery and office supplies division.
The business that was started by Seeto Kui with 100 Pounds nearly 70 years ago is now a substantial multi-million Kina business with nearly 1000 employees, distributing throughout Papua New Guinea in the grocery, variety, supermarket, plumbing supplies, hardware, construction, and stationery and office supplies market.
The Seeto Kui Organisation holds an enviable portfolio of local and overseas agencies including many internationally-recognised brands and the component of this business continues to grow.
The development of training facilities within the organisation has been highly successful with a large number of in-house training programmes on offer.
This is considered an important investment in, not only the development of the workforce, but also in the long-term success of the business.
The Seeto family has traditionally preferred to reinvest in growing the business and creating employment within Papua New Guinea, rather than transfer profits offshore.
The establishment of the Food Mart supermarket in Lae is a recent example of this policy and represented a huge investment in the local community.
The Seeto Kui Group of Companies underwent a company amalgamation during early 2005 and the organisation now trades as Seeto Kui (Holdings) Limited.
James Seeto and his family have lived and worked in Papua New Guinea for four generations and their shared vision is to continue to invest and assist in the development of Papua New Guinea for now and the future.
“Seeto Kui, from day one up until now, has never looked back,” Mr Seeto says.
“We always try to look forward.
“We keep adding.
“We keep going into trade that is compatible with our business.
“I think our company is now in a much better situation.”
Now aged 71, Mr Seeto has not retired, and remains active in running the company.
He also has a lot of time for wife Anna, children Belinda, Anthony, and Raymond, as well as his six grandchildren.
“I’m in the process of activating the next generation to take over,” he says with a smile.
“I know that I will not last forever.
“In my own way, I do my part in looking after my company, my family and our interests in Lae.”
Mr Seeto makes no secret that Papua New Guinea, and particularly Lae, is in his blood, and particularly stresses that Seeto Kui is not a “fly by night company” and is here for the long haul.
He remembers the country’s Independence in 1975 when a lot of paranoid expatriates moved out of the country.
“A lot of people moved out of Lae because they feared Independence would cause chaos and problems,” Mr Seeto says frankly.
“All I can say is that the company has confidence in Papua New Guinea.
“We’d like to think that we help the country by providing employment.
“Papua New Guinea has been good to us and we hope that we, in turn, can help Papua New Guinea.
“If I wasn’t confident in the country, I would not be here now.
“I’ve been here for too long and I think Papua New Guinea is in my blood.”