Mainland Holdings in Lae is a big company, with an extraordinary diversity of interests, but there are plenty of companies in Papua New Guinea with multiple interests, which are just as big. “What today makes Mainland special,” says Group General Manager Paul Stobbs, “is the extraordinary vision displayed by its founder just a few years before Independence and the present composition of its shareholders”.
Coffee was the foundation of the business and is still very important. The Lae coffee mill was owned by the Goudie family, long term residents of Lae, and was run by Graham Goudie. He persuaded a group of thirteen small-holders whose coffee he processed to form a Marketing Co-operative Company in order to purchase some shares of the coffee mill company. By 1974 the mill was a wholly owned subsidiary of the co-operative. Since then it has never looked back.
Appointed General Manager to Mainland Holdings in 1976, Goudie was a shrewd and patient adviser to his shareholders. Profits were put by, not spent, and as opportunities arose, other companies were purchased. Seen in the supermarket, Nuigini Tablebirds (2,500 chickens a week) might seem a world away from coffee, but this business too was a rural one, based on small-holder skills. Day-old chicks are now bred and supplied to villagers who may own one or two (or even more) broiler sheds. The mature chickens are bought back several weeks later to be turned into the supermarket product which Tablebirds supplies all over PNG.
Then in 1979 came crocodiles, also mainly collected by villagers and bought from them to be raised on the farm. Nowadays breeding and ranching have increased dramatically, following a K2 million programme of investment during the eighties, bringing the captive population of crocs to a current 25,000. Contrary to popular belief, crocodiles like fresh, not rotten meat and, fortunately for Mainland, this includes the heads and feet of chicken, which are all that remains of the bird when Tablebirds has killed and packed its supermarket version.
This is a current example of the kind of horizontal integration, dear to the hearts of economists, in which Mainland has always specialised with notable success. Back in the days of the seventies before the new Highland Highway was built, coffee was airlifted out of the Highlands from bush airstrips to the mill at Lae. But increasing passenger traffic meant less space for coffee, so it seemed sensible for Mainland to purchase its own airline. So it did, at first with likeminded partners, but later as sole shareholder. Co- A ir, as it was called, began with one plane in 1975. By the time its fleet was sold in 1987 when road transport on the new Highway and a network of feeder roads was plainly more economic, it was running no less than nine aircraft.
Other acquisitions by the Company have followed the same pattern. The purchase of Huon Electrical in 1979 gave Mainland the modest electrical installation and servicing capacity which was, and still is, essential to its Tablebirds and Crocodile Farm operations. Today this company handles refrigeration, electronics, generator and electric motor repairs and rewinding, as well as contracting and wholesaling, the latter section now doing 75% of its business outside the group. A small building section, started slightly earlier, is now a major construction firm.
Other companies in the group have broadened its ability to make the maximum use of its capital investments. A road transport company makes a major contribution, significantly because it also offers customs clearance and export handling at PN G’s busiest port. Two service stations selling diesel and petrol, as well as kerosene and lubricants, and dealing in fast food, are now landmarks on the Highlands Highway. Needless to say, one of them also offers Tablebirds manufactured poultry feed, and the Company’s day old chicks. Both of them are close to popular betel nut centres!
It’s clear that though Graham Goudie died some years ago, his spirit lives on.