CITC 125 Years

The Cook Islands Trading Corporation (CITC) was originally established in 1891 as the Cook Islands Trading Company – commonly referred to as “the Company”.  That year was just three years after the Cook Islands had become a British protectorate and was ten years before the Cook Islands was annexed to New Zealand.  Without question, CITC is the oldest trading enterprise in the Cook Islands.

From the outset, CITC was a typical South Seas trading operation with trading posts or agents established in all of the Pa Enua and also on Niue.  In those days the larger companies were real traders – They not only imported and sold trade goods but also purchased and handled the majority of exports from the group.  Pearl shell and copra were major export lines but cotton, coffee, citrus and other produce also featured prominently in the export trade.

These companies usually owned and operated their own trading vessels – mainly schooners – and this gave them full control of all of their fishing operators.  In this, CITC was no exception.

Personally, my first direct association with CITC started in mid-1974 when appointed as Office Manager by Neil McKegg.  At that time CITC had 2 branches operating in Aitutaki (Managed by John Herman snr and John Baxter snr) and one branch in each of Mauke (Mrs Kopu Dashwood), Atiu (Tiki Teamake) and Mangaia (Charlie Rani).  Its shipping needs were catered for by a shareholding interest in Silk and Boyd Ltd and it operated the “Mobil” fuel depot in Avarua.

CITC also had shared interests in the Motor vehicle trade with the Motor Centre, in food wholesaling with UIT Ltd (Wholesale Rarotonga Ltd then run by Brian Lewis) and in a pharmacy partnered by a retail chemist

The General Manager at that time was an expatriate from New Zealand – Mr Les Needham.  The CITC Avarua complex had a grocery division managed by Mrs Matapo Manuela (“Mama Po”), and a hardware and paint department managed by Tongia Unuia (“Sammy”).  The rest of the Avarua retail area was managed by Mr Nito Kairau and Mikara Herman and CITC’s building supplies depot was managed by Don O’Bryan and his assistant Harry Tuitonga.

The company was then wholly owned by the McKegg family except for a minor shareholding of Jardine Matheson of Hong Kong.  Jardinis (one of the Hong Kong taipans) acquired their shares when they financed the purchase by CITC of the assets of the AB Donald Company.  Neil McKegg headed the McKegg family and also had both business and family commitments in Auckland which meant that he needed to spend most of his time in Auckland and he “commuted” to and from Rarotonga when opportunities arose.  The complexity and far-flug geographical nature of CITC’s operations, coupled with Neil’s New Zealand responsibilities required him to perform a delicate balancing act and to rely heavily on the integrity and ability of his “hired help” in the Cook Islands.

They also required Neil and his auditor Ron Boyd (the first ever Cook Islander tax collector appointed by New Zealand) to insist on fairly rigid systems of stock-taking, pricing and costing of all stocks in trade and timely and accurate reporting by trading managers.

I like to think that the insistence on maintaining these systems sowed the seeds of CITC’s success at that time and continues to be the key to its remarkable achievements in recent years.

Obviously, there have been fundamental changed to the CITC since the 1970’s.  All of the outer island branch operations have ceased to exist as have its’ inter-island shipping connections and its involvement in petroleum products distribution.  In spite of that (or perhaps because of that?) the enterprise prospers.

The two main causes of change were:

  1. The opening of an international airport which enabled both the establishment of a tourism industry and the “exodus” of many Cook Islanders seeking “greener pastures” overseas. Possibly because of their heritage as voyagers, Cook Islanders quite readily uproot themselves and their families to attain perceived better living standards or for health or educational reasons.
  2. The phasing out of the protected markets in New Zealand for Cook Islands produce such as copra, pineapple, citrus and bananas. Small scale Cook Islands production could not compete in an “open” New Zealand market and this had severely adverse effects for our producers especially in the outer islands.

These two events combined to accelerate depopulation especially in the outer islands which in turn severely affected the viability of inter-island shipping.

Most of CITC’s staff of the 1970’s have moved on – those of us that are left have only the fondest of memories of that era – a bit of romantic nostalgia.

One final observation – CITC was always able to retain many of its key staff long term especially at middle and senior management levels. This trend continues today and I am sure that my contemporaries from that bygone era would be glad to see that Cook Islanders are currently enjoying career prospects in an enterprise that keeps reliance on expatriate staff to a minimum.

Thank you CITC for the memories.  Thank you also for your enlightened staffing policies.