Transformation of CITC a challenge that paid off

Saturday May 26, 2018 Written by Published in Weekend
Trevor Clarke pictured at CITC’s 20th anniversary dinner last week. 180525245 Trevor Clarke pictured at CITC’s 20th anniversary dinner last week. 180525245

Twenty years ago, as Trevor Clarke surveyed the company in which he’d just acquired the majority shareholding, it wasn’t a pretty sight.

Some of Cook Islands Trading Corporation’s (CITC) buildings were old and in need of replacement, and the company itself was tired, almost dormant. The Cook Islands, too, were in bad shape at the time.

The country was broke and the government was hugely in debt. It had been printing its own bank notes to try to stay afloat, and using funds intended for other purposes including superannuation contributions and private land rental monies to try to make ends meet.

The civil service was the country’s biggest employer and the 3,000 employees couldn’t all be kept on when the collapse occurred, civil servants by the hundreds lost their jobs. The result of that on the community was devastating and people by the thousand exercised their right to do so and decamped for New Zealand and Australia; families were torn apart, houses and properties abandoned.

On the face of it, it doesn’t sound like the ideal time to take on an already ailing business – or maybe it was the best time.

Trevor was “semi-retired, and looking for a challenge”. CITC wasn’t exactly unknown to him, he had been associated with the company for about a decade, either as legal advisor, or as a director. When it was suggested by the then owners that he should buy it, he took the plunge.

It was a bold move, some thought foolhardy. But he had the will, a vision and probably most of all the “stickability” to see it through.

So one by one, the old buildings were replaced. The first to go was the food retail store – sitting empty and idle across the road from Palace Takeaways. The new supermarket on the main road at Avatiu was a source of conjecture at the time too. Former prime minister Sir Tom Davis told CINews it would never work as it was too far out of town. But Trevor boxed on.

The next upgrade took place in what we now know as the Avarua downtown area. At the back of what is now the main shopping centre were storage sheds that were so bad, that when they were being demolished, Trevor wouldn’t allow CITV or any other media to take pictures of them.

That block was systematically rebuilt starting with the ANZ bank building and moving on to what is still known as the ‘main store’. A new pharmacy was incorporated into the new store and the rest followed.

Initially the main store was regarded as a department store, and to some extent it still is, but a casual walk through there will show that it has morphed too, to a large degree, into a place where the tens of thousands of visitors to these shores can browse and buy souvenirs and presents to take home as mementos of their visit to the Cook Islands. In accordance with the company’s substantial increase in trading and range of products demanded by its customers, huge storage, including frozen and chiller facilities were also built. 

By 2007, nine years after Trevor took over, the level of confidence in the company can be measured by the construction of the CITC Building Centre, its size and range of products speak for themselves, and the branding slogan– ‘leading the way’ is evident.

But “leading the way” and the success of the revived CITC isn’t just down to some new and larger buildings. It’s the revolution that’s taken place inside them that has made the difference.

Trevor Clarke is a bit of a details man. Back in 1998 he saw the company needed an overhaul, to be upgraded and modernised. A new management system  needed to be  brought in. Staff in general needed to be trained and the training is ongoing. All staff go through at least one training course each year, and they have a career path to aspire to as a result of their development. This has led to considerable staff satisfaction, loyalty and stability. New and modern computor systems needed to be introduced to replace outdated and laborious paper and manual systems.

Shrinkage – the bane of almost every business, where products disappear without trace, stolen or otherwise unaccounted for, has been reduced to below industry averages in all the company’s trading divisions with the help of efficient accounting and tracking systems.

Trevor Clarke is quick to point out that success has been a team effort. He pays tribute to the staff, starting with general manager Gaye Whitta, but you can see his hand in much of the developments.

Things like an insistence on dealing fairly with landowners of the sites on which the company has buildings or even the owners of adjacent sites. Landowners are offered multiple ways of dealing with the company; possibilities like big cash inputs up front and lower ongoing payments, shareholding or percentage of turnover, or even joint ventures.

He talks a lot about “the landowners”, and trying to do his best for “the people”. He is of course married to a Cook Islander and his children are Cook Islanders.

Sooner or later in a conversation about CITC the word “monopoly” comes up, and it’s a label that Clarke quickly refutes.

He points out that in each of their business lines: food, liquor, building supplies etc, CITC has competitors, although there is no-one who competes on all fronts.

Trevor Clarke believes the company has been transformed in the last 20 years and he believes ongoing success comes down to giving reliable service and through that, gaining the trust of suppliers and customers.

Today the company has more than 300 employees and there is no doubt that CITC has a leading position in the commerce of the Cook Islands. From its rundown condition two decades ago it has been reinvented with new, modern and larger buildings, along with modern management and office practices, with well-trained managers and staff. Its business activities have expanded too and are substantial in anybody’s terms; trading in food, liquor, building supplies, a department store, pharmacy, airport duty-free stores and shipping. It also has property investments in joint ventures with landowners.

When Trevor Clarke took over 20 years ago there were 119 employees, 19 of them are still with CITC today, and last week they had a celebratory function recognising their service.

Throughout the rest of this 20th year there will be other things to celebrate and some of those celebrations will involve community projects, another thing the company has done many many times over the past two decades.

So it looks like being another busy year for George George, who is more often than not the public face of the CITC-sponsored community activities. He is one of those 20-year employees, although Trevor Clarke jokes that for quite some time George thought he was employed by Coca Cola!

One of the first events to celebrate 20 years towards “Leading the Way” is a car giveaway promotion as a way to say a big thank you to CITC’s customers.

            - Derek Fox

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