‘Focus on what you can control’: showing leadership during Papua New Guinea’s pandemic


The COVID-19 pandemic in Papua New Guinea has presented a unique set of challenges to business leaders and owners of all kinds. The heads of three of the country’s top companies have discussed their leadership approaches during a special Business Advantage PNG online business briefing.

Paradise Foods Group CEO James Rice said that, despite the pandemic, his company has been ‘driving forward’ with plans to invest K160 million in Lae next year with a facility that will add an additional 300 jobs to the group. The manufacturer has also had export success with its Queen Emma chocolate, which is is on track to become ‘the first global brand in PNG’.

When it comes to leadership, Rice describes his approach a very personal, hands-on style that has played well in a time of crisis.

‘I interact a lot with my employees and this time they really needed to see that,’ he says. ‘When we started wearing masks, employees needed to see my walking around with a mask too. You have to set that example.’

‘We have been here for 80 years, we have made money for 80 years, so a couple of months of hardship, absorbing that is our responsibility.’

‘People needed that personal interaction and reassurance, and we now keep the positive messages out there and talk about our growth plans,’ Rice said.

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Steamship’s Rupert Bray.

Rupert Bray, the recently-appointed Managing Director of diversified conglomerate Steamships Trading Group, agrees there is no substitute for a leader ‘being out there on the front line’ during a crisis.

‘I have felt disconnected for my team because I have not been able to visit them and that’s forced us to think about how we use digital platforms and how we conduct remote “town halls”, but also to ensure that our frontline managers are walking the talk,’ he said.

With many expats leaving PNG temporarily during the pandemic, Bray sees Steamships’ localisation of key management roles as a major bonus.

‘We’re lucky at Steamships that 99% of our staff are Papua New Guinean and that has meant all the managers have stayed here throughout the crisis. That has given us a real sense of purpose.’

He adds that the pandemic has also allowed Steamships to continue bringing through the next generation of managers: ‘we’ve recently promoted three Papua New Guineans, all under 32, to our executive leadership team.’


Kina Bank’s Chief Executive Officer Greg Pawson agrees with Rice about the need to control the initial hype and hysteria in the media. ‘You need to get people thinking about what they can control versus what they can’t control,’ he said.

‘A big focus on washing hands, personal hygiene, wearing masks, that sort of thing, were high on our agenda. For me it was about visibility – that I was out across the business and that there was a degree of empathy for what was happening.’

Pawson also recommends ‘communication, communication and more communication,’ including online forums, internal programs and social media.

‘One of the positive things at the moment is there is a lot of domestic liquidity in PNG.’

Showing leadership to the community during this time was also key, with Rice saying his company said early on they would not let employees be negatively impacted.

‘We said we would not raise our prices, or allow customers to raise our prices, and these two things resonated with the community,’ Rice said. ‘We have been here for 80 years, we have made money for 80 years, so a couple of months of hardship – absorbing that is our responsibility.’

Rice credits that community approach for a 31 per cent year-on-year rise in sales.

SMEs the way forward

Kina Bank’s Greg Pawson.

Today’s small businesses are tomorrow’s business leaders and Pawson acknowledged that SMEs were doing it tough during COVID.

He praised the government’s small business stimulus package, the first K100 million of which was delivered to rival bank BSP last week. The scheme is designed to offer struggling entrepreneurs concessional loans but Pawson says that Kina Bank is taking a different tack.

‘We have quite an extensive funds management business here and I often get the finger pointed at us by small business saying: “You will not lend to us” and that is absolutely not the case,’ he said.

‘One of the positive things at the moment is there is a lot of domestic liquidity in PNG; the country has lots of cash. So, for us, it is a slightly different approach. We are going to put AUD$100 million into an SME capital fund and essentially invest in small businesses that have opportunities to expand and grow.’

Pawson says this tailored approach would be a medium- to long-term play and believes it is something that PNG really needs right now, an example of what a diversified investment bank can do. He adds that SME support is also big on their list: teaching businesses to manage their finances, get into ecommerce or find new markets.

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