The Borneo Company — (1856-2018)

BCL HQs office building in Kuching from 1950 till 1980 when it was demolished to build Hilton Hotel.

The Borneo Company Limited (BCL) was founded in London in 1856 by the first Rajah of Sarawak, James Brooke. Initially, it was given all rights in return for royalties to the Sarawak Treasury to “take over and work mines, ores, veins or seams of all descriptions of minerals in the Island of Borneo, and to barter or sell the produce of such workings”.

The Borneo Company offices in Kuching from the 1950’s were on the property now occupied by the Hilton Hotel. It had also owned warehouses where the Grand Margherita and Wisma Bukit Mata stand today.

During the early years of the Company it was entrusted to mine for gold in the Bau area as well as to print the currency for the Rajah. It had virtually similar functions and duties to that of what the Crown Agents were to the Monarchy of Great Britain. As such all of BCL’s managers and employees were expatriate English merchants and traders sent here from the United Kingdom.

The BCL logo.

It wasn’t till the 1950s that a few local Sarawakians were appointed to responsible positions of executives and managers. By then its scope and range of business had extended to travel and shipping, insurance and brokerage, as well as its mainstay of import and export of all kinds of consumer and technical products. All the brands that the company had represented and were sole agents for were market leaders which were internationally recognised.

The Borneo Company had offices, branches, and depots throughout Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei.

After the Japanese War had ended in 1945 BCL was handling Shell Oil and was its agent for many years, even operating first a Shell petrol kiosk in Kuching and later a second one. The colonial government of the day had also tasked the company to be in charge of importing and distributing consumer goods and products throughout the country: this duty they had performed well.

As described by historian Vernon L. Porritt writing in the Borneo Research Bulletin of Volume 48, 2017: “In what one writer described as ‘the most perfect sellers’ market in history’ due to growing deprivation of even basic essentials such as cloth and medicine during the occupation, the trading contacts and experience of the Borneo Company proved invaluable both for Sarawak and the speedy recovery of the Company.”

“As indicative of the status of the Borneo Company at this time, its Kuching Manager T.C. Martine was appointed to the Council Negri, where as a member of the Council’s Finance Committee, ‘he performed his greatest public service.’ In the Sibu area, public relations included distributing goods about to reach their expiry date but which ‘would still be good for three months’ free to longhouses along the Rejang River.”

Vic Porritt, who had also edited my uncle Tan Sri Ong Kee Hui’s autobiography, now resides in Australia and is completing his long and exhaustive research into The Borneo Company Story. He would welcome anyone who has recollections, stories and memories of his or her time or a relative’s who had worked for or known about The Borneo Company, especially in the earlier years. (Vic can be contacted at [email protected])

In 1967, the Borneo Company itself became part of the Inchcape Group global holding company headquartered in Singapore.

In the year 1974 The Borneo Company formed a Joint Venture with the Sarawak Economic Development Corporation (SEDC) to become Sebor Sarawak Sdn. Bhd. This they had felt at the time was in line with the Malaysianisation of most local business enterprises; and the Company had wanted to stay in sync with the times and be politically correct.

However thirty three years later in 2007, Sebor Sarawak sold its entire shareholding to a company known as IDS/LF Asia. LF Asia was Li & Fung, a global supply chain manager which was founded in 1906 in Canton, China and is headquartered in Hong Kong. They had wanted to expand their business into East Malaysia.

In the year 2016, 9 years later, LF Asia having lost many of its major and important agencies; decided to sell off its interests to another China based company called DCH (Dah Chong Hong Holdings Ltd.)

Along the way, the last remaining agencies that it had represented had decided to go their separate ways with the company. Within two years of DCH buying LF Asia it would wind up its entire business, lock, stock and barrel and plans to cease operations on 28th September 2018.

It has taken 162 years for “the Rajah’s trading house” – a monopolistic company which in its heyday had mined for gold, printed the country’s currency, had its Manager seated in the ruling Council Negri and were once the representatives of the world’s largest insurance and shipping companies as well as being travel agent to international airlines; who had sole distribution rights to the country’s petrol, oil and fuel; who had the best consumer brands known to mankind, from Rolex to Unilever, from Guinness to Nestles; from Gillette, Johnson & Johnson to any other brand that you can think of – to become just a memory; and to have to call it a day and to pull down its shutters forever.

But during its time BCL as it was popularly known had an illustrious history all its own. It was a unique trading house, a global conglomerate who had nurtured some of the most brilliant business minds and were indeed part of Sarawak’s colourful history spanning this period, through three White Rajahs, the Japanese occupation, the British Colonial days, and the new independent federation of Malaysia. Many of its former staff, executives, managers and senior staff had gone on to very illustrious careers; most carry with them very fond memories of their alumni.

As a former employee for the Borneo Company; I had joined in March 1970 and was later seconded to Sebor Sarawak and then to another Inchcape associate NBT-Toyota; and finally Toyota Japan itself I bid a fond farewell to my old company.

Today, we have an active Borneo-Sebor Alumni with more than 230 members; who meet regularly for reunions; and we also operate a Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/groups/borneoco/

The BCL Alumni warmly welcome all former ex-company colleagues, ex Principals and indeed friends and family members of former staff one and all.

We know in our hearts that we will never see the likes of BCL again.

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