Gold miner's descendant a Champion

A descendant of a Chinese gold miner is the force behind one of the country’s largest importers of clothing and has been recognised for his long contribution to the garment industry.

Donald Sew Hoy solo

Donald Sew Hoy, QSM, (above) is now also a SuperSeniors Champion, one of a group of high profile people who are outstanding advocates of positive ageing.

The fourth generation New Zealander says his great-grandfather Choie Sew Hoy set out from China, in the 1800s, to seek his fortune.

Like tens of thousands of other Chinese, he joined the gold rush in Australia but after having little luck in Bendigo, he headed to Queenstown and the Shotover River.

For a while, it looked like the prospector would miss out a second time.

“Thousands of prospectors had been walking around, panning for gold, [but] there was no more gold to be found,” recounts Mr Sew Hoy.

“He suddenly had an idea and thought, ‘What about the middle of the river where it’s too deep and the current’s too fast? Surely there must be gold there if the side of the river doesn’t have a lot of gold’.

“So, with that in mind, he invested his money into having a gold dredge developed and built by Scottish shipbuilding engineers who settled in Dunedin.”

Choie sew Hoy

The work of Choie Sew Hoy (above) paid off and he struck gold but for a long time was unable to bring his family to New Zealand due to restrictive immigration policies.

His name was also changed as, at that time, officials didn’t know Chinese surnames came first. To this day, the Chinese family name remains Choie while the English surname is Sew Hoy.

The mining continued until the gold ran out and Donald Sew Hoy’s father… had to consider what to do next.

He formed a trading company in the 1950s and invested in a clothing manufacturing factory in Dunedin.

Soon there were several others set up in Mosgiel, Balclutha and Christchurch selling to the domestic and Australian markets.

Rethinking the future

At one time, Sew Hoy and Sons Ltd employed 700 people in New Zealand.

But the opening of New Zealand’s borders to imports changed all that, and they had to rethink the future.

“We found it was not feasible to continue a clothing manufacturing business particularly where our wage rates in those days were NZ $6.40 [per hour] compared to the wage rates in Fiji at 85 cents,” says Donald Sew Hoy.

“With the removing of import control, we had to close, one after another, our factories.

“That was a very sad situation for us but as there was no future in manufacturing clothing on a bulk scale, we transferred our factories to China.”

Donald sew hoy family

While he is proud of his Chinese heritage, it was still a steep learning curve.

“[You have to] be understanding Chinese culture, the Chinese ways of doing business.

"And, of course, there’s more than 10,000 kilometres separating us so that means we have to frequently visit China, visit our factories over there.”

The family (left) is heavily involved in the company

The family company, Glacier Investments, now imports between 3 to 4.5 million clothing items annually for the Warehouse and Farmers, among others.

One of his career highlights was witnessing the signing of the 2008 NZ-China Free Trade Agreement, after earlier providing advice about it to then Prime Minister Helen Clark.

“I could see a huge advantage because China at the time had just over one billion in population and New Zealand had four million,” he says.

“Many of my friends are orchardists in central Otago growing apples and cherries, and lovely fruit, and there was an oversupply of the market and they often asked me to see what I could do to sell it overseas.

“I always figured all I needed was to sell one apple to every Chinese in China.”

Age is not a limit

Donald Sew Hoy believes work keeps him going.

“I have a job, an interesting job, and I’m passionate about the clothing industry. The truth of the matter is… my energy has always been focused on one industry.

“I actually thrive – I enjoy the business – sometimes it’s rather tiring but if you have passion and energy and you’re dedicated, what is tiredness? Having had a night’s sleep, the next day you’ll raring to go again.”

He has little time for people who tell him he is too old to be in business, and refuses to divulge his age.

“I do not want age to be a limit – I do not want people to say, ‘you’re too old to be flying to China and going from factory to factory’. I do not want people to think I’m over the hill.”

The businessman is also a dedicated Rotarian, and with wife Jennie, co-chairs the fundraising for Auckland’s Rotary Harbourside club, holding a Chinese New Year ball.

“500 black-tie guests donate – some very, very vigorously to support community charities such as Starship Children’s Hospital, Ronald McDonald House.”

He has these tips for positive ageing.

“I was senior New Zealander of the year (2015) and now the SuperSeniors Champion.

“Wherever I can help others and whatever I can contribute to New Zealand, I’m delighted and honoured to do so.

“My advice is to do what you love doing best. Do not be bewildered by your age.

“Do not look at your age as a boundary, look upon it as an agent for all you have experienced; you have ability and just keep on enjoying your life to the full.”