Samoa has lost one of its most colourful characters. And today the nation is in mourning as families, friends, colleagues and his children are set to farewell the lovable Tupua Frederick Wilhelm Wetzell.
Tupua, the Founder of Apia Concrete Products, passed away at his family home at Vaitele on Wednesday night. He was 83 years old.
His final service will be held at the Mulivai Cathedral today.
Tupua attended Apia Primary School at Leifiifi from 1938 to 1945 before moving to New Zealand.
He then went to Porongahao Secondary School in Hawkes Bay and Napier Boys High School.
Following that he was awarded an apprenticeship as a motor mechanic at John Andrew Ford Motor Company in Auckland, New Zealand.
It wasn’t until 1971 that Tupua returned to Samoa permanently with a business plan. He constructed the lake Lanoto’o Road in a bid to establish a resort there.
When that plan fell through Tupua devoted all his energy to his second business idea, the Apia Concrete Products.
Last year, the Samoa Observer honoured Tupua as one of our People of the Year. Under the headline “Blood, sweat and concrete,” we paid tribute to a hardworking man who despite his old age never lost his zest for life.
Former Sub Editor, David De Lorean, sat down with Tupua in one of his last media interviews and this is what he wrote:
There’s no place like home for Tupua Fred Wetzell.
He’s spent more than 40 years running Apia Concrete Products in Vaitele, gradually expanding that business into the concrete monolith it is today.
And now the 82 year old is enjoying the fruits of his labour, with his “tonka toy”, a farm in Savai’i, keeping the businessman busy.
It’s been a long journey for the man – from Samoa, overseas and back again.
Tupua Frederick Wilhelm Wetzell was born on 13 May, 1933, in Apia.
“I didn’t want to say that,” laughed Tupua, between sips of a drink on a deck overlooking the concrete empire he’s spent much of his life building. He spent his formative years on the Wetzell Family Siusega Cocoa Plantation.
“I enjoyed it, I made my own carts, I made my own wheelbarrows, I made my own slingshot from a guava branch,” said Tupua, reminiscing about his childhood.
He attended Apia Primary at Leifiifi from 1938 to 1945, and then underwent one of the biggest changes of his life to that point, by moving to New Zealand.
His family ended up heading to the North Island, and Tupua found himself attending Porongahao Secondary School in Hawkes Bay, then Napier Boys High School.
Once he finished up at school, he was awarded an apprenticeship as a motor mechanic at John Andrew Ford Motor Company in Auckland, New Zealand.
Over the course of the next decade, he travelled between New Zealand and Samoa frequently, spending a significant amount of time in both countries.
Even when he was in N.Z, Samoa was in the back of his mind, and after spending 15 years building up a service station business, working on a cattle farm and cocoa plantation in Samoa and more, he decided to permanently return to the shores of Samoa.
“My heart was here in Samoa. I missed the lifestyle here, the palm trees, there’s no coconuts in New Zealand.”
It was around 1971 that he permanently returned, with a business plan.
He constructed the Lake Lanoto’o Road, in a bid to establish a resort there, but the work fell over.
That saw him devote all his energy to his second business idea – Apia Concrete Products.
“When I first arrived here and I studied cement that was bought in from overseas, it was bought in bulk.”
“The net would go down, they’d throw the bags in there, come up, put it on the flatdeck, stack it up, take it to the shed, offload it.”
Tupua constructed 200 pallets to make the job easier.
“Everybody was buying pallets off me.”
His efforts resulted in the establishment of Apia Concrete Products.
“It was commissioned on the 22nd of June 1973, by the late Prime Minister, [Mata’afa Mulinu’u II],” said Tupua.
The business has been a true labour of love, which he believed had enormous growth potential.
“It was only time, energy and of course money is the root of all evil but it assists.”
“A lot of people thought that I kicked this off with a big lump sum of money. The original capital was $5000 tala. And I struggled through that, and there’s a lot of people that I’ve endlessly thanked. One is Allan Grey and the other one is Dick Meredith.”
At the start of the business, Tupua only had a small concrete plant and a crusher to his name.
But through sheer determination the business grew, and he secured key jobs which saw his business balloon over the years, expanding all the time.
“The historical pour in Samoa, that was after the cyclones in 1991 and 1992, and the Japanese aid. That whole foreshore, from the wharf to Mulinu’u, we poured that, and the tetra pods [by] the reef.”
That historic pour saw 20,000 cubic metres of concrete poured.
“And it just continued from there, and kept on going.”
He’s now run the business for close to 43 years – and owns it completely.
“I had five shareholders, I bought them all out. When I bought the last one out, the boardroom table went out the window. That was it, that was the end of any board.”
The Tupua-steered business has had its capital grow exponentially, and expanded its asset bank as well.
A.C.P now has $225,000 in capital, and assets including more than 30 trucks, as well as pickups, landcruisers, forklifts, excavators, frontend loaders and much, much more.
Tupua is relaxed nowadays, and enjoying his “tonka toy” – his pet name for his farm in Savai’i.
But the businessman has even had to fight for his toys.
“Unfortunately for me, my father’s famous words: don’t start anything you can’t finish.
“And when the cyclones hit me in the 90s, I had a quarter of a million taro plants in the ground...27 acres of bananas and 300 Tahitian seedless limes starting to bear.
“I went 450 feet above sea level, climbed on a huge rock and I looked up to heaven and I said ‘Lord, tell me, what am I supposed to do?’
“I said ‘bugger it, I’ll have another go’. And I’m still there!”
Looking back on his more than 80 years on God’s green earth, that attitude sums up his approach to life, and gives him a piece of advice for all Samoans.
“Get off your ass and do something constructive. Do it right and fear nothing.”