Business is Boring is a weekly podcast series presented by The Spinoff in association with Callaghan Innovation. Host Simon Pound speaks with innovators and commentators focused on the future of New Zealand, with the interview available as both audio and a transcribed excerpt. Today Simon talks to former Telecom CEO Theresa Gattung.
At the age of 37 a young woman – who made her way up through a pretty sexist world – got the biggest job in the country. No, not Jacinda Ardern today – Theresa Gattung, in 1999.
For a brief little window there a few years later most of the top jobs in this country were held by women – Dame Sian Elias was Chief Justice, Dame Silvia Cartwright was Governor-General, Margaret Wilson was Attorney-General, Theresa Gattung was Telecom’s chief executive and Helen Clark was Prime Minister.
But boy how we slipped. By the time Gattung retired in 2007, it was only Dame Sian left.
How do we get back? Well, the new PM is a start, but another way is for women to empower women. And it’s in that capacity Theresa Gattung joins the podcast today.
After Telecom she’s gone on to chair major boards, co-found ridiculous success My Food Bag, and get a Companion of the NZ Order of Merit gong for services to business and philanthropy, for her work for the Wellington SPCA and organisations empowering women.
One of these is the newly launched SheEO. A fund that has women invest in women, part of a global 1 billion dollar idea that Theresa has just helped bring here.
First up, let’s look at your early career. It’s really interesting that I’ve read that you’d always wanted to be a leader, an executive, and a CEO.
Well, almost always. I’m the daughter of immigrant parents who came from Britain with nothing, and the eldest of four girls. My parents, my father in particular, used to say we could all achieve whatever we dreamed of as long as we worked hard for it, so he had a very gender-neutral approach. Girls were as good as boys and could achieve as much, but was very focused on us being financially-independent as, in fact, I think are many children of immigrant parents.
Both my parents were small business people, so I grew up in a household where business was the order of the day, and I’ve always found business really fascinating. When I casually come across someone who says, “Look, I never read the business pages, I never listen to the business news,” I think to myself, “But business is just the intersection of people and money. What could be more compelling than that?”
I’ve always loved business and I actually did a business degree at Waikato University. I did lots of things in it, though. I’ve always been curious, in high school I did everything you could possibly do and more. In my business degree, I did Women’s Studies, which would still be pretty unusual today, but it was unheard of 35 years ago.
No one is more surprised than me that all these years later, that combination of being a business person and being a feminist is sort of cool now, but it definitely wasn’t cool then. I really felt like I didn’t fit in either world. There were very few women in business school in those days, and the women who were there kept their heads down and basically stayed mum and tried to survive. I have never done that, I’ve always been very stroppy.
But over at Women’s Studies in the School of Arts, I also felt that I was walking over with a capitalist sign on my forehead and didn’t fit there, either. So quite early on, actually, I learned that sometimes to be true to yourself, you don’t fit the environment you’re in and you have to decide, are you going to be popular, or you’re going to be true to yourself and hopefully be respected?
I read something great that you would wear suits to lectures and kind of playing that role of provocative, but also saying, “Hey, I’m here, and I’m going to take this next role.” Tell me about that, do you have to deliver twice as well if you’re going to put yourself forward in that way?
Well, it’s true. It’s not one of those stories that someone created and it just got repeated, it is true. At about two years into my business degree, I really put the feminist literature together with the business studies and saw there were no women running large companies in New Zealand, and the stats on women in executive roles in New Zealand are dire. It was a book written by Dr. Helen Place on women in management.
I really loved business and I said, “I’m going to run a large company by the time I’m 40.” But I didn’t tell anybody that because I thought people would say, “Oh, what’s a girl from Rotorua thinking she could do that?” But I decided that I would live as if I was. So that meant scraping together my pennies and buying a suit and wearing it to university. I convinced my boyfriend at the time to do the same, so we must have looked like quite a pair going to lectures dressed up like that.
That’s so cool that you had that goal. What was the world like to be someone who wanted to be a leader, when the majority of women were not in leadership positions? And the places you went and worked for, they weren’t cutting-edge, out there, brand-new institutions. They were some of the biggest, oldest, most venerable institutions in the country.
Well, I think if the notion of being entrepreneur had been around in my early 20s, I would have been one from the get-go. But when I finished business school, and I then did a law degree, I decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer. Even when I joined corporates, people weren’t doing overseas grad degrees like they do these days. You did one or two degrees at university, and then, you got a job. It was always in corporates.
I started in media, in TVNZ, which is a pretty dynamic industry, then and now. But because I had a business degree and a law degree, I sort of quickly established that financial services might be a better fit. So I went into financial services and effectively had a fantastic time, walked into the head of marketing job at the BNZ the day of the financial bailout, so that was a very interesting life experience. This is pre-internet.
Yeah, and to walk into every single person in the country hearing that you’re bankrupt, and your business doesn’t know what it’s doing, and then, to have to get out of that hole.
Exactly, exactly. Some of the interesting times in my twenties in business turned out to be great lessons for later, both at National Mutual and at the Bank of New Zealand. I learnt that positional power only takes you so far. Sometimes, as a woman, you need to use positional power if you’ve got it, but personal power is way more important.
Of course, now in a post-internet world, that is exactly right. People often don’t have much positional power. Because people can be broadcasting about you on the internet and that can reach an audience of millions and bang goes the positional power you thought you had. I think we live in a world that is changed from a business perspective, way more fluid, way more intricate than the world that I grew up in.
How did you make your mark there at the BNZ, for example, in the head of marketing role? Because you’re known very well as a chief executive, and as a business leader, but it was for your work in marketing that you were inducted into the Marketing Hall of Fame.
Because I recruited a team of believers that we could turn that bank around, and we could make it great again, and that’s exactly what we did. I was leading the marketing team, but I was a colleague in the executive team with other people who went on to be CEOs in New Zealand – Rob Fyfe, Rod Carr, Sam Knowles. That group that went through the fire together all went on to run companies. Someone observed to me a few years ago that one thing that we all had in common was that we’ve all successfully ran large companies, but we’ve also successfully created or run startups.
To answer your question: it was a team of believers I hired and have done all my life, the very best team I could find, people smarter than me if I could possibly manage it, certainly people who had a deep range of skills. Again, some of the people on my marketing team have gone on to have wonderful careers. Nick Ross, CEO of UBS, Andrea Hammond, very successful in her PR and marketing career.
That team worked to do things that were different. We set up the supporters club of the America’s Cup. We really envisioned database marketing really quite early on. We stopped the idea that marketing was just about pretty pictures. We had the most brilliant analyst in our team and we drew the debate on pricing. We tried to lead the pricing strategy for the bank, rather than that come out of, say, Treasury. I think we’re pretty successful in that. So we did a number of things working with the CEO and the rest of my colleagues that meant, four years later, the bank was sold for a lot of money to NAB.
That’s quite interesting to be at the intersection of state and commerce, which is where TVNZ, and then, Bank of New Zealand, and then, Telecom now Spark, of course, but originally owned by the government, and then, its own incredibly dominant company. I don’t know if everyone thinking about the business environment today really grasps just how dominant a player in the landscape that Telecom was in 1999, when you became CEO.
Well, New Zealand has always had actually many companies not listed, so Telecom was clearly the biggest listed company in New Zealand. It was while I was at Telecom that Fonterra got created and became the biggest company, obviously, not listed. So dominance depends how you look at it. You might today say that Fonterra is dominant, and that still would have been only a partial truth. But anyway, there were fewer companies that were followed in the business pages, that’s correct. Telecom was definitely one of those and being a female CEO meant that I got lots of publicity. I went from not being known at all to suddenly being followed everywhere, and I found that difficult in the beginning. I got used to it over time, but I did find that difficult.
It was the 13 years of the best of times and the worst of times. I wrote quite a bit about it in my book, Bird on a Wire. I made lifelong friends, and I absolutely was able to create another generation of leaders because all the people who were in my executive team have all gone on to be CEOs.
What was the reaction like when you got the job? It’s interesting to see the reaction to Jacinda Ardern, quite a few years later. What was it like for you?
Look, there were similarities. The first question that I was asked at the news conference of my appointment was, I was 37 at the time, was I going to have children?
Were you able to tell them as well to butt out?
Yeah, basically. But to me, it’s sort of shocking that all these years later, that’s ’99, so that’s 18 years later, same question. Have you ever heard a man be asked how he’s going to balance career and family?
I have three kids and I never get asked it. My partner Ingrid gets asked all the time how she manages to have three children and her fashion business. But I have three children and a very busy corporate job, and I never get asked that.
That’s so deep in all of us, that idea that it’s the woman’s responsibility to manage the household and to manage the children. I don’t know how we shift that, how we deal with that. I do think that flexibility in one’s work is more of a conversation now than it was back then. I do think that conversation is extended to men as well as women whereas back then it was only about really women looking after children.
But I think our whole notion of career is just misplaced. We think of career as a noun. Your career, my career. But actually, I feel that I’m just careering around. I think career is a verb. I think at best it’s a noun if you look backwards over your life. But especially with many of us doing many things, portfolio things, for a while, a couple of years ago, if you asked me what I did and where I lived, I couldn’t have answered either question. That shift that the internet enabled and GD Line is, for that matter, means that more people want to be able to be fluid and flexible in the way they organise their lives. And so that is a conversation that’s got more resonance now than it had 20 years ago.
From my background readings on this, it seemed that you’d got more perspective after stepping out of the CEO role, perhaps because it had been so consuming. Is that something that you came later to, or is it something that, you know, is it possible to have such a demanding job and have balance in life?
Well, one of the reasons I didn’t have children was because I didn’t think I could manage it, because I need eight to nine hours’ sleep at night. I’m simply a zombie if I get less than that, so I didn’t think I could manage it. But, you know, I’ve always been curious about the world, as I said before, and did everything at school, sciences, business studies, languages. And so, for me, I’ve always liked to do different things, but I tend to be a bit obsessive. It’s relentless being a CEO for men and a woman. You have to be pretty focused on that and not much else can get into your life.
But I actually had health problems in my mid-20s, and that was when I understood that exercising every day, good sleep, not much alcohol, good practices like that. If I hadn’t done that, then I think I wouldn’t have coped, so there are some coping mechanisms. Plus you need good domestic supporter, good support at home and you need brilliant support in whatever is your work environment.
What kind of things did you have to up skill on along the way, to climb up that ladder and smash that ceiling? Because it was huge news and a huge achievement to take down the CEO of such a large company.
Well, I had, early on in my career, kept a clipping file of women who’d succeeded in business around the world, actually, or got to high ranks in different roles and to motivate me, to tell me that it was possible because I didn’t see it around me. Actually, later I met one of those women, Dr. Sharon Lord, and she became quite a mentor of mine because she came to live in New Zealand.
Plus I had good mentors in some of my bosses, from my early bosses, Roger Ollie, now deceased, at National Mutual, to Roderick Deane, my boss for most of my time at Telecom. I actually think I had good support, but also I was pretty determined. I was more Machiavellian in those days than I would be now. Now I can’t handle any sort of corporate politics. I would really seek to avoid any situation that I had to waste any time or anything that wasn’t productive.
Whereas then, I quite enjoyed playing the games you have to play if you’re going to be part of a large institution, whether it’s a government one or a business one or whatever.
When your workday ends up being front-page news because, oh, I don’t know, the government decides to break up your company in two [when Labour decided to break off its local loop into Chorus to create more competition for internet access] – what kind of an extra element does that give a job, being so in the public eye?
Well, that was horrible. That two years of my life, my partner and I spent about 20 years and the government re-regulating the sector, that still probably remains the most difficult period. It’s very hard to get perspective when you’re in the eye of the storm, and it’s very hard to, you know, everyone else around you is very stressed as well, and so, having to still do the day job when you’re trying to manage this sort of environmental change and you don’t know if you’re telling the truth.
I do remember thinking that I am so pleased to be living in a country which, I believe, has got no corruption, not even soft corruption, and where people who do inquiries because, you remember, there was an inquiry. I had full confidence that any inquiry would turn out the truth, which it did, and that there would be no gerrymandering, there would be nothing here except a fair hearing, and that is indeed what happened. It was found that it was the messenger in parliament who’d passed it on to Telecom. It was nothing we’ve done to get the documents.
In a way, some part of me lived through something that is part of New Zealand’s history, and I was pleased, in a way, that it was here not somewhere else. But the short answer to your question is that it is extraordinarily difficult to look at cartoons of yourself with people decapitating you.
I’m not trying to compare you to Donald Rumsfeld, but it’s like once you’ve become a caricature for something, like corporate uncaring or something, like when he said there are no knowns, there are unknown unknowns and whatever that was. Actually it was a very sensible view, but because it sounded ridiculous and he was seen as being a negative force for that, he was never able to make the case. It must be so hard to be on the wrong side of a whipped-up populism.
Look, that could happen in really different situations, but the short answer to your question is, it’s very difficult because you can’t break through for a while. That summer I went overseas for a month. I just had to get out of the country. It was just overwhelming and, as you say, people don’t want to know. Of course, everyone is busy in their own lives. You’ve only got so much attention span to give to something that’s not your world. I knew that the people who were close to it knew the story, etc. so I didn’t feel like I had any issues with anyone who really understood. But it’s like people just giving it five minutes’ attention. If you told the same thing enough times a year, it sinks in you believe them.
You get caught on the wrong side of a media cycle. Tell me about your timelines because you had the plan to get in and get to the job early, and then you left on your own timetable as well. Was that always the idea?
Look, being CEO for eight years was about the right time, is about the timeframe. It was the timeframe I previously discussed with the board, but it wouldn’t be the way I would have chosen to leave. We had some great successes made last year selling our directories business for a record price and, well, before Google basically completely took the value out of directory businesses. But still, the government reregulation of the sector was a very difficult period.
So I had a year off after that, I was physically exhausted and I needed a break, but I hadn’t really planned a transition plan because I’ve been so focused on the job. People had asked me to go on boards and I had said no. Then, at the time when that would have been good, they weren’t asking, so you can’t always control the cycles around you. Anyway, I wrote my book because I’ve been approached by two different publishers to do that. I very much enjoyed that.
Then, I started getting very involved with the SPCA and that’s led to a decade’s involvement in financially sorting out Wellington, and then, working with a group. Just now, like end of this month, we’ve spend three years, the chair of Auckland, Wellington and Canterbury, bringing together the 47 separate SPCAs into one. The legacy that we’re leaving as an organisation in much better shape for the next 100 years, then it would have been if we’ve had 47 separate things trying to raise money and can’t get commercial sponsors in that position or government funding, so that was the start of that.
That’s also the start of my entrepreneurial journey because I got approached by Cecilia Robinson about mentoring her in her first business, Au Pair Link, and I said yes, I did that. I worked with her and her husband, James, and I realised that business couldn’t scale up, but they were fantastic entrepreneurs. When she showed me the business plan for My Food Bag, I thought to myself, “This is really going to fly as long as we can execute this well,” and I said I’m in, basically the minute I saw it.
Then, that has led to an amazing five-year journey so far and no one’s more surprised than me that I’ve become, in a way, what my father always wanted to be, a hugely successful entrepreneur.
We had Cecilia on and she was fantastic at talking about all of the challenges of scaling and she thanked her mentors and talked about that. But does the pace of change over such a short of period of time to get up to $100 million of annual revenue and 50,000 customers, it’s almost mind bending.
It really is. We definitely did intend to have a big business. In fact, a year on, we’re turning over $30 million. I was presenting to a big accounting firm and the guy said, “Oh, yeah, I really get it. This is a big business, which is currently small.” That’s right. So James is very careful of the whole IT thing he drove. He’s one of the best, if not the best, business IT person I’ve ever worked with. He’s much more than that, but he excelled at that in the setup so we set it up for scale from the beginning. Although we started in Au Pair Links offices, in Nadia’s kitchen, we always knew we were going to go big as fast as we could.
We actually borrowed Telecom remuneration systems. We actually had the intention to build a big business, but in a way that celebrated what we were able to do because we were the owners. Cecilia would have told you about implementing two years ago double the government requirement on maternity/paternity leave, and extending that to men in the office, not just woman. When she announced that, it was actually the men, two men, whose wives who don’t work at My Food Bag, who had children recently, they were the ones that cried and said, “This is going to make a difference to my life.”
We’ve been able to create a fantastic culture and run phenomenally successful business at the same time, but to your point, you’re moving around every week millions of pieces of produce of food, packing it in bags, putting it into couriers, take to people’s homes and that is a logistics challenge every week.
A huge challenge, and also a huge cultural impact. Giving that time and that freedom back to people and making a lot of money out of that convenience factor.
Well, we call our customer service team the customer love team, and they truly are, because every week, we get customer love. We get people saying, “You’ve saved my marriage because we now sit down together and have a meal.” “My kids wouldn’t eat vegetables, but now, they do because it’s Nadia telling them, not me telling them.” “I’ve lost weight,” or “I’ve overcome from illness,” just that in spades. From the beginning, we’ve really focused on customer service. It’s such an important part of the ethos.
Of course, with millions of things moving around, you’re going to have some issues from time to time, and so, we’ve really borrowed the L.V. Martin & Son and the ‘putting it right that counts’ – the customer service staff have huge autonomy to make it right for the customer. They don’t have to check three layers of supervision. We’ve just moved into new cool digs in Parnell, on Parnell Rise, because we’ve grown so fast. We’re spread across several sites.
First of all was intentional. We always intended to run a big business. We all put money into it and we borrowed from the bank and we signed personal guarantees to get the foods, so we took a lot of risk. There’s no reward without risk, we took a lot of risk and that drives you. For the first year we didn’t pay ourselves a salary and then, we went quite quickly to hiring staff and working with them, and then, we had to go to a model where we could actually afford to hire more senior people and they were managing teams.
Each of those things has been its own thing in terms of how do we approach it. We definitely have a culture that, if we make mistakes, we acknowledge it, then we move on. We don’t have any recrimination. We learnt from everything we do. And we really have a spirit I think in that company of actually enjoying, first of all, what we do. Food is wonderful. The development kitchen, the feeding of each other. It’s pretty special, it’s pretty sexy. So it’s rigorous, it’s hard work, but it’s also enjoyable.
How fun is it to be in a startup where you’re making the world new and building new ground, as opposed to being in big legacy businesses where it’s more kind of people are worried about what you’re going to do next, rather than what you’re going to invent next?
Look, it’s a different media environment, that’s for sure. At the end of the day, it’s always about the people, right? So I worked with some fantastic people in my corporate life and, obviously, in Telecom. And they’ve become lifelong friends and I would not give any of that time back for a minute. But now that we live in a world where it’s easier to co-create, to create something, such as we’ve created with My Food Bag, the internet itself has made that possible. That has its own energy that goes from going, okay, because with a Telecom, you’ve got legacy systems. You can’t launch a new product, you can’t change things. You’ve still got all the commitments and contracts you’ve made before. That’s not the only company like that. Other companies are like that.
But food businesses, you can try things next week. You can stop that production run. You can say we’re going to do this. We listen to customer feedback. We launched a vegetarian bag. That went really well. We listened to customer feedback, we launched the gluten-free bag. That went very well. We listened to customer feedback, we launched the weight control bag, Fresh Start. And so that is cool, that ability to be able to take it onboard and make it happen.
You just mentioned before having to go to the bank and sign personal guarantees and stuff and the next venture you hear today that about the actual news of the day is SheEO, which is such a cool idea. Because traditionally women, having been underpaid and underrepresented in top jobs and not able to earn as much with the ridiculous pay inequality, haven’t had that ability to sign those personal guarantees and get those loans and get sponsored by VCs. Tell me how SheEO dips in to fix that.
Well, that’s all true. In the US, 4% of venture capital funding goes to women. When I looked for that data in New Zealand, I found that it didn’t exist. This is so ‘unimportant’ that we don’t even measure it, but there’s no reason to think that it would be any different. I heard Vicki Saunders – SheEO is her brainchild and she is a Canadian entrepreneur – speak about this, which was just getting it going a couple of years ago, and I thought that that would be really cool.
So I brought it to New Zealand earlier this year. She spoke at the conference and there was huge enthusiasm for it. We’ve just launched it in New Zealand and the idea is that 500 women put in a bit over $1,000 each and that pot of half a million dollars, those 500 women select five ventures to share that funding and also become their coaches, mentors, advocates, etc. To apply to be a venture, you have to be women-led and you have to have revenue of $50,000. It can’t just be an idea. And you have to be doing something good for the community, the country, the world.
And it’s got to be at a scale. We’re not going to fund a local dairy. The first round of ventures that she did in Canada, all the companies in that, their growth has exploded with this degree of support. So it’s an act of radical generosity because you don’t get your $1,000 back as an activator. The businesses pay it back over five years, interest-free loan, and then, you reselect another five ventures to give it to. It’s basically women activating using their capital and their networks to give other women entrepreneurs in their country an accelerated part.
I imagine as it grows, it gets exponentially larger.
You are so right.
Assuming with the smarts of 500 people choosing the right ventures, the ventures are successful.
That’s exactly what’s happening in Canada and the US, and so, New Zealand is the first country outside North America to do it because Vicki took a bit of convincing, until she came here and saw how wonderful New Zealand was, because she had her hands full over there, but she saw that there was a groundswell of support for it here. Now, she and I are going to be in Australia next month. They want to get going. I was with Vicki in Canada and the US two weeks ago and the woman from Netherlands who is getting it going over there was there with us, so it’s going to escalate. In fact, we’re going to give preference in our funding round to businesses that are export businesses because they’ve got all these chapters to basically reach out to immediately should they want to go to any of those countries.
To fire up the network, right?
There’s a great quote that Cindy Gallup often says: that there’s a lot of money to be made by taking women seriously.
Well, that’s exactly right. Look at My Food Bag, 85% female customers. Some my other businesses, with male colleagues, they say to me, “Oh, we’re on My Food Bag and it’s great.” And I say, “Oh, that’s great. What bag are you on?” They don’t know. They know they’re eating My Food Bag, but it’s the woman in the house decided what they’re doing about it.
This is a business that was a woman’s idea, led by a woman, funded by a woman, serving woman, but serving the wider community, so it’s a very good example of the SheEO business that would get funded. So if anyone listening, women can activate and men can activate in the name of their daughters if they want to be part of this. You go to the website, which SheEO world and you activate there with your credit card. That’s also where you go if you want to apply to be a funded venture.
Are you, at the moment, looking for your first 500 people or also the first companies to go in for the funding or both?
Both. We just opened the portal for ventures last week and there’s 12 questions. It’s not complex. There’s no big pitch decks. It’s pretty straightforward. We’ll be closing the portal for ventures on the 24th of November.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.