Caitlin Fitzsimmons Online editor

Caitlin covers social media, marketing and technology and is BRW's social media editor. She has worked as a journalist in Sydney, London and San Francisco, writing for titles including The Guardian and The Australian Financial Review.

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Set on success: The women who became champions of their own destinies

Published 06 March 2013 23:58, Updated 04 February 2014 00:15

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Set on success: The women who became champions of their own destinies

The biggest barrier to the success of Nutrimetics was getting many men to accept that their wife’s income could exceed their own, says Imelda Roche Photo: Louie Douvis

When Imelda Roche and her husband Bill brought cosmetics company Nutrimetics to Australia in 1968, there was no shortage of talented women wanting to sell the product – the challenge was getting their husbands to agree.

“The biggest barrier was convincing the men – there were difficulties with many men accepting that their wife’s income may out-earn their own,” Roche recalls.

“It was really a matter of making them feel very much a part of the enterprise, even though they could only be in a support role because our products were used and sold by women. It was a matter of making the men feel comfortable and we worked on that together.”

The natural cosmetics and skincare company, then known as Con-Stan Industries, was a pioneer of the direct-sales model, where sales agents are independent consultants working on commission rather than salaried staff.

To hear Roche tell it, things didn’t necessarily get easier with time. By the 1980s, more women worked outside the home but they wanted to do their Nutrimetics sales in the evenings so they could leave their husbands at home with the children.

Seeing the struggle that other women faced made Roche count her blessings in her own home life.

“I admire my husband enormously because he was one of the few men who would work in a mainstream business working in partnership with a wife,” she says.

“He had no reluctance for me to be the face to the business – in fact it was his thought and idea.”

Yet as a trailblazer for women in business she encountered plenty of other disbelievers, from bank managers who would only extend finance because the business was a partnership with her husband, to aunts who warned that her children would grow up to be delinquents.

Women’s role in society has transformed in the past half-century but, if you read the lists of the wealthiest people in Australia, you could be forgiven for thinking we are still a boys’ club.

Last year there were only 16 women in the BRW Rich 200, a rate of less than 8 per cent when you factor in joint entries. On the Young Rich list, the situation was even worse – just six women out of 100 in 2012, less than half as many as in 2003.

We are well behind international standards. There were 13 women on last year’s Forbes list of the 100 Richest People in the World and 14 on the Forbes 100 Richest People in America, many appearing as a single entry. British women account for 108 out of 1000 names on the Sunday Times Rich List, a rate of nearly 11 per cent, though inheritance or divorce are big drivers of women’s wealth in the UK.

Yet the truth is that Australian women are doing extraordinary things in business, as shown by our inaugural list of the 30 richest self-made women.

Entrepreneurs stand out

As with the Young Rich, our Rich Women list excludes inherited wealth – so Gina Rinehart is not featured, despite her huge success in business, for the same reason that James Packer never made the Young Rich.

Entertainers feature prominently among our richest women – actress Nicole Kidman is equal fourth with an estimated $320 million and the list is peppered with familiar names including Kylie Minogue, Elle Macpherson, Cate Blanchett and Naomi Watts.

The highest-profile representative of the corporate world is Westpac chief executive Gail Kelly who comes in at equal 16th, with an estimated fortune of $75 million.

There are a few widows and divorcees – women such as Patricia Ilhan, whose late husband founded Crazy John’s, and Lynette Harvey, ex-wife of Gerry Harvey, who has held Harvey Norman shares since 1982.

But the real stars of the story are our women entrepreneurs. At the very top of the list is the co-founder of internet company TPG, Vicky Teoh, with an estimated $390 million.

A full two out of three women on the list are there because they founded businesses: in employment services – Therese Rein, Sarina Russo and Julia Ross; retail – Jan Cameron, Lorna Jane Clarkson, Tania Austin and Maxine Horne; food – Janine Allis, Lesley Gillespie and Carolyn Creswell; or fashion design – Carla Zampatti. Sarah-Jane Clarke and Heidi Middleton.

What these women share in common is self-belief, determination and a willingness to work extremely hard.

The support of family has been key to their success for many women, especially those who combined business with raising children.

Many of the women on the list work in family businesses, often in partnership with their husbands. This includes Teoh, who founded TPG with her husband David; Charlotte Vidor, co-founder of property development and hotel company Toga Group; Christina Quinn, one half of the duo behind VIP Pet Foods, which bought Darrell Lea last year; Maureen Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet; and Lesley Gillespie from Bakers Delight.

It is often said that behind every great man is a great woman and perhaps the reverse is also true. And entrepreneurs’ mothers have played an important role in many cases, particularly where there were children in the picture.

Despite a 30-year age difference, Roche and Boost Juice founder Janine Allis have much in common – they both have four children, they have both built successful businesses and they both credit their husbands and mothers for making it all possible.

Allis, who founded Boost in 2000, is equal 21st on the list with an estimated $60 million. She says her husband, Jeff, was involved from the outset, looking after leasing and marketing, and he also made her entrepreneurial dream possible by working full time at Austereo to support the family.

Allis, whose children range in age from four to 22, says she gave up on trying to be the perfect mother early on.

“By the time you have a business and four kids, the guilt thing is well gone, the need to do everything in school is well gone,” she says. “There’s no question that without my mum coming to my house every day and making sure the kids were picked up and the dinner was made at night, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.

“Having a PA really early in the business was also really critical.”

When the Roches were establishing Nutrimetics, they had three children under the age of five and the fourth arrived in 1973. Yet Imelda Roche was “constantly on the move”, visiting every Australian capital city once a month, and then, as the business expanded throughout the 1970s, also going to 16 other countries.

“It was very difficult to manage but my mother was an enormous help to me in the early days, particularly with the three oldest children,” Roche says.

“I always advised all the women working for me to employ as much help as you can possibly afford – even during the days when my mother was the presence in the home, I always supported her with someone to do the cleaning, the washing and the ironing.

“I recognised early on that I had to give the business maximum effort and any down time I had to devote to the children. Children don’t care who washes the floor or who does the washing or ironing – as long as you don’t ask them to do it.”

Children don’t care who washes the floor or who does the washing or ironing – as long as you don’t ask them to do it.

Roche’s children are now grown up and all four live close to her in Double Bay and have families of their own. Roche now devotes most of her time to being a grandmother and she cites as one of her proudest achievements the fact that her children “all still like each other” and recognise that family relationships are more important than wealth.

When asked to explain the lack of women on the rich lists, Roche says men tend to have better networks and some are still reluctant to give opportunities to women or accept them as colleagues, though that is changing.

“I think in some respects you’ve got to break the nexus in some way,” she says. “I would probably support the thought of quotas for a period of time, but there should be thorough research to make sure those quotas are filled by capable, able-minded women and they should not be a token.

“If there’s enough time and trouble taken, they will find capable women because they are in the community.”

Roche adds that women typically don’t promote themselves as well as men and some hamper their progress by failing to present themselves professionally – in dress and grooming.

Charlotte Vidor is another pioneering businesswoman as co-founder of Toga Group with her husband Ervin in 1963. Vidor says she never found that being a woman was an obstacle in business.

”The bottom line is that when people regardless of sex are capable and ambitious they have an excellent chance to succeed for as long as they are prepared to work hard and focus on their goals,” Vidor says.

“I admit that in certain business activities there may be a prejudice against woman being equal to men but this is slowly being eroded and I see more and more women in management positions in all segments of businesses.”

Sarina Russo, the founder of training and recruitment business Sarina Russo Group, is happily single and child-free but says it would be a mistake to think it was easier for her as a result. She points out that she has her 99-year-old mother living with her and has taken an active role in the lives of her nieces and nephews.

“It’s just a decision I made – people make choices today about their relationship status and my status is single and I love it,” Russo says.

“People think that my life is 24 hours social but I feel very much a responsible citizen, not just to my mother but to be a role model for women and men and to be accountable to 1100 staff and tens of thousands of students and job-seekers around the world.”

Russo can’t explain why there are few women on the rich lists, but predicts women will achieve greatness in the 21st century. She believes it is a myth that business is harder for women than men, saying that it is all about the psychology of the individual.

Businesswoman Barbara Kale, who founded Chief Executive Women in the 1980s and is still a professional mentor for women, suggests that one reason for the lack of women on the rich lists is that many capable women are forging careers in the corporate world rather than branching out on their own. She notes that roughly 3 per cent of the current membership of Chief Executive Women are entrepreneurs.

“The fellow at BHP [Marius Kloppers] walked out with $75 million but it’s hard to make $75 million in such a short period of time on your own, so the corporate world can be very seductive,” Kale says.

“I know some of the women in Chief Executive Women are earning a couple of million, so what would make them risk going out on their own when you’ve still only got 24 hours in a day?”

The head of women’s markets at Westpac, Larke Riemer, has lengthy experience dealing with women who are the principals of businesses. Based on numerous conversations with these women, she believes there are not more of them on the rich lists because they have different priorities.

“They’re not as geared to the idea that people are going to think they’re even more successful if they’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars,” Riemer says.

“I don’t believe that’s what drives women in this country. I think what drives them is that they have built a wonderful business, it is doing well, they are employing staff that they love who really have the same passion as they do, their customers love what they do, their families … once that happens it’s almost time to step back.”

Allis agrees. “Maybe there’s natural instinct as well that says they don’t want to work 60-70 hours a week to achieve that corporate dream or that entrepreneurial dream,” she says. “Whether you have a laminate benchtop or a stone benchtop, that’s not happiness.”

Sarina Russo says what could have been a career crisis turned into a blessing.Photo: Glenn Hunt

Allis started her business naively thinking that she could work part time if she hired the right people, but it took her 13 years to get to that point. In the meantime, she found herself working harder than she had ever imagined.

“For the first eight to 10 years of running Boost there was no external socialising, no coffee with friends, it was just keeping balls in the air. It was Boost, home, kids, husband, stuff, then back to work.

“People think they can have everything and have life balance. It’s actually not physically possible – if you want a successful business, you cannot have life balance.”

Allis went into business because she wanted to forge her own path in life rather than “work for the man”.

Russo started her company in the 1970s after being sacked from a series of jobs and says what was a crisis at the time is a blessing in hindsight. She remains the sole owner and is 12th on the list with an estimated $95 million.

“When it happened I was devastated but my point is that I had the courage to do something about it and 34 years later the crisis was really a gift and an extraordinary opportunity,” Russo says. “I am not good at partnership – I am 100 per cent owner and I like to take my decisions and 100 per cent accountability in the decisions I make.”

For Roche the drive came from a desire to improve her lot in life. She and her husband came from modest backgrounds and started businesses to supplement their incomes and help support their parents and siblings.

“Even as a child I had an ambition to do something with my life,” Roche says. “My mother struggled to raise six children and I wanted to make sure that my life wasn’t one of struggle and to be financially self-reliant.”

My mother struggled to raise six children and I wanted to make sure that my life wasn’t one of struggle and to be financially self-reliant

In turn, she has tried to teach her children to be grateful for their good fortune and never to flaunt it. “I don’t really want to be a standout in society for money – that’s not a good reason,” she says. To my mind it’s got very little to do with the worth of a person.”

The Roches first sold lamps for televisions and then started a women’s fashion business with a mix of direct sales and distribution through department stores. When the opportunity came to start the Australian business for Nutrimetics, it seemed a perfect fit. Not only was the first commercially available natural skincare range but the overheads were low as it didn’t use salaried staff on set working hours.

Four months after responding to an ad in the paper, Roche received an early morning telephone call asking her to come to a meeting.

“It was the most charming voice I have heard, even barring John Laws’ voice, and it belonged to a gentleman who was the original voice of the Lone Ranger in the United States,” she recalls. “I went to the Wentworth Hotel in Sydney and was so taken with him and the concept he presented … there was nothing like that in Australia.”

They financed the establishment of Nutrimetics in Australia themselves and the business grew quickly. They started with five consultants in their first week and had expanded into Queensland and Victoria within months and had about 5000 consultants by the end of the first trading year. They extended to New Zealand a few years later and then into Asia and the UK in the 1970s.

The Roches took over the worldwide business of Nutrimetics in 1991 and moved the headquarters to Australia. They sold the company to Sara Lee in 1997 (the company was later onsold to Tupperware) and turned their hand to developing the portfolio of property they had acquired in their years of business. The Roches remain as joint chairmen of Roche Group, but are mostly retired – the business is now run by their two sons, while their daughters also have ownership stakes.

Imelda Roche was made an officer of the Order of Australia in 1995 for services to business and commerce, women’s affairs and community. Career highlights include her work for the Asia Pacific Economic Forum in the 1990s under both prime ministers, Paul Keating and John Howard, and her stint as chancellor of Bond University.

Early last month, Roche opened the First Ladies exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, where a portrait of herself painted by Paul Newtown hangs in a prime position.

“I thought it was a coming of age for women in business,” Roche says. “It’s a progressive step that a recognisable role model can be a businesswoman not just a sportsperson or entertainer. To keep a society thriving, it’s about more than being entertained.”

We couldn’t agree more.

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