Lending The Ladder Down

How Diane Foreman inspired a new generation of female entrepreneurs.

As New Zealand’s original dairy queen, Diane Foreman knows just how challenging it is to be a woman in business. But after making her way to the top, the ice-cream entrepreneur is set to inspire a new generation of female business owners. 

From a struggling single parent to one of the country’s most powerful and influential woman, Diane Foreman’s life reads like a Hollywood script. Dubbed the “ice cream queen” by the media, the mother of four and former receptionist frequently graces the pages of high-profile business magazines such as Forbes. She’s the woman behind Emerald Foods, a dairy production company responsible for the widely successful New Zealand Natural franchise. Since launching the company in 1985, the 57-year-old entrepreneur has built a multi-million dollar empire spanning across a multitude of industries including manufacturing, recruitment, hospitality and property. She’s been named New Zealand Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young (EY) and has even been honoured with the prestigious Companion Order of Merit (CNZM) for her services to business by Queen Elizabeth II. Now with a second book in progress and a partnership with professional services company EY, the entrepreneur is inspiring a new generation of women.

Like many successful business owners, Foreman finds inspiration in her peers. A firm believer in what she calls “value accrued by association”, the entrepreneur understands the importance of having strong mentors. And when it comes tostrong mentorship, she lives by  her own motto: “Be with the people you want to be.” Among her own mentors, the mother and business woman has found inspiration and guidance from some of the best in the country, including late Lion Breweries Chief Executive Douglas Myers and her former husband, Bill Foreman, founder of Trigon Plastics. Encouraged by Bill Foreman to make her first major foray into the world of business, Foreman became a company board member at Trigon after the couple married in the 1988. She would go on to become CEO of the business before eventually overseeing the
$130 million dollar sale of the company in 1996.

Of course, the transition was not without its hurdles. As a woman entering a male-dominated industry with an already powerful husband, Foreman knew there would be times where she was unfairly judged because of her gender and position. Despite these experiences, the entrepreneur believes women also have a responsibility to make a change in the industry. “What I’d like to see is not only men being more supportive of women, but other women being more supportive of women,” says Foreman. “Other women, they see a woman being really, really successful. And instead of saying, ‘Well that’s fantastic, go girl,’ they turn around and they go, ‘Oh well I’m a bit jealous. She must have done something wrong. How did she get there?’’ And they start wanting to pull you apart.” Doubt from others, however, is something Foreman thrives on. “I’m grateful for all the people that said I couldn’t do it. Because they made me turn around and want to do it.”

“After that [selling Trigon], I had this real problem because everybody always said, ‘Oh, you’re not really that good, you’re only good because Bill gave you the job,’” explains Foreman. And while the entrepreneur is the first to admit she is extremely fortunate to have had such a successful mentor, it’s hard to deny the former receptionist has an edge for business. From a young age, Foreman expressed a keen interest in entrepreneurship. As a child with a garden of chickens, she would sell eggs for pocket money, later on expanding her “business” to include babysitting, making profits by contracting her school friends. Still, it would be years before she would be internationally recognised by royalty and the likes of Ernst & Young for her contributions to the business world. After leaving school at just 15 with no qualifications and limited skills, Foreman found herself working numerous office jobs to make ends meets. “I had several office jobs in those days. I remember my first job I was earning $15 a week and I was paying $10 a week rent.” Expenses would soon become tighter for Foreman who married her first husband at just 18.  Three years later, she would find herself single with two children to care for. But unbeknownst to Foreman at the time, it would be a job as a medical receptionist, which would lead to her eventual success. There, she would meet her second husband, Bill Foreman and the two would find common ground over a mutual love of business.

Despite finding success working alongside her then husband, Foreman had a strong desire to make a name for herself in her own right. After selling Trigon for $130 million to the New York-based Sealed Air Group in 2003, the budding entrepreneur set her sights on building her own investments. Using profits from the sale of Trigon, Foreman became a foundation shareholder for the MercyAscot hospital in Auckland. However, it would be her company, Emerald Foods, which would see her become one of the country’s most successful female entrepreneurs. While the company is most recognised for producing dairy product for brands like New Zealand Natural and Mövenpick, the entrepreneur would go on to expand her empire to include property and investment businesses. The once loss-making New Zealand Natural franchise would see  an impressive expansion across 40 countries worldwide by the time Foreman sold Emerald Foods in 2015. Likewise, annual revenue for Emerald Foods would also rise under Foreman’s management to between $40 and $60 million a year, according to 2013 reports from management consulting firm Coriolis.

During her time running Emerald Foods, the entrepreneur also started Emergent with business partner, Carmen Bailey, a recruitment company, which specialises in hiring executive talent. In one swift, strategic move to diversify her assets, Foreman ensured she always had the best people available for her business ventures. “The reason I started Emergent was because it gave me the first look at executive talent. So I was able to see — and still are able to see — who are the very best people in the market, take them out of the market and put them in businesses that I own.” Indeed, hiring the right candidates is a practice Foreman places high value in. Throughout her 2015 book, Diane Foreman: In the Arena, the entrepreneur shares her tips on finding the greatest talent. “One of my favourites that people can’t understand, but really when you think about it, works, is never hire someone without doing a drive by. I never hire a senior person without driving by their house because how they look after their biggest asset is how they’re going to look after my business.” Another favourite piece of Foreman’s advice from the book is her thoughts on competition. While the entrepreneur believes it is important to look at competitors, she also suggests up-and coming business owners spend as little time as possible doing so. “A lot of people spend so much time analysing what their competitors are doing,” says Foreman. “The most important thing is to focus on your business and the game — because the only game you can change is yours.”

Now Foreman is hoping to share her expertise with other aspiring entrepreneurs. Working alongside Ernst & Young, the business mogul is writing her second book profiling former EY Entrepreneur Of The Year Award winners, as well as taking on international judging panel roles. It’s an award Foreman is particularly passionate about, after winning the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year New Zealand herself in 2009. The distinguished award ceremonies recognise some of the world’s most celebrated business owners at regional, national and global levels in more than 145 cities across 60 countries. “I want to distill down what makes them [the winners], what they are, so the readers can look at it and go, ‘Wow, they did that, I should try it.’”

Yet in spite of how far she and other female business owners have come, Foreman is under no illusion the glass ceiling has shattered. “Look, I think it’s still incredibly tough,” explains Foreman, who believes starting a business is not the hardest part for women — it’s the unconscious bias, which operates on a more subtle level. And while the entrepreneur is pleased to see progress has been made with the likes of current Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in power, she thinks  more can be done to eliminate the unconscious bias. “We can’t rest on our laurels and say we’ve got some women in high places.” One method of eliminating bias, Foreman suggests, is by diversifying businesses. In turn, she says, this would also see businesses achieve better results. “It’s the most basic rule of business — that the more diversity you get around the table, the better decisions you get.” Still, Foreman is wary of businesses who hire women for the sake of it.  These are great  people.Don’t judge people on their sexuality or their gender or their identity,
judge them on their ability to do the job.”

Moving forward, the entrepreneur hopes the New Zealand government will invest more in female-run businesses and believes funding initiatives and mentoring programs are a great example of how governments and organisations can help. “I would challenge the new government to set up an entrepreneurial fund for female entrepreneurs,” says Foreman. “Because a lot of women start businesses, but they remain relatively small because they don’t have access to capital.” As a woman who came from humble beginnings, Foreman is understandably passionate about helping those less fortunate. Later this year, the entrepreneur is also set to open a new charity based in New Zealand, however details of the organisation are at the time of writing, strictly under wraps. Although not her first charity venture (Foreman also has experience serving as Chairman of the Ferguson Foreman Foundation, a foundation established to support education, health and hearing-impaired education), it’s clear her desire to give back to the community motivates many of her business ventures. Her caring nature is also reflected in the way she speaks of her four children and grandchildren, when she is asked what really matters to her. “There’s a saying that you’re only as happy as your least happy child. So a good day for me is when all my children are happy… that’s kind of the most important thing to me. But then after that, it’s just being kind to each other.”

Kindness is also a significant part of Foreman’s business model, particularly when it comes to working with other women. It’s also one of her favourite pieces of advice for women looking to start a business, “Be kinder to your fellow women. I’ve always said that it’s not about a hand up, it’s about going down the ladder — pulling up the people behind them and really trying to get other women to be successful.” And for women who may be hesitant to launch a business, the entrepreneur’s advice is to simply jump in. “If you’re a woman looking to get into business, always ask yourself, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen?’ And if the worst thing that can happen is that you’re back to where you started — well you’ve had a fantastic journey on the way,” says Foreman. “So don’t be scared to give it a go. If you do the same thing in the same way, you’re going to get the same outcome. If you challenge yourself to do something differently, then something different might happen. And it’s just possible that it might be something fantastic.”

For Foreman, the possibility of fantastic result is now a reality. After the multi-million dollar sale of Trigon, the entrepreneur would never have to work again. But in a bold move, she decided to invest the profits instead. Today, Foreman is enjoying every moment one well-calculated risk has lead to. Living part-time in London, the 57-year oldstill pinches herself when she sits in Hyde Park or finds herself walking through the streets of Paris. And her legacy remains both here in New Zealand and overseas. With Forbes Asia magazine naming her as one of Asia’s most powerful women and a judging spot for the world’s top entrepreneurial award, Foreman has gone above and beyond proving the doubters wrong.

“No woman wants to be a token woman. If the best person for the job is a man, then they should hire that man. But if the best person is a lesbian, or a woman — things that they are a little bit scared about — that’s ridiculous.”