By Kate Pierson
We are all commentators of life. We write the story of our existence through the decisions we make, the paths we pursue and ultimately, the person we choose to be.
Stories of stoicism in the face of adversity have been told by many narrators and spoken of in many subjects. But the story of overcoming challenge that I was privy to, was not like any other I had heard.
Told to me by the owner of the story, its compelling nature was not owed to sensational narration or personal jargon. Quite the contrary; it was a story in which the facts spoke for themselves.
As the narrator of this story recounted her professional evolution, she invited me into the challenges of her past. She told a story within a story, which has lingered in my mind since. Not because it was cloaked in drama or rich in colourful language. In fact, it was the simplicity of the story and the symbolism within it which reached out to my sensibilities.
She spoke of a close friendship with another women; living in a situation where every dollar counted. As solo mothers they were bound by a budget for survival. So, combining the little extra resource they had, they bought one dress top and skirt to share between them for special occasions. Items, which, by everyday standards are considered a wardrobe staple, but to these women were a material luxury.
As I listened to this story I understood that these were women who did not let their financial and circumstantial challenges define them, dictate their future, or own their existence. They were two women who found opportunity in obstacle and applied logic to circumstance to achieve resolution.
It was an achievement in itself. But perhaps even more so, because the narrator and one of the women in this story was Diane Foreman: unflappable businesswoman, chief executive of the multi-faceted Emerald Group, the 2009 Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year and all round patriot of perseverance.
When you talk to Diane Foreman, it’s hard to know where to start. So much success, so much professional ground to cover; the story is as unique as the women who wrote it herself in the language of sheer determination.
Yet while I enter my conversation with Foreman, mindful of covering all bases, her comprehensive yet entirely organic story telling style leads me effortlessly through the passage of time. And without even being consciously aware of the fact, once we have spoken, I realise that through an entirely natural exchange of dialogue, I have become acquainted with Foreman and her five lives in under an hour. That’s quite a feat considering the rich tapestry of her existence.
Of course five lives is clearly a tongue and cheek expression, but it is offered with sincerity. Because while Foreman is a mere mortal like the rest of us, the breadth of her professional experience defies more than just one lifetime worth of work.
As chief executive of the Emerald Group and the Emerald Foods business empire, Foreman has investments in New Zealand healthcare, manufacturing in New Zealand and America, high level recruitment and a boutique hotel on Auckland’s North Shore. Needless to say, Foreman’s finesse for smart investment and her pursuit of opportunity has befriended my own aspirational nature.
I am eager to know what kept Foreman moving forward when it seemed like the world wanted to hold her back. “It’s about wanting something and climbing under, over or through anything to get what you want and not seeing the obstacles,” she tells me.
Curious to know if stresses associated with work are equivalent to those she experienced as a solo mother with no formal tertiary qualifications, I already know the answer. Because she has already expressed the unwavering commitment to her children and tells me that the stresses attached to her job are disproportionate to those she faced fighting to give her children what life resources they needed.
“I know what it’s like to be in that situation as a solo mother and it is much more upfront and in your face, because you are wondering if you can pay the rent, buy the groceries and look after your children. I always knew I wanted much more than that.”
While Foreman will speak openly of her achievements, she does not glamorise her success or downplay the fact that she too has experienced hit and misses. She says when faced with these obstacles, it’s about never giving up and holding fast to your dreams. “You just keep on turning up. If something doesn’t work, try and try again, because it’s too easy to say it’s too hard.”
Foreman’s recognition of the fact that life is not always fair is refreshing. She knows that efforts dedicated to a cause won’t always pay off, but it is our acquaintance with struggle that makes our meeting with success even sweeter. And in Foreman’s case, the sweet taste of success is quite literal.
Millions of milestones
One or two milestones are a staple ingredient in any successful lifetime, but for Foreman’s Emerald Foods, around 100 million milestones a year is the average.
Served around the world, in flavours for every fancy, these100 million milestones constitute the number of icecream scoops dished up by Emerald Food subsidiaries every year. Movenpick, Killinchy Gold, Heavenly Treats, Lite Licks, Chateau Premium and iconic brand, New Zealand Natural are all part of the Emerald Foods Family.
Every scoop served is a milestone because the brands they represent were resuscitated and revived by Foreman when their commercial heartbeat was flatlining. Perhaps the veil of natural humility she wears will mean Foreman doesn’t see it this way, but for those who know this story, it’s hard not to.
The facts themselves are food for thought. There are 15 million litres of icecream produced by Emerald Foods every year; the New Zealand Natural brand is represented by 700 outlets around the world in 21 countries and every nine days a new outlet is opened somewhere in the world.
Before the days of palate pleasing with her global icecream brands, Foreman had filled the professional shoes of husband Bill Foreman. Succeeding him as chief executive of Trigon, she headed a company of 750 staff and managed an annual turnover of NZ$135 million and six manufacturing plants worldwide.
In 1995, Foreman single-handedly negotiated the sale of Trigon to Sealed Air Corporation – an achievement she considers a milestone in her career. “Being part of the team that sold Trigon was an incredible experience,” she says. “I felt really proud of what we achieved as a business and for the business.”
In a professional capacity that’s close to her heart, Foreman credits her relationship with Emergent & Co founder, manager and co-owner Carmen Bailey as a significant highlight on her professional journey.
It was in 2002, during a recruitment process to source a CFO contractor for the Emerald Group, that her relationship with Bailey was cemented. “She is a great business partner. She tackles the hardest challenge of tapping into the talent base and finding the best people,” Foreman says.
“It is not the critic who counts, not the person who points out how the strong person stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends themselves in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who, at the worst, if they fail at least fails while daring greatly, so that their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
– President Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States of America
New Zealand is renowned for its innovative spirit. Quintessential Kiwi ingenuity is embodied in the entrepreneurial movers and shakers who sow the seeds of creative imagination into our business landscape. So in a country rich with talent, being named as the 2009 Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year is a prestigious achievement.
On October 22, 2009 with her closest friends and two of her children in attendance, Foreman accepted the Entrepreneur of the Year title awarded in acknowledgement of her reputable business acumen. Preceded by former winners including Michael Hill and Sir George Fistonich, Foreman accepted the award in the company of her four fellow finalists whose own impressive achievements gave even greater weight to her win.
In her acceptance of the award, Foreman borrowed the words of President Roosevelt because they speak of truths that resonate within her every day.
Before our conversation comes to an end, I can’t resist the journalistic cliché of asking if Foreman will impart some words of wisdom. As expected, like the rest of her verbal offerings, Foreman is forthcoming with words of profound value.
From a moral perspective, she tells me that in business and in any industry, there is a cardinal rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In business and in life, if you follow this rule, you keep out of trouble. It’s about personal integrity, because you have to be able to live with yourself.”
With a notepad rich in Foreman’s knowledge, I ask as a final conclusion to our conversation, what is on the horizon for Foreman’s future in business? “More of the same,” she replies enthusiastically. And while it may be a simple response, I know that this ‘more of the same’ will entail a workload reminiscent of those in her past. In short, this means a tireless workload condensed into a timeframe that defies logic.
In June 2010, Foreman is representing New Zealand at the Ernst and Young World Entrepreneur of the Year Awards in Monte Carlo. The year 2010 will also see New Zealand Natural representing New Zealand as the only national icecream company to exhibit at the Shanghai World Expo, running from May 1 to October 31.
As we exchange goodbyes, something tells me there will be many more stories to tell about Diane Foreman’s professional adventure and her final response tells me she’s thinking the same.
“Everyone has a ‘use by’ date, but I know I still have a long way to go. I will always be doing something, that is who I am.”