A long list of charity work and a focus on living a good and healthy life occupies one of the country’s leading business people. Annette Presley shares her insight.
Words: Kate Coughlan Photos: Matthew Williams
“Feel the fear and do it anyway,” is the mantra that used to propel Annette Presley, ONZM, on her journey to build not one but two profitable tech empires.
Today, the driver motivating Annette – successful businessperson, public speaker, philanthropist and former reality-show talent – is much more about wanting to inspire others on their journey, particularly young women.
“Young girls have huge possibilities to rule the world, but they don’t seem inspired enough. I love mentoring young women as I see in them a spark waiting to be ignited.”
And it is Annette’s own journey that gives her the credibility with many young women. For Annette has walked the talk, and this resonates with attendees at her Elicit workshops and “dream days” for young women.
“I started my charity, Elicit, after I sold out of the business [made up of Callplus Business, Slingshot, 2talk, Flip and Orcon] in 2015. We hold workshops in schools to help the teenage girls create 'dream boards'. There are motivational speakers, as well as myself, encouraging young women to believe in setting lifelong goals. And I am in the process of setting up a scholarship programme for the most promising of these young women.”
Annette set her entrepreneurial path as a young teen. Keen to avoid her challenging home life she roamed Papatoetoe Golf Course, close to where she lived, and discovered that if she picked up lost golf balls she could sell them. The then-McAuley High top-achieving pupil graduated to creating and selling artificial flower arrangements.
“We were encouraged to achieve at McAuley, even though it was an area in which many families were intergenerationally unemployed and welfare-dependent. The nuns taught us to value academic achievement, but lots of my friends thought it was cool to flunk off and hang out with boys.”
Annette, who also did a bit of hanging out with boys, says some toughness is a positive advantage.
“I was lucky in that I had a mother and father who wanted a good education for me. They didn’t have a great education themselves and wanted the best for my brother and me. My mother got pregnant with me when she was unmarried and very young and, in hindsight, she probably believed she would have had a better chance at life if she hadn’t had me.
“The environment I grew up in was not always an open, kind, loving, compassionate family. Not at all. I guess I was brought up tough. I wanted to get out, to get away from there and have another life. In that environment, you have to have an edge of toughness to make it out. I dreamt of an independent life with choice, a flash car and nice clothes and a boat to sail away on.”
Her grandmother, with whom she went to live at 15 after her mother put all her clothes out on the lawn one day, supported her dreams and told Annette she was the best saleswoman she had ever come across. Annette was, she later came to realise, passionate about people. And that’s what she tries to get across to the many young women who come to her teenage camps – find your passion.
The Elicit dream days (so named by friend and trustee Gilda Kirkpatrick who says the word means “dreamcatcher” in Thai and also means “to stimulate a response”) are incredible events, says Annette.
“We get the girls into groups of six to 10 with a volunteer and the energy is unleashed. The change is unbelievable. The girls don’t want to leave the workshops, they want to keep working on their dream boards. At the end of the workshops they have to do a skit and all of them participate; they feel that empowered and strong. No one is too scared to get up on the stage. I want to help young women to show them that they can get out and create independent lives and live their dreams.”
Annette’s story has plenty to inspire. The young seller of golf balls and fake flowers went from a computer programming student at AUT, to a computer saleswoman, to starting and selling an IT recruitment company (Stratum).
After the sale of that company, she moved to Australia where she and her former husband Malcolm Dick launched a highly successful telecommunications empire before returning to New Zealand after the sale of the Australian company and its “non-compete” in the Australian market.
She successfully challenged the monopoly controlling New Zealand’s telecommunications sector, driving pricing down more than 50 percent and introducing competition into the telecommunications and internet industries. She then burst into our living rooms in the reality television show Dragons’ Den.
Annette’s many charities (for which she was awarded the Order of Merit last year) along with her business work and support of women give her the most fulfilment these days. That’s beyond the pride she has in the many achievements of her son Brandon (studying at university in Auckland) and daughter Ashley (in her final year at an Auckland secondary school next year). She loves giving back.
Of that previous life in which she learned that the cost of flying high in this country could be unfriendly missile fire, Annette says that’s where a bit of toughness can come in handy.
In the past two years she’s moved on from driven career woman, the one who had turned her back on her South Auckland upbringing and set her sights on success.
Since that 2015 $250 million sale of the telecommunications company Callplus (of which she and Malcolm were the majority shareholders) to Australian company M2, Annette has refocused on what she believes a good life looks like and is living the results.
“Every morning when I wake I make three commitments:
1. Be kind.
2. Be in the present moment.
3. Love myself completely.
“Sound easy? It’s harder than you think. Meditation is my practice and I use it to bring me into the present moment and that helps teach me to respond to life, not react. That’s important – life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react. Believe me, I can still be triggered, but I am learning to see that my mind is a tool.”
While Annette’s boardroom battles and past corporate skirmishes taught her a lot about growing companies and managing boards, it has been other life experiences – including a brief stay in a Mongolian yurt in 2012 – that have taught her the meaning of life. She was part of an episode of Shock Treatment, a reality documentary television series in which well-known people were put in threatening or challenging situations.
“In Mongolia, I stayed with people who slept on the ground, around a fire in a tent. They had nothing but they were the happiest people I’ve ever met. The children had no toys [except one little boy to whom her television colleague John “Cocksy” Cocks gave a carved wooden horse]. I couldn’t help thinking my kids got so many presents for Christmas that they got bored before they’d even finished opening them. The Mongolian children were laughing, so happy and never bored. The adults made no judgement of me, just helped me learn to live their way, helped me cope with the pain of sleeping on the ground and taught me about peeing in a long drop. They have nothing, and they want nothing. That experience gave me a lot. I like nice things but I know things don’t make you happy. The only person who can make you happy is yourself.
She says she values experiences in which she is totally out of her comfort zone, pushing herself right to the edge…
“...Experiences that take you to a place where you understand your real purpose and priorities. One of these experiences for me was crewing on the round-the-world yacht Lion on a race to Fiji, not showering or washing for a week, getting up in the middle of the night to change sails, sleeping just four hours at a stretch, sailing into a storm in the middle of the night and nearly going overboard, which would have meant drowning. You really work out what’s important then.”
Annette says most successful businesswomen feel a responsibility to help others.
“Guilt is one of our overriding emotions, and I feel as though people have an expectation that I will help them. Five people recently asked me for help in one day. My commitment is that I will always get back to them, even though I don’t always help them myself. I have to work on myself and not try and do everything.
“I used to run everywhere and do everything. Now I try to keep a balance. I have my family, my friends and interests, business investments and my charities.
“I’ve avoided going on boards of well-established companies as I’d drive those sorts of boards nuts.
“I was the chairwoman of Callplus for 10 years but that was different – an entrepreneurial environment where I could have a direct influence and create change in people’s lives, and it was fun.
“I love that and am involved in several start-up boards that I adore now.”
“I thrive in that environment but I have no desire to race out, do a great big start-up again… never say never but I have been there and done that for more than 25 years.
“I am grateful for my beautiful family and friends. I’m working on my mindfulness and am thankful for every day I wake up. And I’m looking to find a place where I still have something to give.
“That’s the journey of life.”
Presley's story in business
* Sold lost golf balls and artificial flower arrangements while still at school.
* Sold computers while studying computer programming at Auckland University of Technology.
* Launched and (later sold) IT recruitment company Stratum.
* Moved to Australia and launched Call Australia and sold it (then returned to New Zealand). Launched Callplus, i4free (which became Slingshot), and successfully challenged the monopolistic telecoms industry.
* Sold Callplus (along with other majority co-owner Malcolm Dick) in 2015 for $250 million.
* Bought into Jitrois, a high-end French fashion label, with stores in Paris and New York.
* Owns multiple investments in tech start-ups and energy companies.