By Bridget Gourlay
Most little girls dream of becoming princesses. Or famous actresses. Or having hundreds of puppies. Annette Presley dreamed of owning her own company at the age of 25. The famous entrepreneur, now a multi-millionaire, grew up in an underprivileged house in South Auckland. Many of her friends, she remembers, were third generation beneficiary families. From a very young age she knew she wanted a different life for herself. And that is exactly what she has created.
At about 22 Presley and a friend set up a small company that ran seminars on female business success, called Women on the Move. In the mid 1980s, this was a move almost unheard of.
“In my generation, there was no such thing as a female business leader. Let alone, as we have now, the fortune to have the number of prominent women leaders in business and society today — women prime ministers, and a female leader of the legal counsel. (Chief Justice Sian Elias).”
Women on the Move was a small venture, one she did largely for philanthropy and the sheer fun of it. It wasn’t until the ripe old age of 24 she started IT recruitment firm, Stratum.
Presley didn’t know anything about starting her own company. She remembers living in a small apartment, struggling to pay the rent and eating tomato sandwiches for every meal. But she’d done the sums and knew Stratum would soon turn a profit.
And it did. When she sold it four years later in 1992, it was one of the leading IT recruitment firms in the country. “The fact that it succeeded was a bit of a miracle, but anything can happen with hard work and dedication and a bit of passion — as I’ve discovered in my life.”
Each time, Presley found the capital to back herself as getting a bank loan was out of the question. “I’ve never had a bank fund any of my companies. Not even today does a bank fund my company which is turning over more than $140 million. Banks don’t fund entrepreneurs, in my experience. Banks don’t like to take risks, although sometimes they take stupid risks, as we’ve seen.”
A call to Australia
In 1992, Australia de-regulated its telecommunications industry and Presley and her then husband Malcolm Dick saw an opportunity. They moved across the ditch and on April Fool’s Day started Call Australia.
Despite their successes in New Zealand, starting up wasn’t easy. A few weeks beforehand Presley broke her leg and their third investor backed out.
She may be famous for her catchphrase ‘feel the fear and do it anyway,’ but it’s not just a cheap slogan. Presley has walked the walk. “Every day we thought that we were going to fail. Because people were telling us that, our suppliers were telling us that. Then, there was no such thing as a telecommunications re-seller. We were one of the first.
“It was the fear of failure. We didn’t want to go back to New Zealand and tell everyone we’d failed. So we didn’t.”
In 1998 Call Australia was turning over $100 million a year with 200 employees. But home is where the heart is, and the pair sold it, moved home to New Zealand and began a similar company, now known as Slingshot.
The rest is history. Presley became the very public face of the company. She appeared in all of its advertising. She challenged Telecom. She sued Telecom. She famously offered to do Theresa Gattung’s job for one dollar. Appearing on shows such as Dragon’s Den cemented her face as part of Slingshot’s brand.
In 2006, a very public stoush came about, dragged through the media and exploited by the tabloids, when Presley and Dick separated and Presley was stood down from the day to day running of the company.
But despite all of this very public pain, despite the early days of tomato sandwiches and the very real possibility of going broke, Presley doesn’t look back with regrets.
She says she wouldn’t change anything that has happened to her.
“It’s like sliding doors. If you made a different decision at that point you would have gone down a different path and be a different person. Would it have been a better path?
“Nobody will ever know. You’ve got the path that you’ve chosen so you either make lemonade or you live with lemons.
“Do I look back and want to change anything, even the worst things that ever happened to me? The things that were real crises? No, because out of every bad thing that happens you learn something and you learn about yourself and even the really bad things are the ones that change you the most.”
Being the public face of anything comes with its detractors. And Presley feels New Zealand has more than its fair share of them. She thinks tall poppy syndrome “exists 100 percent” and is holding the country back.
“People like me don’t necessarily want to put their head up because the media of New Zealand is so keen to chop it down again… I know many successful people who have either left New Zealand or who will not do an interview like this and have no interest whatsoever, because they know for an absolute fact it will just bring more focus on them and just give the media more opportunity to rip them to shreds the minute they see a crack.
“I think that’s sad because so many role models and icons just will not stand up. And I’ve had this conversation with many very successful people.”
She’s made her millions. And she’s stood down from the day to day running of her business. So what does a successful, glamorous woman do now? Relax on the beach? Go on luxury holidays? Not this one. She spends a good portion of her time in the poorest schools in south Auckland.
That’s where she grew up. On behalf of charities, the multi-millionaire speaks to teenagers about making the most out of their lives. Dress for Success, Violence Against Women, the Sensible Sentencing Trust, the Stellar Trust (against the drug P) and the Casper foundation (about youth suicide) are some of the varied causes Presley supports.
She’s also involved in mentoring — from business leaders to teenagers, she receives emails and phone calls nearly everyday asking her for advice; something she’s happy to give.
“Whether they’re kids leaving school or business leaders (me included), sometimes we lose our path and we can’t see things clearly. We just need someone to stand back and say hey let’s have a look at it, where do we want to go and how are we going to get there.”
The year ahead
Presley may have stepped back from the day to day running of her business, but she’s still involved, and has also got her finger in a few pies across the Tasman too.
But her number one priority are her children, she stresses. It seems it’s not just hers who are getting her guidance and support. She says 2011 will be a “big year” for her, as her many charity projects in south Auckland kick into gear. She’s in talks about starting a camp for underprivileged children, which she’ll organise with a charity or off her own bat.
Because despite her success, her money and her fame, she knows where she’s from. “I want to make a difference,” she tells me several times.
“South Auckland has certainly changed since I grew up there and it’s not for the better. I’d love to see the children who don’t have opportunities and don’t believe in themselves look at life differently.”