Theresa Gattung, passionate businesswoman

Theresa Gattung, passionate businesswoman

by Philip Matthews
Post date: 14 November, 2016

National portrait: November 12 2016, photo by Bevan Reid.

Remember the early 2000s? They were good times. 

There was a moment when New Zealand pretty much seemed like it was run by women. We were grown up, enlightened, sensible. Helen Clark was Prime Minister, Dame Sian Elias was Chief Justice, Dame Silvia Cartwright was Governor-General, Margaret Wilson was Attorney-General and Theresa Gattung was Telecom's chief executive. 

We were an eclectic ladyland. But it couldn't last. Gattung remembers a women's conference at which Cartwright said it would be highly unlikely if any of the five women were replaced by women, and apart from Elias who is still there, she was right. 

"I think I always knew that the position was overstated, that the country was being run by women," Gattung says. "But it was still a time that was inspiring for women. It was inspiring for girls to see women running the country, running large companies, speaking publicly and living in a self-determined way. That is how girls learn that anything is possible.

"History's not linear. History can circle. New Zealand is still a relatively good place to be a woman. There is possibility and fewer barriers and obstacles, but it would be naive to say there are none."

Gattung was famously Telecom's first woman CEO in 1999 and its youngest, at 37. There was the usual precocious backstory about wanting to run a major company by the time she was 40 and stories from Waikato University of being a feminist at business school who objected to male students passing porn magazines around while being considered a suit-wearing capitalist in women's studies class. 

Despite our relative enlightenment, Gattung has been criticised in ways that could only be gender-based. Former Labour MP Shane Jones called her "shrill", which is not a word often used about men. Historian Michael Bassett called her "a bouncy young lady" when he reviewed her memoir Bird on a Wire and claimed there wasn't "a literary or classical allusion in the book" – a detail he was wrong about.

Now 54, Gattung spends more time in Auckland than Wellington, although she kept her apartment in the capital. Auckland called because her parents and her three sisters live nearby and because she co-founded My Food Bag in 2012 with her Swedish-born friend Cecilia Robinson, who had seen a similar food-delivery product back in Sweden. Both are directors and Gattung has a 38 per cent shareholding.

Fronted and part-owned by Masterchef winner Nadia Lim, the service has grown rapidly. It was reported last month that it has 50,000 customers and revenue is forecast to reach $135 million in the 2017 financial year. 

Gattung remembers Robinson showed her the business plan and she thought "this could really go. We approached Nadia because we wanted New Zealand's top foodie. I have never been a great cook. I understood the pressure of being a working executive. I didn't have kids and what to have for dinner tonight was a problem. With Nadia's passion for healthy food, Cecilia's passion for supporting working women and mothers and, I guess, my nose for a good idea, we set it up and it took off from the get go."

You hear the word "passion" a lot. As in, one of her "big passions" is to integrate the social entrepreneur and the commercial entrepreneur. This can sometimes sound like positivist buzzword-speak. She is organising and underwriting a conference in Auckland in March 2017 which is "all about women who are making meaningful change in business, education and health, which are all passions of mine".

The conference is called worldwomen17. Participants include Tererai Trent, who famously inspired Oprah Winfrey to fund education in Zimbabwe, and Canadian entrepreneur Vicki Saunders who founded SheEO. 

"SheEO is about women funding other women's businesses, creating a billion dollar pool of money for women and rolling it out city by city. By bringing her to Auckland, I'm trying to push New Zealand up the scale of being involved in that. I find that so exciting."

Gattung's pitch is that the conference "is about the joy and energy of women and what's possible individually and collectively". There are less high-profile activities: she chairs an organisation called Company of Women to support women entrepreneurs; she helped set up a charity to educate girls in Cambodia; and she will join the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women after being asked by Women's Minister Louise Upston​. 

Later this month she appears at a Christchurch women's networking event called Broad-ly Speaking, which has already sold out. Women are a theme and so are animals: Gattung chairs the Wellington SPCA and led fundraising for its new animal centre. 

"On the whole, I'm probably better known for my commercial endeavours than my charitable endeavours and that's fine but the two are starting to come together more. Just me having more time." 

A big part of Bird on a Wire was about the very stressful end of her reign at Telecom after former Labour cabinet minister David Cunliffe sprung his plan to split the hugely profitable company into three parts. Was there fallout? Does she ever see Cunliffe at an airport and glare at him?

"No, there wasn't. A mate of mine, Witi Ihimaera​, says that if you write a book about your life, it can have inadvertent consequences. It's hard to know how open you should be, because if you're not open enough, then why write it? But if you're too open, you can hurt people you care about.

"There were some inadvertent consequences personally that I don't want to go into, but none professionally or politically. I do think that in New Zealand we have all chosen to be on this island together. I'm not a political person. I've never joined a political party. We're tribal in some ways but if you're going to live in New Zealand, you basically have to let things go and move on." 

Speaking of which, one of her early mentors was advertising guru Kevin Roberts, described as one of the smartest and most visionary people she has met. This is the same Kevin Roberts who resigned from Saatchi & Saatchi in August after controversial claims there was no gender bias in his industry.

He was mocked as a sexist throwback. Has she talked to him about it? 

"Look, I can't comment about that and no, I didn't talk to him about it, but what I can say he was the most wonderful mentor to me and has been the most wonderful chair of My Food Bag. He's so insightful and he sees talent, he doesn't see gender. I cannot speak more highly about him."

 - Stuff