Diane Foreman hunting for a new business
Rich Lister Diane Foreman has had a busy start to the year, and not just because ice cream sales at Emerald Foods leap 42% over the warm summer months.
In January, her New Zealand Natural ice cream arrived on the shelves of Chile’s leading supermarket chain Jumbo, the 25th country it is exported to.
This month, the more than 600-strong New Zealand Natural global ice-cream parlour franchise network will extend to South Africa, where a flagship store will open at Menlyn Park Shopping Centre in Pretoria.
Speaking to NBR ONLINE at the East Tamaki headquarters of her investment vehicle Emerald Group, Mrs Foreman says she is looking for new opportunities and hunting for a new business to buy.
"It doesn’t have to be food. If you stretch your mind it could be anything as long as it compliments us, allowing us to leverage the [New Zealand Natural] brand internationally."
Asked if Emerald Group would consider listing on the NZX, executive director Shane Lamont says it cannot be ruled out.
"Never say never," Mr Lamont says. "But certainly it’s not on our agenda. Our agenda is to grow."
Burgeoning ice-cream business
Turnover has more than tripled since Emerald Group bought the loss-making New Zealand Natural in 2005 and merged it with Emerald Foods, which already had premium ice cream brands Killinchy Gold and Movenpick in its stable.
The Middle East was one of its fastest-growing and highest potential regions for ice cream – with a larger middle class than people would realise, Mr Lamont says.
India is proving the most difficult market to manage from a distance because of the many challenges around infrastructure and delivery.
But the toughest remains the double whammy of the high kiwi dollar and cost of dairy products.
Although Emerald Foods revenue grew at double-digit export figures last year, the ability to pass on the price increases did not exist in most markets.
"We have to sell more to stand still," Mr Lamont says.
And the high kiwi was also a problem for Mrs Foreman as she looked to invest in the business.
"A lot of my contemporaries have taken the dollar and invested offshore," she says.
"But New Zealand is the only place we can be because of our raw materials. It doesn’t suit us to consider moving countries – we are 'made in New Zealand'. But the dollar makes it scary."
Mrs Foreman does not have an opinion on how the government might tackle the currency issue to bring some relief to manufacturers.
"I’ve been in export all my life and one thing I know is there’s no quick fix. It’s for the economists to work it out, but I wish they would listen to the manufacturers."
Becoming a 'more instinctive' businesswoman
These days Emerald Foods, 100% owned by Emerald Group, demands most of Mrs Foreman's time.
She describes her role as chairman as being active in governance and guidance.
"I like understanding what’s going on and being able to say, 'have you thought of this/' or, 'do you think...?"
Export opportunities keep her energised.
"Nothing beats the thrill of being in another country and seeing your product, which you tasted in development, for sale. That's my motivation – walking down the street in another country and seeing our brand."
Mrs Foreman's 16-year-old daughter has appeared on some of the advertising campaigns for New Zealand Natural. And one of her grand-daughters will feature on a billboard promoting product in Beijing.
Heading an ice-cream empire is certainly not what Ms Foreman thought she would be doing in the earlier stages of her life. When her first marriage ended in her 20s she worked as a waitress and typist while raising her children alone.
After marrying millionaire businessman Bill Foreman she started working in the family plastics manufacturer Trigon, managing its $130 million sale in 1996.
The couple separated in 2006. Mrs Foreman was emphatic she would not discuss a matrimonial property issue with the retired Mr Foreman, or comment on whether it was a distraction from the business.
Today, Emerald Group has interests in commercial and industrial property in Waikato and Auckland, the boutique hotel Emerald Inn on Auckland's North Shore, and a 50% stake in executive recruitment firm Emergent – providing a first-look at good executive talent, which was how she found Mr Lamont.
Ice cream was a "happy product", unlike selling brain surgery, which Mrs Foreman did previously when Emerald Group held a 23% stake interest in Healthcare Holdings, owner of the country’s largest private surgical hospital MercyAscot.
Investment success has seen Ms Foreman named Entrepreneur of the Year in 2009 and made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to business in 2011.
She is worth an estimated $175 million on the annual National Business Review Rich List.
She told the NBR ONLINE she is learning to trust her instinct more in business. "I’m a more instinctive person as far as people are concerned."
'Politics is for the politicians'
A former deputy chairman of the Business Roundtable, she is no longer part of any formal business group. Her business is her voice instead, she says.
"I came to the conclusion politics is for the politicians. And the politicians have all sorts of different drivers. They don’t care much about Diane Foreman making ice cream in Lady Ruby Drive."
One group she is involved with is Global Women – a not-for-profit organisation that works to mentor and develop leadership opportunities for qualified women.
However, discussion about gender diversity in the boardroom is one of her bugbears. More important than diversity is having the right person at the table, she says.
"It’s wrong to say we should have ‘X’ per cent of women or men. We should have the best people. You get some very short-term thinking when you try to fill quotas."
She disagreed with a mooted target of 25% of women in governance roles for listed companies, saying quota systems are a "form of apartheid".
"If there are not 25% capable, exceptional women then they shoudn’t be there. If you’re really good the cream will come to the top whether you are male or female."
Getting on her bike
Training for the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge is getting Mrs Foreman out on the road and away from her home-gym workout routine.
She will ride a 40km leg of event as part of the New Zealand Natural Team.
The mother of four children has also been paddle boarding over summer at her Omaha beachfront holiday home.