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Power player

Diane Foreman moved with almost indecent haste from solo mum to CEO. She is "not educated", relies on gut instinct and cheerfully admits mistakes. But she knows how to demand results.

Diane Foreman is a blonde blur. "Can I just show you what we're going to do?" she says, jumping up from her chair, eager to promote her latest acquisition, the tired ice-cream franchise New Zealand Natural, usually found in tired shopping-mall foodcourts. "It's very cool." She clip-clops into the adjacent meeting room to grab a pile of cardboard mock-ups. Her black platform sandals raise the diminutive Foreman a good eight centimetres; a sparkly "D" twinkles on her right shoe, for Diane or Dior.

She quickly returns to her seat - Foreman does everything at high speed - and flips through the design boards, relieved, it would seem, to have something to do with her arms, which have till now been crossed in front of her chest, as if she were waiting for bad news. She compares the brand's old look, pale mountains reaching towards insipid skies, with the Foreman look, a vivid collection of landscapes, fruit, ice-cream cones and happy children sitting on strawberries the size of ponies.

By the end of the year, Foreman will have reinvented New Zealand Natural as a more youthful, trendy brand and opened 50 franchises in the US, new territory for the company that already has shops in Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore and New Zealand. "Once you start, it's easy," she says, with a smile. Easy? Conquering the US market? Foreman makes it sound like a done deal.

But then Foreman, fortysomething and keeping the secret, is the chief executive of private investment firm Emerald Group, which she owns with her husband of 18 years, retired businessman Bill Foreman. She is vice-chair of the Business Round-table, sits on the boards of Ascot and Mercy hospitals, and is a keen watcher of the political process - there have been suggestions that she may turn politician one day, like her friend Deborah Coddington.

She is also a mother of six. There are two stepchildren, two natural and two adopted, including her son, Joshua, 14; a child born profoundly deaf and whom she describes as "the love of my life". Foreman has been a vocal advocate of cochlear implants that allow otherwise profoundly deaf people to hear. She is also one of the first local business people to talk about corporate responsibility, and a critic of the country's tax regime, which she thinks punishes the wealthy for being successful. The Foremans are worth $130 million, according to the National Business Review's Rich List.

Emerald, which buys into and nurtures businesses on the way up, has interests in an oak furniture manufacturer in the US, a luxury inn in Takapuna, a commercial property portfolio, and owns food manufacturing and exporting business Emerald Foods, which produces Movenpick and Killinchy Gold, but it is New Zealand Natural that consumes Foreman these days.

"She never stops work; she is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week," says Stewart Alexander, Emerald's chief operating officer. "We will talk most days. She'll call me on a Saturday morning because she's just woken up and had an idea."

And Foreman is not afraid to make decisions on the run. "Diane wants to understand the key points," says Alexander. "She doesn't need all the details." Later, he adds, "She's a pretty hard taskmaster and she demands - and I mean demands - results."

In a country where you are either born into business or spend decades working your way to the top, Foreman moved, with almost indecent haste, from solo mum to CEO in six years. This rankles some people. She is uneducated, doesn't know how an MBA thinks, relies on her gut instinct and cheerfully admits that sometimes she gets it wrong. This, too, rankles, but if Foreman was one to worry about what other people think, she would have been finished years ago.

"She's actually very tough and feisty," says Act Party president Catherine Judd, a close friend. "She doesn't crumble, she doesn't get aggressive, she's firm. I've never seen her lose it. Possibly she does privately, but certainly never in public."

In public, Foreman is a poster girl for the power of positive thinking. She is bouncy and friendly and immaculately groomed. She is genuinely nice. Her blonde hair is shaggier than recent pictures would suggest and today's outfit - black tank top, figure-hugging black skirt spotted with red flowers, and those Dolly Parton sandals - is not what you might expect someone in command of multi-millions to wear. She is an intriguing mix of rock chick and corporate pixie. No wonder Bill Foreman was impressed.

They met when Diane was the practice manager for a Remuera ear, nose and throat specialist and Bill was a patient. Diane was raising two daughters alone after a marriage break-up in her early twenties. She had been working since 15, bought her first house at 19 by scraping together a deposit and filling the house with flatmates to help pay the mortgage, and was already a real estate hobbyist.

"She had her wits about her," says Bill, now in his late seventies. "She really was a switched-on lady when we met." At that stage, Bill, whose ailing wife, Mary, had suggested the match before her death, was an internationally successful businessman, "the kind of guy who would go to London for the weekend", says Diane.

Diane, the adopted daughter of an Australian engineer father and a New Zealand mother, grew up with a younger brother in Perth and Auckland's North Shore. She was one of those kids who couldn't wait to become a babysitter so she could make her own money and sock away her earnings in the bank. She attended Perth's Presbyterian Ladies' College and Takapuna Grammar School, where she took sewing and typing because no one thought she was smart enough to do anything academic.

"I'm not educated and it disappoints me hugely and I wish I had the opportunity to think like a well-educated person does. A good education gives you the ability to think around an issue. I tend to go through the middle of one."

Her parents encouraged her to get a job as an office junior and she worked in a variety of secretarial and receptionist roles until meeting Bill. When they married, she was a real estate agent, then she bought a Servilles franchise that she ran for four years. By the time she sold it, Bill had appointed her to the board of Trigon Industries, the Hamilton-based plastics company he started in the 60s. "Bill had his first stroke," she says. "He was concerned he could die and I would have no experience of the business I would inherit."

Her first board meeting would have squashed a less determined woman. The other board members did not say good morning, one made a snide comment about blondes belonging in the bedroom, and when she had to use the bathroom the handle came off in her hand because the ladies' loo had been so long neglected. "It's still tough for women in business," says Foreman. "There are just not enough of us and we keep coming across each other, people like me and Wendy Pye and Sharon Hunter. You could probably name them on the fingers of one hand."

Bill says of those early years, "They gave her a pretty hard time. Whatever we got her to do, she did with a lot of style and flair and a lot of imagination. I'm very, very proud of her."

Foreman learnt the business by travelling with him to plants in the US and UK. She met all the executives working for him, saw how the business ran and asked a lot of questions. "I'm really prepared to say, I don't understand, please explain. Maybe it's because people know I'm not educated, but they're always very willing to share their knowledge."

After meetings, they had to hold debriefs on the plane home. By the time he was ready to retire, Bill had no hesitation in handing over the company to his wife and when Trigon was sold to US company Sealed Air Corporation in 1996 for $130 million, Diane Foreman did the deal.

"[Sealed Air] said it was the biggest deal they'd done and it was also the easiest and cleanest deal they'd ever done," her husband says. "We get a Christmas card from them every year."

It was an uncommonly easy start for a business executive, something Foreman acknowledges, although colleagues and friends say that she has proven herself many times since. "My husband was just so amazing to basically give me Trigon," says Foreman. "I don't know if I could have done it today, because in those days everything came by fax and so I just read all his faxes all of the time. Today it would have come onto his email screen and I would have never seen those reports."

She became CEO via a phonecall. Bill was in France and she asked, "What does a CEO do?" His advice still holds today, she says. First, if she found any losses on the balance sheet, she was not to rest until she fixed the problem. Second, she must not go home at the end of the day until she had cleared her inbox. Third, she needed to retain a sense of humour.

Just as she was getting to grips with running Trigon, Foreman found herself with a baby. It happened at a Salvation Army advisory board meeting, where Foreman heard the story of a half-Samoan boy whose "tormented" Palagi mother had been told she had to adopt him out to a Samoan family to help him maintain cultural links.

"She was looking for a family who could give him swimming and music and all this stuff that she took for granted, but she was being told by Social Welfare, no, this child needs to be one of 15 in a Samoan family."

After the meeting, Foreman went into the hall and found this young woman sitting cross-legged on the floor, a baby boy named Joshua in her lap. "I said, 'This is the most beautiful baby I've ever seen', and she said, 'Do you want him?'"

Foreman said no, but that night got a call from a matron looking after Rachel, Joshua's birth mother, who said the young woman had really liked her. Foreman agreed to take the baby for two weeks, while the issue of who would adopt him was sorted out. "And then we fell in love," she says.

When Joshua was eight months old, the Foremans learnt that he was deaf. At two years, he became the country's youngest recipient of a cochlear implant and the subject of a fierce debate. The Foremans were accused of child abuse; deafness was the same as being Maori or female, went the argument. It was part of who you were and shouldn't be "fixed". In time the argument died down and now cochlear implants are commonplace. When Joshua was 12, he received a second implant.

"Josh has perfect speech, he's a boarder by choice at King's College and he's really happy there and he has normal friends. Normal is the wrong word; he's just like any other 14-year-old kid. Without the implants, he would've been mute, he would've been signing. He has no hearing, so his life would've been very different."

Joshua's adoption was open; he still sees his birth mother, his Samoan grandfather has taken him to Samoa, his birth grandmother had him to stay for a few days between Christmas and New Year. "It's like the ideal adoption," says Foreman, who also adopted her first daughter, Nikki, after being told she couldn't have children. "Same old story, adopt a child and immediately fall pregnant," she says, laughing. There are 14 months between Nikki, a married mum, and Amy, a nurse. She helped raise Bill's daughters Sally, married with children, and Penny, who works for the BBC in Sydney. Their birth child Charlotte, eight, completes the family.

So far, the Foreman children have resisted the pull of the business world. "The other day Charlotte said to me, 'There's three things I could be. I could be a dancer, I could be a famous singer or I could be a businessperson.'" Foreman puts on the sulky voice of a peeved under-10. "'I suppose I'll be a businessperson because it's in my genes.' I thought that was hilarious. Being a singer or dancer was obviously a hell of a lot more exciting than what I do."

Foreman would like to fix that, by getting businesspeople into schools to sell the joys of enterprise, to make business cool, so it's a consideration for talented children who would otherwise end up on the doctor/lawyer/vet track. She has even rung up a few schools and offered to do it. "What I want to do doesn't necessarily fit in with the curriculum," she says, clearly disappointed. "I've had a lukewarm response."

Her efforts at helping other businesswomen reach their potential have been more successful, and a source of great pride. She encouraged Carmen Bailey, consulting director of Emergent, a highly selective recruitment company half-owned by Emerald, to start the venture after a career spent working for other people.

"To be honest, I wasn't interested," says Bailey. "I'm not a risk-taker." But Foreman pursued her for a year and finally Foreman hit the soft spot. "She made a key comment," remembers Bailey. "She said, 'What if the business you're working in was sold tomorrow?'"

Before signing an agreement, Bailey did her research - on Foreman. Reviews were mixed, although many commented on her phenomenal energy. "A lot of people had an opinion about her, whether they knew her or not. I think people confuse her passion and energy with interference."

Foreman phones Bailey at least once a day to check in, sometimes three or four times. She will tell Bailey - nicely - to pull her head in if she thinks it's warranted and she likes to know her investment is reaping returns, although she's also generous with the spoils. She'll query the phone bill, but "it's not uncommon for her to have French champagne couriered up to us because we've had a good month".

She hosts lavish Christmas parties at her home, shouts trips to Fiji and the Foreman house in Port Douglas. A fan of New Zealand artist Karl Maughan, Foreman gave one of his large, lush works to the Emergent team.

If things don't go her way, she can be just as zealous, says Stewart Alexander. "She gets reasonably upset. She's a reasonably emotive person." On the other hand, she doesn't hold grudges. "If someone's done something, she deals with it and moves on," says Bailey. "She creates a ton of opportunity. She never has a problem with sharing her business."

Foreman's ambition, her drive and her frank enjoyment of what her money can buy - big jewels, an Aston Martin, eye-catching clothing, private schooling for her children and the ability to host an elegant wedding for daughter Penny at her mansion - well, it's almost un-Kiwi, but any criticism of material success "really cheeses" Foreman.

"It's very easy for people to say 'those rich so-and-sos', but it's because those people have gone out and risked capital, risked their reputations and had the guts to have a go that we then have the ability to have the cash in the country to make New Zealand the sort of place that we all want. And I think people forget that. I'm not saying everyone should go out and start Microsoft, because if you don't want to, why should you? But I don't think we should be critical of the people who want to."

If she sounds like a raging right-winger, well, she is. She is also an extremely busy woman who takes the time to do the right thing. A founding member of the Robin Hood Foundation, which matches corporations with charities needing business advice and mentoring, Foreman believes that successful companies have a respons-i-bility to their communities. She resigned recently because she felt unable to give Robin Hood enough of her time, but still strongly believes in the cause.

A lively speaker, Foreman has addressed both Act and National party conferences, she buys tables at political fundraisers and is friends with "a lot of politicians". Will she join them when Emerald is no longer the sort of challenge that keeps the adrenalin surging?

Says Catherine Judd: "She's a breath of fresh air and I'd love to get her."

Says Foreman: "I'm terribly politically aware, but it's not an option for me. No, I don't have any aspirations to be a politician. It's not an arena I see myself being good in. I think it's a very brave thing to do, I absolutely admire anyone who does it. They're opening themselves up for huge public scrutiny, very little money and there's nothing surer than that one day it'll all be over."

When Emerald is over, possibly as soon as 10 years from now, Foreman, who never had the opportunity to sling a pack on her back and do the OE, will travel. Other than that, the future is unclear, a detail that scares this champion planner. Business, though, is a part of any future that Foreman might build.

"Look, it's my drug of choice," she says, laughing, in her big, beautiful office with the water views and the Ralph Hotere on the wall. "Business is definitely my drug of choice."