Scoop Review of Books

She Means Business

In the Arena by Diane Foreman, with Jenni McManus (Random House, $40)
Reviewed by Judith Nathan

Foreman-001As one would expect with assistance from Jenni McManus, this is a very readable book. The blurbs on the covers state that it is “A candid portrait of one of our most successful entrepreneurs” and that Foreman “tells how she went from being a single mother to creating a successful multi-million dollar export company”.

But as Foreman says in her conclusion, this is a business book. It opens with a brief biographical section followed by a collection of interesting tips for entrepreneurs, focussing firstly on start-ups and then on taking your business to the next level, illustrated by examples from Foreman’s impressive personal experience. The story is sprinkled with amusing anecdotes. I enjoyed reading about her conversation with Prince Andrew and particularly about another occasion when she asked the man next to her if he was interested in sport: he was David Kirk. Because she has had such large scale successes, Foreman can share some of her failures without diminishing the reader’s admiration for her. She learns from her mistakes. Clearly she is a human dynamo with a huge drive to grow her businesses bigger and bigger.

Foreman places a lot of emphasis on the need to find a mentor who is independent of the business, having a professional counsellor for personal support when things go badly wrong and seeking out leading people in the relevant industry to get good advice – something she acknowledges she did a lot. Amongst the many ideas she gained from her husband was the importance of obtaining professional appraisals before hiring senior staff. Astonishingly, this is something he asked of her (and hence she of him) before they married.

While publicity for the book has understandably focussed on fact that she went from being a 21-year-old single mother without qualifications (not even School Certificate) to a multi-millionaire business woman, the book is not a comprehensive life story. She says she has been fired and made redundant but we do not hear about these events. In the 1970s it was not unusual for a bright girl to take commercial subjects and leave school at fifteen to become the office junior, as she did. Many such girls took up tertiary study and had professional careers later in life; few became entrepreneurs. There is little about Foreman’s twenties except that she met her future husband, some thirty years her senior, when she was the practice manager for a surgeon he was consulting.

Interestingly, Foreman says never employ family, yet her big break came in her thirties from being put on the board of her husband’s company and she later became its CEO. She and Bill discussed their business in the bath. This begs the question: Where would she have got without her husband? She concedes that initially she was dismissed by her fellow Trigon directors as just Bill’s wife. She followed his advice to keep her mouth shut for three months but they never fully accepted her. After she and Bill sold Trigon, she set up Emerald Group with financial investment and mentoring from him. When they separated in 2006, she bought him out. Since then Emerald Group, a diverse global investment company, has grown to have 4000 employees in 35 countries.

Foreman acknowledges the obstacles women face, partly because they have so many roles to fulfil. She freely allows that her success depended on help from a range of people behind the scenes to do her shopping, cooking, cleaning and in earlier years, childcare. Sometimes the obstacle can be the boss’s wife, suspicious of her husband’s close relationship with a senior female workmate. In Foreman’s experience businesswomen still get more closely scrutinised than males, for example they need to care about their appearance and travel with a much larger wardrobe.

Foreman wisely does not dwell on the issues for women making this a well-written book for male, as well as female would-be entrepreneurs, with plenty of advice on a wide range of topics packaged in bite-size pieces.