Michele Hewitson Interview: Rosanne Meo

By Michele Hewitson

Dame Rosanne Meo. Photo / Richard Robinson
Dame Rosanne Meo. Photo / Richard Robinson

For fear of looking like a fool, I didn't dare tell Rosanne Meo, who one feels would not gladly suffer foolishness, that I was amazed to see that she'd been made a Dame in the New Year Honours list: I thought she'd been one for years.

She should have been, really. She's one of the few high-powered businesswomen to take high-profile positions on boards, and to chair them. She has long been described as the "grande dame" of business. She used to be called Chairman Meo, which amuses her, if mildly. I wondered what she thought it said about her. Just a play on words, she said, sniffing foolishness, perhaps. And, "Well, I hope it wasn't about my dress sense!"

I think we can be sure it wasn't. She is always perfectly turned out, I thought. She insists she doesn't, or "mostly" doesn't, put her lipstick on to walk the dog. She said: "I can be very scruffy." I hesitate to say I don't believe her so let's just say there are degrees of scruffiness.

I thought, and continue to think, but secretly, that she was born to be a Dame. It's partly her voice, which sounds grand and posh. I asked if she was posh and she obviously thought (but was too polite to actually say so) that I was a fool for asking.

She seems, from a distance, these things: posh, Damey, formidable. I said I thought she would be rather good at being a Dame and she said she didn't know what being a Dame meant. I'm sure she'll work it out; she's a fast learner.

I think, actually, she was horrified at my posh question. She thinks that if she sounds posh - 'I certainly don't sound English in England" - it's "probably an issue of articulation of speech rather than any social poshness". She seemed to think I was accusing her of being a snob (I wasn't and she isn't). She phoned me back to clarify her lack of poshness by pointing out that she is very involved in the AMP Scholarship scheme and the Kinleith Trust. In other words she's not too posh to want to help out less posh people.

How posh is she? She lives in a gracious house in Remuera with a swimming pool and swag-loads of old silver on the sideboard and gardenias from her garden in little glass vases, and dog hairs everywhere. I'd said: "Shoes off?" when we arrived and she laughed, a lot, and pointed out the dog hairs all over the floorboards.

I might not have been so rude as to have noted this, but since she has, I feel I can say that somebody might want to buy her one of those mini-vac things - that would make a suitable present for a Dame. But she really doesn't give a toss about such things. One of the hairy dogs belongs to her youngest daughter, Victoria, and her partner, who are staying with her while they do renovations. The other (slightly less hairy) dog is her Dalmatian, Paris. Another puppy is about to arrive. She likes family life and the mess of it. She's just back from Abu Dhabi, where she's been visiting her oldest daughter, Annabelle, and her husband, and the first grandchild, 18-month-old Jack. She is a besotted grandmother. She Skypes Jack most days.

She has said she raised her daughters "substantially alone". When I reminded her of this she said, oh, well, she couldn't think of another way of putting it. She and her former husband, the architect Bart Meo, separated when the girls were, she thinks, 7 and 10. They are now 31 and 28. She has never married again, or even lived with anyone. She says she contemplated, twice, marrying again. But "I decided that it's pretty busy being a mother, and a businesswoman and trying to be the lover, the wife and everything else as well ... No matter how organised I'd like to think I can be, I just didn't think I could do it."

Does she mean that she was too busy to marry again? "No, no, no! That's not fair! I think there was just a lot happening in my life."

She and Bart are great friends, and he and his partner come over for a drink most weeks. This is very civilised, and practical, and, besides, she likes him. She said: "He's a lovely guy; and we were no longer in love." She is a very sensible sort of woman. You can't imagine she spends a lot of time navel-gazing; she just gets on.

She believes in these things: meritocracy, feminism (up to a point), God (she has an "emotional connection" to her Catholicism; it is part of her "social fabric". She goes to church at Christmas and at other times, for "solace"), fun and family. She said: "I've never been terribly materialistic."

She is the chairman of the Briscoes board. Has she got any stuff from Briscoes in her nice house, I asked, in a doubting way. "Yes! Absolutely I do." I couldn't imagine what. "Glasses and crockery and bed linen. Look, we have the best range of manchester. Briscoes is a fantastic shop." And she, you may have noticed, just did a fantastic job of being chairman. She is also a director of Overland shoes. I should have known better than to ask whether she wore Overland shoes. "Yeah!" She lifted a foot, and we peered at her ballet flats. "These are. I think."

She comes from a business family, her father had a trucking company. "He feared, as an Irish Catholic, you can't get good work so you might as well start your own business."

Her mother's mother was a suffragette and a socialist who spoke fluent Maori." People assume Meo is a right-winger. "When I was on the Business Round Table, Roger [Kerr] would get very cross with me and I used to think: 'As long as he keeps getting cross with me, I know I'm sitting comfortably.' You know, I've never been strong right wing and it's fair to say that over the years I've liked to tell myself I've voted strategically." She says she's voted "for most parties". The Greens? "No, no!" She is nothing if not diplomatic. She went on to say that she thinks the Greens are doing good things.

She is evangelical on the joys of being a New Zealander, which include celebrating the great outdoors. I was looking sceptical. "Yes, I absolutely go into the great outdoors." I was trying and failing to see her in tramping boots, lipstick and one of the chunky necklaces she favours (I'd hoped she'd be wearing her pearls, but no such luck). "No, no!" she shrieked at the idea of tramping. "I've been camping. Once. And that was enough."

I asked if she was a feminist and she said she was. That was a surprise if only because hardly anyone says they're a feminist these days. "You certainly had to be in my era. I had to be in my personal case to reconcile what I wanted to achieve." She believes in equal opportunity but not equal pay for the sake of it - that's the meritocracy part of her belief system.

She never felt the slightest guilt about working and being a mother. It saddens her when she hears young women say they don't know if they can do both. "It didn't even occur to me to stay at home full time and look after my daughters. As little girls they would play these games - much to the nanny's amusement - which was called Going To Work, which meant lugging a little briefcase!"

She comes not so much from the "girls can do anything school" as the "anyone can do anything school". This might be true: if you are Rosanne Meo. She told her daughters that "there are only two things you're not allowed to be in life: bored and boring". If they had turned out to be bored or boring, would she have disowned them? "No! I would have had a huge sense of failure. How could I possibly have boring children?" All I know is that if she was my mother I wouldn't have risked it.

She is, as I say, practical and sensible, and surely tough as old boots. She really isn't, she insisted; and nobody who knows her would say she is. I thought she must be pretty tough emotionally, or perhaps resilient is a better way of putting it.

I asked if she cried over what is always referred to as the 1999 TVNZ fiasco: the $5.2 million payout to newsreader John Hawkesby. She was the chair of TVNZ. She resigned. She was supposed to be friends with the PM, Helen Clark, although she says they weren't friends, exactly. They saw each other at concerts. (She is the chair of the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra.) Still, did they fall out? "Oh, absolutely. I probably feel more as though I was tossed out than fell out." She said, rather pointedly, that she can't remember the last time she spoke about that episode. She must have known I'd raise it. "Yes, I did. But it's just not a big issue."

Well, not now. She says at the time it was "awful, awful ... I felt it was wrong". She means being made the scapegoat, which is how she felt. But she is ever the relentless optimist: "I didn't like the way it happened but things like that do happen and I learned a lot."

What she learned was: "To make myself less vulnerable." How on earth do you do that? You "separate out your public and private person". That meant "that I chose not to disclose. I've disclosed more to you than I do to most."

The answer, by the way, to the question about whether she cried over the public humiliation is this: "Listen! I cry over anything!" Oh, she does not. "I do too! Someone just needs to flap a hanky. I love to cry. Absolutely. Sometimes if I'm giving farewell speeches. I'm the first to have a tear in my eye."

What a good answer that was. It's her idea of disclosure. Telling me, for one example, who her close friends are (she has only a few) was not. Telling me why she was no longer friends with Ken Douglas, the former union leader, was another. She said she didn't fall out with him. Did he fall out with her? "I don't know." When she phoned me she said I shouldn't make too much of it because it was inconsequential. She tried, as I was leaving, to get me to tell her how I vote. She says she's not bossy!

I take her point: Men aren't called bossy. But I admire bossy women, and I admire her, despite her disappointing lack of poshness, and the dog hairs.

- NZ Herald

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