Twelve Questions: Frances Stead

For almost 20 years, Frances Stead was managing director of L'Oreal New Zealand _ a woman who made magazine editors quake and cut new ground for women in the industry. She was restructured out two years ago and is the new owner of a chateau in France which dates to the 13th century, while also breeding eventing horses for New Zealand's top riders.

Frances Stead believes in stretching people to their limit. Photo / Natalie Slade
Frances Stead believes in stretching people to their limit. Photo / Natalie Slade

1. Describe a typical day for you now in France

Much of the past six months has been spent looking for a property to buy to turn into our future home. Consistent with my approach to most things in life, we were striving for the ultimate and so drove more than 50,000km and viewed over 150 properties, before we found one which excited us so much that we decided to buy it. If you set really high standards in life, you have to be prepared to put in the hard work to achieve them.

I have also been flying back and forth to the UK and elsewhere in Europe, a lot to do with horse things. Winning Badminton with (her horse) Clifton Promise, Gatcombe with Clifton Lush and having Clifton Pinot achieve fifth at Luhmuhlen, were all fantastic fun.

2. You had a reputation in Auckland as a very tough cookie: was that correct?

Yes, totally correct, I was tough but fair. I set myself very high standards and asked others to do the same for themselves.

This meant people often achieved things they did not think they were capable of - stretching them grew them to new heights.

People always knew where they stood with me. I told people the truth to their face rather than play the politics behind their backs. This didn't always win me friends, but it generally won me respect.

That's the one thing that frustrates me about a lot of New Zealanders, that they often won't confront a situation with the individual. I believed in giving people responsibility and accepting they would make mistakes along the way.

As long as people tried hard and were honest and had integrity, I would support them through thick and thin.

3. Were you tough because you were the first woman L'Oreal appointed to such a senior international role?

When I joined L'Oreal UK aged 28, I set myself the target of becoming a division general manager by age 30 and a country manager or CEO at 35. I was a year late with that but I did have two children in the interim.

I believed you had to be less emotional in business, to make sure you were never able to be defined as being over-emotional. It was more for other women than for me. I was lucky that I had some real supporters in senior management in Paris who were prepared to give me a go. The company then was fully prepared to take risks on people it believed in.

4. Was it hard combining children and your job?

One of the few things I regret is I never had a career break. I had 10 days off when my daughter Zoe was born and three weeks off with Marcus. I didn't time my babies well - there was a change in manager and other things going on - and I was also conscious how I behaved and how I succeeded would affect quite a lot of the company's decisions on other women. They weren't saying I had to come back to work at all but I also knew I would have been a disaster as a stay-at-home mum. If circumstances had been different, I might have taken some time off with the children. I feel like I'm having my break now really. And I feel like I've earned it.

5. Did you take much time off when you were sick?

Soon after moving to New Zealand, when my children were still young, I developed lymphoma and had 4 months of chemotherapy. The company was fantastic but I actually chose to go to work most days because for me mentally it was better than sitting at home thinking 'I'm ill'. Thankfully, I've been clear since.

6. You were in a very French multinational as their most senior female manager. Did you experience any sexism in that role?

Certainly chivalry still existed but there were other things, like if people wanted a cup of coffee it was sort of expected that I would be the one that did it. That didn't faze me at all. It wasn't a conscious put-down so I never felt it was discriminatory. It was probably just what happened at home. I was very renowned for fighting my corner extremely strongly and I probably got away with doing that more because I wasn't seen as aggressive.

7. Why do so many successful businesswomen have a passion for horses, do you think?

Owning, caring for and riding horses teaches you so much.

A horse is a 365-day responsibility - regardless of the weather or how you feel or what else you have to do, you have to go and feed and look after your horse every single day. You learn at a young age to be responsible for others.

With horses, everyone learns that a big ego is not appropriate in life. In Auckland, very few of my horsey friends knew what I did for a job. Nor would they care. It is a sport where even the best might win three weeks out of four, but in the fourth they will be sitting on the floor having fallen off their horse. They quickly learn that if they gloat about the wins, they get teased mercilessly about the fall from grace. They enjoy the successes, but also accept the failures and learn from them.

8. Does price really make a difference in skincare or cosmetics?

The most important thing is sun protection - if you don't do that then it's a total waste of time spending money on good skincare. The second thing is the quality of the skincare products, and you will find better quality ingredients and more of them in the more expensive brands. The third thing is makeup and it doesn't matter as much there.

9. What's your cosmetic routine like?

Most of the time I am a jeans-and-no-makeup kind of person. I do enjoy getting dressed up for an occasion, but for me that's not everyday. I understand women who want to take time to feel comfortable before they walk out the door each day but I'm probably arrogant enough to have the self-confidence that I don't feel I need to do that. I use top-quality, very high factor sun screen and wear a cap most of the time. After that I am religious about using good quality face products morning and night.

10. What do you miss about New Zealand?

Lots, but mainly friends - luckily most of them are threatening to come and visit us in France so that will be fantastic!

New Zealanders in general have such a fabulous honesty and generosity to each other and visitors. They are super people, hard to find elsewhere. We're hoping we'll still spend at least half of each year in New Zealand.

11. Was it difficult when your job with L'Oreal ended?

It was the right thing to do for the business but not all of the process was well handled. When I finished everyone said I would go mad within six months but actually I'm loving it. Living in France is something we had never done before. It's an adventure and with the horses as well and now the chateau, it's a very full life.

12. Why do Kiwis make such good riders?

They have largely learned very natural skills by riding horses on farms, often bareback, with little or no instruction. This happens in very few countries nowadays, but it is invaluable to learn instinctive riding skills. They can be fine-tuned by instruction but it is an awesome basis to begin with.

- NZ Herald

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