Paul Holmes about her life after Telecom.

Intensely private, hugely driven, one of the country's top businesswomen, Theresa Gattung, opens up to Paul Holmes about her life after Telecom.

The view from her Oriental Bay apartment stretches from The Freyburg Pool to Tierra del Fuego. Despite our shared ownership of a Group One-winning racehorse some years back, (Bramble Rose, New Zealand Oaks winner and Filly of the year, if I may say so), and getting to know her a bit during that time, I have never been here before.

The place is large, light and luxurious. The furnishings are simple and pleasant, not excessive. Her Christmas cards are still on the shelf. She has Nice Things. There's a Max Gimblett, a Ralph Hotere, two flower photographs by Michael Parekowhai - she buys only New Zealand artists.

She offers me tea. I ask for coffee, and where is the toilet please? - because I couldn't be bothered walking five miles at Wellington airport. Coming out, I hear the unearthly cry of a juvenile space creature. You've got a baby here - Rod Deane's lovechild, I say and she laughs.


She's standing at the kitchen bench with the Bodum pot in one hand and the plunger in the other and she's staring at them both.

She says: "Do you put the coffee in the bottom or the...?"

"You've never made coffee in a plunger?" I ask.

"No, I asked how strong you like your coffee."


"No, you asked whether you put the coffee in the..."

"I just wanted to make sure. I don't drink coffee. My guests help themselves to coffee when they come."

"So you've never made coffee in a plunger?"

"Yeah, I've made coffee in a plunger."

"Then why did you have to ask me whether you put the coffee in above or below the..."

"Because I just did."

She pours her tea low-tide in the cup. Then she fills the cup with a vast pour of full-cream milk. "No skinny milk round here."

I tell her I want to get a bit personal this time. She says that's fine, and it must be. We'll speak of her public life and the private one she never talks about - a private life in which, in the past two years, she's lost the man she's been with for 20 years. But more of that later.

So what did her mum say about her resignation announcement last week, I ask. "Mum was relieved for me. She thought I might have a life of less pressure going forward."

Going forward? Her mum and dad must be very proud of their eldest daughter, I suggest.

"Oh look, both my parents have been very proud," she says. "They came to New Zealand as $10 Poms, both with very working-class backgrounds, and no one in either of their families had ever been to university, but they're proud of all their [four] daughters. We've all done different things."

LEAVING TELECOM will give her so much time for the things she loves, she says, like swimming for relaxation, and horses, for excitement.

"She swims every day, a bit of every stroke, for half an hour, wherever she is in the world. No one recognises her in one-piece costume and no glasses. "It's as relaxing as relaxing," she says, whereas "horse riding is exhilarating. It's about adrenalin and it's about total concentration, especially going over a jump, so you can't think about work, and it's only you and the horse, and you don't want to be dumped on the ground.

"So if you're galloping, or jumping, it's about total focus and swimming is relaxation."

Is she frightened, I ask, of leaving the job, having been there so long, having built her team, having loved the place?

"No, I'm not. I think I've always created the next stage of my life. Remember, I've never got a job because a head-hunter has called me up and said 'come and do this'.

"I've always got a job either through answering an ad, like many people do, or calling up the company I wanted to work for. I've always created the next thing myself."

You might have more trepidation as you approach the end, I say. And it is an end.

"And a new beginning. And I'm completely unfazed as to whether I will go on to something else, or have a rest for a while in between."

The intriguing thing, for me, about Gattung has been the disparity, the dislocation between her personality and Telecom's reputation. To many customers, to telecommunication users and to its competitors, Telecom is the big, mean self-righteous bully. Yet, to me at least, Theresa has always been so not that. She is forever pleasant to meet and to talk to. She's nice.

She has an easy laugh. She has just enough of the "apartness" of the leader but she's never been remote, never seemed sly or devious. She doesn't swear. She isn't nerdy, exactly, but there is a kind of straightforward innocence about her.

The trouble with Telecom, of course, has been its ownership of the copper wires. Simple as that.

That monopoly made Telecom blue chip and produced its intoxicating profits.

Any chief executive who failed to get the best return for shareholders, who failed to defend the copper-wire monopoly and was not prepared to die on the last hill doing so, would be derelict.

"It is a public company. You know, we have shareholders. At the end of the day, you have to return on the investments you make."

But that dichotomy hangs round. Bad Telecom, Good Theresa. Or is there more to her?

Is there a dark side that enables you to run a $12 billion conglomerate?

"I am as I appear," she says. "I work with people who said they spent the first few months working with me looking around the back to see if what I said to other people was what I said to them. It took them a few months to see it was."

You're straight up, I think.

"What I said is what I meant, and I'm not saying something different in a different situation to someone else. That can be a weakness of course, as you alluded to. But it is how I am."

One of the great Telecom horror stories is its disastrous venture into the Australian market through AAPT. The question being, how did Telecom turn a $2.2 billion investment into one worth only $270 million dollars? Telecom had to be in Australia, she says, had to offer trans-Tasman services. But two billion dollars, Theresa! Can she explain, in one sentence, what went wrong?

And so she begins a long, classic Gattung answer that's incomprehensible. It's informed, fluent; she knows her stuff perfectly, but the obscure language and business of the telcos are foreign to most of us. My eyes glaze over.

PH: "I didn't understand any of that."

TG (laughs): "Shall I start again?"

Well, yes. Why did you come a gutser in Australia - in one sentence.

TG:"In Australia, we rely on Telstra. Telstra in the last couple of years have put up their prices to their wholesale customers, namely us. That has caused... the big downturn in our financials in Australia."

PH: "So you've had to use Telstra."

TG: "Yes. And Telstra put up the price."

PH: "So they did you up?"

TG: "Telstra put up the price."

PH: "Telstra did you?"

TG: "Yeah."

She's been described this week as loud and gauche. That's unfair, though she doesn't have the cooing velvet of say, Margaret Thatcher or the cool subtlety of, say, Helen Clark. But the speed of her corporate rise remains astonishing. So what did the former Telecom chairman, Rod Deane, see in the then 37-year-old, seven years ago? He never told her, she says, and then she's off.

"You know, I did six subjects at School C. I was such a nerdy swot I did extra subjects. Can you believe that? I have always been curious about everything in the world. I did science, I did economics, I did accounting, languages. When I went to Waikato I did economics and marketing; I did Japanese, I did politics, women's studies. I was this feminist in Business School and this capitalist whatever in Women's Studies. Paul, I have never fitted anyone's particular box about what I should do or whatever. I don't care. I want my gravestone to read: 'She led a self-determined life'. I hate anyone pulling my strings. I have always been idiosyncratic."

She's rolling now. She's talking about her roots as per a new book on New Zealand's social tribes which pins her deeply in the independent-minded Raglan tribe with a fair chunk of aspirational, materialistic North Shore thrown in.

"I love shopping! I love shopping!" She gets as much pleasure out of buying a book - populist historical fiction, business books, inspirational books - as buying shoes. "I bought these at the Jimmy Choo sale in New York a few weeks ago." How many pairs of shoes have you got, Imelda? "About 80."

If it's been a wrenching couple of years for Gattung in the corporate world, it's been a tough private world as well. Two years ago she and John, her partner of 20 years, went their separate ways. Did the job cost you the relationship?

"No. I don't think so. Look, it didn't make it easy, of course, but I am who I am," she says. "Very full-on, very focused, probably slightly obsessive. And yeah, that takes its toll on relationships. But no, it would be unfair to say the job, you know, the Woman's Day headline 'the job cost me my relationship', that's just way too simplistic."

But it probably contributed, she admits. Theresa doesn't flinch at that, but the green eyes have moistened. "Well, it was difficult, but we didn't have any children and it took us about 40 minutes to split our assets so I mean, really, you know, it was, look, they're never easy and this was as good as it gets."

It was completely without acrimony. There were moments of sadness, she says, but not acrimony.

PH: "So are you a member of the 50 per cent club?""

TG: "We agreed, you know..." and her voice trails off.

Did the separation make it difficult to function as chief executive? Did she ever think of putting on nappies and driving to Auckland with pepper spray a la the US space hero who last week was labelled a space cadet for attempting to murder a rival?

"No. Look, I think I must be quite well adjusted. You know some people have a happy gene? I do, I do. I also totally, totally felt nothing but gratitude and love for the support that John had given me. I just didn't. I thought he had been tremendous over such a long period of time. I certainly wouldn't have gotten to the top as fast without him. I would have got there but I wouldn't have got there as fast.

"And I didn't begrudge anything about the settlement. And sometimes you get to your forties and you are a different person to your early twenties and that's that."

So 50 per cent, I guess. As for the future, it is wide open for her. She has an international profile. She's twice been to Bill Gates' annual chief executives' retreat, where 100 of the world's top managers had dinner with the Great Man.

What's his house like? "Very tasteful and it's got the most fantastic library of American history that you could imagine, and it's a home. It's got children's toys. I mean, it's not geeky."

Suddenly, there is the stark alien howl again. Turns out it's not a lovechild. It's her cat. "She's deaf. She has a very loud meow because she's deaf. She was a rescue cat... I was calling her name and she was running in the other direction, so I figured out she was deaf."

Deafness. It's a poignant metaphor. Despite the years of public clamour about Telcom's power, despite the howling winds of frustration from customers, competitors and government alike, she never seemed to hear.

That's one view. But this is one very smart woman.

She must have heard the bells tolling, but copper wire might have been the hill she was ready to die on.