Outspoken Summerset Group director and former chief executive Norah Barlow was stunned to be made an officer of the NZ Order of Merit.

The straight-talking boss of the retirement business who this year spoke up for women in corporate life has been credited with leading Summerset from having only seven villages in the lower North Island to becoming an NZX and ASX listed entity, owning 17 villages in New Zealand and making $10 million net profit.

Barlow is also widely known to be humble, despite her considerable accomplishments. "There's lots more deserving people than me," she said of the Queen's Birthday honour.

"I am just blown away by this. I just never, ever in my wildest dreams ever expected something like that. I just can't even express it.


"I'm just wandering around, thankful someone put my name forward who I don't know but I'm thankful they saw fit to go through with it."

Summerset has been named Australasia's best retirement village operator for the past four years and Barlow was one of only two female chief executives of NZX listed companies.

She has delivered presentations nationally and internationally about the challenges and opportunities of being a woman in business.

She was appointed to the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women for the Ministry of Women's Affairs.

She has been president of the Retirement Village Association for seven years and chaired the committee which developed the 2008 Code of Practice for retirement villages in New Zealand. She has called for more women to be promoted in business.

"In lots of companies, when you start making choices, there's an unconscious bias to appoint a person who's like you, which is often a male who played rugby, has gone to this college and played cricket.

"There's nothing active about the discrimination, it's inadvertent," she said in April. "I don't think women should be CEO because they're women but there's a failing in the middle management system."

Barlow said she particularly wanted to thank Summerset founder John O'Sullivan who employed her as an accountant in 1993 but also the wider staff at Summerset.

"I'd like to thank all my family who have been supportive, particularly my husband Robert Barlow who never gets thanked, puts up with all the hours, phone calls and aggravation," she said.

She was last year named Wellingtonian of the Year (business) and has received awards for governance and excellence in leadership.

She is a director of ASX retirement specialist Ingenia Communities, on the board of Cooks Global Foods which has the global franchise rights for Esquires Coffee Houses outside here and Australia, is a director of Cigna Life Insurance NZ and is considering other board or consultancy options.

Norah Barlow - Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to business.