Annette Presley helped build one of the industry’s biggest players through self-belief and determination.

Asked about the best advice from her years in business CallPlus co-founder Annette Presley is quiet - it is the first time she has seemed unsure of what to say. After a pause, she says in measured tones: "It wasn't so long ago that I was a little girl out in South Auckland and I decided that I wanted a different life.

"I thought about it, I could see it in my head all the time. And I surrounded myself with people that could help me make that dream come true.

"And when people told me I couldn't do something, I didn't talk to them again." This is how she is - feisty, bubbly and straight as an arrow.

Presley is wearing a leather and suede turquoise dress from her latest business venture - French fashion brand Jitrois. Although she looks the part for the fashion industry this is far beyond the realms of the telecommunications sector which has occupied her time for the better part of 23 years.

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Presley co-founded CallPlus, which is made up of CallPlus Business, Slingshot, Orcon, Flip and 2talk, in 1996 with her business partner and former husband Malcolm Dick.

The company has grown to become the country's third-largest telco and broadband provider and its sale this month for $250 million to Australian business M2 marks the end of an era.

Since founding CallPlus, Dick had retained a 62 per cent stake in the company with Presley holding a 33.55 per cent stake. Based on this it is estimated Dick walked away with around $155 million and Presley with just under $84 million, although Presley cannot comment on the details of the sale.

Presley and Dick will continue working with the company until the official hand over, expected to take place in the next few months.

CallPlus has found itself in a scrap with a group of heavyweight broadcasters over its Global Mode offering, which gives customers access to overseas TV services where the content is blocked from New Zealand.

Lightbox, MediaWorks, Sky and TVNZ this month said they are proceeding with legal action against CallPlus after the company said it would not back down.

"[Customers] didn't have choice in internet, they didn't have choice in telecommunications, and now they don't have choice in online media because we continue to kowtow to bullies," Presley says.

The broadcasters, however, argue that companies who profit by marketing and providing access to content they haven't paid for are acting unlawfully and in breach of copyright.

For Presley the scrap over Global Mode is just the latest battle in a journey that has taken her from South Auckland to the top of New Zealand's telco industry.

Today she sits in an office on the top floor of the CallPlus towers overlooking the city, but as a teenager growing up in Papatoetoe she worked two jobs to pay her way through her computer science degree at Auckland Technical Institute (now AUT). Her dream for as long as she can remember was to own a company by the time she was 25 - a goal she reached by 24.

"To me becoming successful and having my own business was about creating my own independence so I could create my own choices," she says. "I grew up in Papatoetoe, we weren't poor but we were certainly not rich, and a lot of my friends went down ... not the same path as me."

Based on advice from her father, who told her computer programmers were making a lot of money overseas, Presley signed up to a programming course, which she said was an unusual career choice at the time, particularly for women.

"Me as a programmer is a hilarious thought," she says. Presley seems equal parts carefree and wistful, laughing at herself one minute, before looking pensive and reflective the next. When she was growing up there weren't any successful businesswomen - making her ambition all the more unusual.

Presley's life revolved around catching a bus from university to each of her two jobs - one with Estee Lauder, the other Nissan Datsun in Otara. For three years Presley worked as a computer programmer, which on reflection she says she hated, before moving into sales.

"It takes a certain skillset to be a programmer - analytical, pragmatic, dogmatic, detail orientated, and it's not my skillset. So I went from programming to sales because I realised I love people," she says.

"Some people get energy off people and some people get drained by people and I'm one of the people that gets energy off people so programming wasn't a good fit. I started selling computers."

At 19, she got lucky after applying for a job at MDL, where she learned to sell computers to service stations - a memory that triggers laughter.

"Can you imagine how blokey that was?" Presley admits it was a hard sell but she quickly became the company's top salesperson before leaving at the age of 24 to start up her own company - IT recruitment firm Stratum.

Despite not knowing much about running a business, Stratum grew rapidly and by the time she sold it four years later, it was one of the leading IT recruitment firms in New Zealand.

It was around this time that she met her future husband and business partner Malcolm Dick, who was then the managing director of telecommunications business Netway, a Freightways-Telecom joint venture.

When Netway was sold, Dick signed a non-compete agreement, which Presley said forced the pair to move to Australia.

Staying in New Zealand and doing something different doesn't seem to have crossed her mind at the time and the move to Australia was an "obvious one".

"We had to go to Australia, it was all just starting," she says. "We hadn't even deregulated the market in New Zealand and Australia was just deregulating so it was the perfect opportunity."

She points to a few pictures on the table - a slightly younger looking version of herself with longer hair next to a smiling man in a retro looking shirt - Dick - in the middle of the garage which in 1992 served as the first Call Australia office in their home in Sydney. The smiles in the picture belie the stress of that time as everything went wrong.

The pair were supposed to have a third business partner but at the last minute he decided the risk was too great and backed out.

The company that was supposed to supply to them also seemed to waver before backing out as well, at which point Presley thought things were pretty tough. She says that everyone was telling her the company was going to fail, they were never going to make it and would be broke within a few months.

Annette Presley's secret to success is refusing to give up. Photo / Jason Oxenham.
Annette Presley's secret to success is refusing to give up. Photo / Jason Oxenham.

They succeeded because they refused to give up, Presley says, although she notes that if Dick had been less confident she too might have backed down. Against all the odds - and advice - the company began to succeed.

"Once we had the credibility and we were billing and people could see we were saving them money, and there was choice, it went literally insane," she says.

"So I hired salespeople and put together training manuals ... and our growth was around 500 per cent a month at one point." One of the more interesting things they did was hiring people as receptionists and then within three weeks either promoting or firing them.

"At one point in our company, 80 per cent of the people that worked for me had once been the receptionist, and that was just the nature of it."

Setting up their own reseller in Australia may seem like a reasonable feat in itself, but at the time when the pair first set up Call Australia, they were the only reseller in the country.

"When we started, we couldn't even bill our customers because Telstra couldn't bill us," Presley says.

"They weren't prepared for a reseller but we took their legislation and used it so that we could create choice in Australia. We were literally the first in Australia, now there are hundreds. But we were the first."

Despite the success of the firm, which grew to have an annual turnover of about $100 million and 200 staff, Presley missed New Zealand.

By this time Presley and Dick had married and had their first child, son Brandon, and back home New Zealand had deregulated its telecommunications sector. While still in Australia, the pair set up CallPlus in 1996 in New Zealand and in 1998 they sold Call Australia and returned home.

Similar to Call Australia's start, CallPlus began in a small office in Parnell, and while better than a garage, with six staff and a bit more money to invest, Presley says it was still tiny, particularly when compared with the 600 staff that CallPlus employs today.

At the time Telecom operated an almost monopoly on the market and Presley says it ended up being the most difficult and terrifying time in her business career.

"We set up i4free - free internet in New Zealand and I remember bringing in pizzas and sleeping in the office," she says.

"Our staff slept on the floor, and we created an internet company that had 150,000 users in a weekend. "And everyone kept saying to Malcolm and me ... it can't be done. And I just remember Malcolm and I looking at them and saying, 'Well sorry but you've got no choice. We do have 150,000 users and you have to provision this network'. And they did."

Presley remembers this as one of the company's highlights, right before a scrap with Telecom. So began a legal battle with CallPlus suing Telecom in 2000 over its decision to charge for local internet calls, which effectively shut off CallPlus' business.

"Big companies like healthy dwarfs," Presley jokes. "They don't like companies that actually have enough money to fight them."

Pregnant with her second child - daughter Ashley - and with her midwife "almost having a heart attack" Presley took on Telecom in a battle that lasted five years. Eventually the issue was resolved out of court.

"There have been so many times in my life that I could have given up," Presley says. "So many times along the way, all these things that have gone wrong but it's just a refusal to give up."

CallPlus' reputation as a challenger in the market is one of the main reasons the decision was made to sell to M2, as Presley says they are also a challenger in the Australian market.

"People over the years have said, 'Oh gosh you're so lucky'. Yeah I know, I am lucky. Luck's a part of it - if you're born into an environment where you can create these opportunities.

"We were born here. New Zealand is just an incredible environment to make your dreams come true."


Annette Presley
Born 1964, grew up in Papatoetoe.
Attended McAuley High School.
Studied computer programming at ATI (AUT).
1988 Founded IT recruitment firm Stratum.
1992 Co-founded Call Australia in Sydney.
1996 Co-founded CallPlus.
1998 Moved back to NZ to run CallPlus.
2000 Sued Telecom for $18m.
2005 Settled out of court with Telecom.
2015 Sold CallPlus for $250m.