National recognition for recruitment trailblazer Marisa Fong
Following her induction into the New Zealand Hall of Fame for Women Entrepreneurs, we sat down with Marisa Fong to discuss her incredible success in the recruitment industry and charitable endeavours.
After co-founding The Madison Group, Marisa and co-founder Wynnis Armour, nurtured and grew the organisation to become New Zealand’s largest privately-owned recruitment company before it was acquired in 2013.
Her passion for her work is reflected in the mentorship programs she actively drives to better the future generation of entrepreneurial women.
Marisa is past Chair of Professionelle Charitable Foundation, Advisory Board member for NZ Work Research Institute (AUT), past President and Learning Chair for Entrepreneurs’ Organisation, Trustee for Simplicity Trust (a not-for-profit Kiwisaver and Investment fund), non-executive Director of listed company Enprise Group and an Executive Judge for Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year.
Five minutes with Marisa
Congratulations on your well-deserved place in the New Zealand Hall of Fame for Women Entrepreneurs. Can you tell us a bit about your professional journey to such incredible entrepreneurial successes?
When I returned to New Zealand after my OE, I joined a small boutique company that had recently opened its doors. I helped grow the company and was leading a small team when I left to join an international agency. Alfred Marks became Adia and then Adecco. After close to nine years with Adecco and holding the role of National Sales Director, I left with my colleague Wynnis Armour to start Madison Recruitment. Over the 15 years we owned Madison, we built it to become the largest privately-held recruitment company in NZ. It was acquired in 2013 in a deal that set a precedent for the NZ industry and still stands as the largest sale in NZ recruitment history. Since then, I have stayed in the entrepreneurial arena via membership of Entrepreneurs Organisation, building an angel investment portfolio privately and through Flying Kiwi Angels and consulting to other business founders as well as being an advisor on boards.
As a trailblazer and leader in the industry, what advice can you provide to those looking to launch a business and wanting to find a strong sense of confidence?
For me, it was asking myself the question “what’s the worst thing that could happen?” And being able to answer that meant I was happy to live with the consequences, both good and bad. Also, going into a partnership with someone else meant I wasn’t “going it alone”. What also helped was knowing I had the financial liquidity to fund the start-up for 12 months to give it the time it would need to prove itself. Plus being experienced in winning large contracts, I knew I could sell and develop business.
As you sit on quite a few industry boards, what can you say about the current landscape and future opportunities for female leadership and entrepreneurship?
I believe the recruitment industry has been reasonably progressive as much of the industry has been female dominant. Where I do see some anomalies is in the senior leadership of some sectors, and commonly across professional services, more and more women are opting out of the “partnership track” to go do their own thing. Or choosing not to progress any further. My observation of this is that women aren’t prepared to further sacrifice wellbeing or family to achieve a role that demands so much. However, as we know, the landscape has changed significantly this year with the focus now on productivity not presenteeism and less resistance to flexible work practices. I hope all of this leads to more women putting their hands up for leadership roles that will enhance their lives not detract. And of course there are many more opportunities for women to become self-employed in either contract/consulting roles or starting their own enterprise as organisations seek expertise that doesn’t need to sit inside the company.
You have mentored at First Foundation in the past supporting disadvantaged scholars through tertiary education, and continue to mentor people in the recruitment industry, why do you think mentorship is so important for professional development?
Being mentored gives one time to reflect on one’s own journey; both professionally and personally. When do we really ever sit down and think about our direction of travel in life? Mentoring means you get a chance to explore your own blind spots and to get perspective on your actions and decisions. I believe at the intersection of reflection and self-awareness, self development occurs. Mentoring isn’t the only way to achieve this but it’s a good way to start and having a meeting with your mentor drives the discipline to set aside time for thinking.
Did you have any mentors or key drivers in your career?
Yes definitely. My wonderful business partner Wynnis Armour and the very creative Mike Hutcheson. I liked seeing life through their lenses, having them reaffirm or counter my views and understanding other perspectives gave me great insights into my own motivations and biases.
You are also past Chairperson for Professionelle Foundation, a charitable trust that is focused on supporting working women through their career pipeline. Can you tell us a little bit about this foundation and your involvement?
My two passions are supporting women and business. So I became Chair of Professionelle, at the request of one of the co-founders. After learning just how hard it is for many women to advance their careers when they don’t work in female-dominated industries, or have their own business, it was a no-brainer. I appreciated how driven by research it was, and saw how I could add value with my commercial experience. I came into this not long after the GFC and therefore helped restructure the offering so they could commercialise their IP into programmes that corporates could use internally, thereby making it financially viable to continue their outreach. It’s gone on to impact many women over the years with its philosophy of one to many approach. The feedback we get is very rewarding and reminds me of how powerful it is to share and “lift all boats”. It’s now being ably run as a commercial enterprise after the Trustees made the decision to wind up the Trust. Membership is free right now and the resources available on the site are accessible to all. I highly recommend people visit it at www.professionelle.org.nz.
Can you tell us a bit about your latest endeavour, Arne Skincare, and the environmentally conscious direction of the business?
I’m wanting to create a successful consumer brand, as it’s something I’ve never done before. Talk about learning! It is interesting to find out how much I don’t know but equally fascinating to learn from others in this space. Skincare is a very crowded space and so you need to have a really great brand story to stand out. My driver is to utilise the very smart tech and ideas we have in NZ by using a unique extract in the product. The focus is on using high quality plant-based ingredients that don’t harm the environment and are functionally active to improve skin. It remains to be seen if it will be successful but part of entrepreneurship is the willingness to give things a go despite the fear!