She is the original influencer, the first disruptor, the pioneer of women in the workforce. Our next interviewee didn’t just change the game, she invented it for Australian women. At a time when the most that young girls could aspire to was a great husband, Mrs Imelda Roche saw the business potential in each of them. Along with her husband, Mr Bill Roche they grew the Australian arm of renowned cosmetics brand, Nutrimetics to become a household name, later going on to run the global business. As with most careers, success means you are rich in the monetary sense but poor on time. So when it came to fashion and beauty, Mrs Roche had to get inventive. She drew on her youth, when she admired her grandmothers’ style and her mothers’ grit, to hone a workable wardrobe and beauty routine that fit her busy life and kept her presentable. This became a skill she passed on via mentorships to young politicians and businesswomen and something she shares with us today. We also discuss women’s’ current roles in business and domestic life and the power of direct-selling. It was our honour to sit down with Order of Australia recipient, Mrs Imelda Roche and we hope you enjoy the read.
Image: Mrs Imelda Roche speaking at the Nutrimetics 50th anniversary celebrations.
Is it true that you bought two dresses at the start of your career that you alternated wearing for a full year?
That’s exactly right. I was only 16 and I had my first job in the city. I was earning three pounds, five shillings a week, and without going into the detail of how that was dispersed, what I retained out of that was 17 and 6 a week. I only had my very girly school clothes before that so from my first day of work, I started saving. I wouldn’t spend anything I didn’t have to. I went up to see what David Jones were offering and found two dresses. One was a background green dress with small pink flowers on it that was buttoned to the waste and had a small collar. The other one was a creamy colour and that had sort of brown almost like twigs in the pattern of it and that was just a cowl neck. I think one of those, the green dress had sleeves, and the other one was sleeveless.
Because I was so focused on saving, I wore those almost for the next 12 months before I bought anything else. I alternated day by day and I had a small short sleeved cardigan that I wore if it were a little chilly, but that was my uniform for the first year. And yes, I had one pair of shoes.
What we think Mrs Roches clothes may have looked a little like for that year:
What a capsule work wardrobe, inspired by Mrs Roche, may look like today. Our advice: if you want colour, keep the tones muted. Stick to jewel hues for winter or pastels in summer so that you’re less likely to tire of them quickly.
Do you still have a bit of a uniform?
I do find long collarless blazers are very good if you’re wearing a blouse underneath. I always wore a suit to the office and once I arrived, I took the jackets off. I really had to comfortably accommodate the blouses that I had underneath. Sometimes they were single-breasted, sometimes double, they were very versatile in the fact that if you wore them without a blouse and just slip underneath, they were very good for displaying jewellery, not that I had a lot of it.
Do you own much for jewellery?
I tend to have a few select pieces that go with most things so that I’m not always rummaging through what am I going to wear. I’ve got a gold necklace, which I’ve had for years and wear mostly during the day. I have several strings of pearls, but I have one that is just a single string with bigger sized pearls, probably about a 10 or a 12 that I wear mainly in the evening.
I had several pairs of earrings- plain gold and black and gold. I really wore a lot of black skirts, unless I had a tonal colour in a suit, which for winter I often had. If I’m talking about summer fashion, I would have a black skirt, which I would team with an appropriate blouse and have a jacket that the blouse complimented and everything sort of went together.
Sounds like a great capsule wardrobe! Do you aim for easily interchangeable pieces?
Yes, this was advice that I gave to a lot of women, even some of our early politicians, who while going into public life had never focused much on their wardrobe and what would be convenient for them. My advice was to always get yourself a couple of really good black skirts and some jackets and team those together and put appropriate blouses where necessary. It’s a very easy wardrobe for the working woman and it works in most situations.
Germaine Greer once commented on live TV that Julia Gillard should get a new jacket and made a derogatory comment about her weight. I know you’ve advised female politicians who have asked for your assistance but do you think Germaine had a place to say that at all, especially on live TV? Is commentary on what women wear in politics taboo?
I would say Germaine was trying to attract media attention. That was really more about her than about Julia. However, I would take the view that women should be conscious of their shape. Know your size, find the appropriate cut for your figure, and make sure that if you want to reduce the appearance of areas don’t wear clothes that emphasize those areas.
For example, I prefer a straight cut business jacket with a good cut shoulder line. I’ve had a swayed back since childhood and I was always conscious of making sure I dressed appropriately so that it was less apparent.
And I was always conscious to wear slim line skirts that were slightly tapered into the knee to have some shape. I never in my whole career wore a skirt that was above my knee, ever. Even as a very young woman. I just thought it was more elegant and you’re much better presented, if you were dressed appropriately for every occasion.
Ita Buttrose has told a story that she was in an all-female boardroom once, the meeting had finished and they started discussing little things they’d like to change about their appearance. She said she wondered, “What are we doing? We’re all very successful women. Why are focusing on this?” She later went on to explain it’s okay, you’re allowed to think about these things. It’s not the most important thing, it’s balance.
Our question to you is, as an established businesswoman with huge such success in the beauty industry, what are your thoughts on our focus on looks.
Firstly, Ita has a very good sense of balance. I think most things that she does, she keeps in proper balance. Ita would devote the appropriate amount of time to preparing herself to physically present well without overdoing it, but she would also then focus on the more important issues, which is the message that she wants to deliver.
I would make comment very frequently when I spoke to young women, particularly working in the professions of finance and law, that it’s ok to think about how you’re presenting, you are allowed to think about the whole package, just lay most focus on the message you want to deliver.
How does respecting your competitor help you in business?
With Nutrimetics, our competitor, Avon was a company to be admired in every market in which it operated. I had the deepest respect for the Avon corporation. When we started in Australia, Nutrimetics modelled itself to some degree on the integrity of companies like Avon and Tupperware, and we were an amalgam of both of those companies in the way in which we traded. In so much as Avon were a competitive skin care and colour company. Tupperware were in the market competing with us for people to represent them. Tupperware were a party company. Avon were a territorial door to door representation.
We researched and understood the market, corporately. We understood who our competition really was and what, in fact, we were competing with. I came to the conclusion that our major competition was for people to represent us because that’s what each of the companies needed to progress their individual companies.
I encouraged our representatives, our consultants, not to think about competition. We took the view we didn’t have any competition for our product. What we did was focus on what we were offering and we didn’t enter into comparative conversations about any other company. There was never a word of criticism about any other company or their product uttered by Nutrimetics corporately, and we encouraged each of our consultants to have exactly the same view.
What we needed to do was understand the value and benefits of our product, and that’s what we had to offer the marketplace. I made the comment very often that we did not teach our consultants to sell, we taught them to create an environment in which people would want to buy. You do that by the strength of your own commitment and enthusiasm and sharing the value and the benefits that you have from the Nutrimetics products.
It was a sharing conversation so that people would then have a response, “Yeah, I would like to try that.” So it was their decision. I wasn’t there trying to sell you anything, I was just sharing with you how I felt about it.
It was a person to person business, even though we might have spoken in small groups in party plan, it was building relationships. Of course, the business sustained itself on those relationships that were built. Direct selling, generally, is about building relationships.
What would be your greatest professional achievement?
I would say the numbers of women that through Nutrimetics we were able to provide an environment in which women could become business people, they could become financially self-reliant, which very few women prior to that had ever been. It did not have to take them away from being in unison and partnership with their husbands. We always encouraged our women to talk about this is a business I am building for us and the family. We’re not making them independent of their husbands, but financially independent with their husbands.
This was always the mindset that we planted so that we were not there to put a disruption into married life. And interestingly enough, we had fewer separations in Nutrimetics than in society generally. It was a factor that seemed to keep people together because it reduced their financial worries.
There must have been a little bit of kickback from some men in the early days?
There were often some difficulties when consultants were going out in the evening and had to say to her husband, to her spouse, children’s dinner is there on the stove. Make sure they’re bathed before they go bed. And of course, that’s not something men in the 1960s and 70s were used to.
One of the other things we did, because we took each of our achievers to an exciting destination overseas for the annual conference, we divided the period of time in which they could qualify into two segments. The first segment of three months was really designed for her to qualify for her husband. So she qualified for him first. However, if she then did not qualify for herself, he could not go alone. So you can understand he was enthusiastic. He knew he had to step up and support her so they could both go. We had to think our way through how we could subtly have them work as a team.
Everybody has a Nutrimetics story. Have there been any particular ones that have struck a chord with you?
Probably the ones the people share with me about how Nutrimetics changed their lives, and the differences it made in having that additional income coming into the family.
When people would tell me that it allowed them to send their children to the school of their choice, it allowed them to upgrade their home, it allowed them to have family holidays, it allowed them to prepare and put away funds for tertiary education for their children, which they would otherwise never be able to afford. It was those things that enhanced the quality of their lives, and they could do it in an environment which brought them great joy.
Will selling always be in your blood?
I still find myself talking about strengths of the direct selling industry in particular. It will be in my heart until the day I draw my last breath. I don’t know any other business opportunities that provide such unparalleled opportunity for so many women, no matter their level of skill and no matter their level of education. They find both that social network and that opportunity to earn in a time frame that really works for them, within their families.
That brings me an enormous degree of fulfilment, to feel that my life hasn’t been an unfocused amble. I’ve been able to achieve something that’s not only to my benefit. None of it would have been to my benefit unless I’d made it possible for other people to be successful, because it was their success that created mine. It’s as simple as that.
Given all the opportunities that women have at our fingertips today, does it surprise you that we’re still the primary caretakers?
No. Women generally realize that the primary care for society, generally, rests on the shoulders of them. It starts within the home, and then it spreads through a wider network of society. Most of the caring, for the elderly and for the young, is done by women. Women still have, as their primary responsibility, the family. Whatever else they do must be built around that.
Fashion and beauty advice- is there anything you can say “I got that from my mother or grandmother”?
I don’t think my mother ever used a cosmetic in her life, except lipstick. She washed her face with soap and water every day. But I learned probably the value of being a truly caring person. She was very supportive of me in my early career days. I’m eternally grateful to my mother. My grandmother, my fathers’ mother, was a very elegant and dignified lady and stylish woman. Always, her hair done perfectly. She would never leave home without wearing a hat and gloves. I suppose just through osmosis I took on board the elegance of my grandmother and was always conscious of the way she presented. She was always admired. Her wardrobe would not have been more than about maybe six feet wide, everything she owned was stored in that but she always looked impeccable. I probably took that on board from my grandmother and thought knowing how few clothes she had comparatively, it was possible to always be well presented.
To be loving, caring, and selflessness is what I took more from my mother than anything else. She was really a hard worker all of her life. She worked in the glass factory from 6:30 in the morning until 3:30, and then she went and worked as a barmaid during the time of six o’clock closing and was not home until seven o’clock at night. It was a hard life for my mother. She gave the greatest care she possibly could to her six children. She trained us to be cooperative with one another, and in helping her with the house. We all had our jobs. I become an expert ironer because my job was to iron my father’s shirts and the school uniforms. I would do that every Sunday night. I also had to polish the front hall, which I would do by skating up and down with two rags on my feet to polish and have fun at the same time.
My sisters all had their responsibilities. My elder sister and I had to prepare dinner each night and then we had to allocate a roster for the youngest to do the washing up and the drying up, and other chores. We ran our household like a small army unit. That probably, subconsciously, taught me something about setting up the way we ran Nutrimetics because each of those small directorships was like a small unit, and they were all part of the major brigade. I think I took those early learning observations.
You have a unique role in that people will listen to you thanks to your great success in business, but do you feel most women voices or opinions get more overlooked with age?
Very often that’s the case, because young women are far more charming in the eyes of men, quite frankly. There’s not enough of that positive reinforcement, women to women. I think you need to develop a skill in life that what you have to say is relevant and important. I’ve often said to many young women, particularly those that aspire to be on corporate boards, is that you do not open your mouth and say anything until you’ve done adequate listening and you know where each of the other people on that board is coming from and what their relevant views are. Make sure you understand the topic before you contribute a comment.
Communication is one of the most important skills anybody could ever have. Irrespective of what you learn, through any study, any faculty at university, one of the most important skills in life is communication and knowing how to effectively communicate with other people.