Welcome to My Net Worth, our regular feature on the lives and motivations of our top businesspeople, in their own words. 

Deborah Pead was born in the United Kingdom but spent most of her childhood in South Africa, growing up in an entrepreneurial family. With dreams of becoming a clinical psychologist, she studied for a bachelor’s degree in social sciences at the University of Natal, majoring in industrial/communications psychology. But she quickly moved into public relations, eventually launching two businesses before migrating to New Zealand. She created Pead PR here in 2000, and has since built it into one of the most prominent public relations companies in the country.

I spent my early years in Coventry, England. My childhood and family life there were rather grim. Though I was much loved as a child, we were always one meal away from poverty. When I read Frank McCourt’s book Angela’s Ashes, I felt like that’s what my early years were like.

Coventry was still war-torn then (German bombs had destroyed the city in the Second World War), and we lived in an old Victorian slum. It didn’t have running water. There was a communal tap and communal toilet. I have vivid memories of that time.

My father was very ambitious. He felt the unions in England were a handbrake to getting ahead in life, and decided to emigrate. There were two options: New Zealand and South Africa. He chose South Africa because the poster had sunshine and a lion on it – the New Zealand poster had only sheep.

My parents were very hard working and always had two or three jobs on the go. As a result, in South Africa, I had a childhood that dreams were made of – ponies, good schools. 

My father bought his own butchery and moved into supplying restaurants, eventually buying his own. He looked after the butchery in the day and the restaurants at night.

My parents were only teenagers when I was born. My dad was a wild party animal but my mum was the anchor. My dad had a lot of energy and stamina, but he wouldn’t have gotten as far as he did without my mother. She kept him on the straight and narrow.

I didn’t set out to be a business owner, and initially studied industrial psychology. It didn’t work out. So I went back to my career counsellor at the University of Natal, and they guided me to a career in communications. I progressed quickly and realised it was my passion. Eventually, I started my own company.

Deborah Pead at the Pead PR office in 2004.

About 25 years ago, I moved to New Zealand. I had young children, and the violence and political corruption in South Africa were out of control. They still are. We had too many incidents that were too close for comfort.

It was a tough decision to leave behind the two PR businesses that I owned in South Africa. In New Zealand, I had to start all over again. I wasn’t arrogant enough to think I could start out on my own straight away, so I ended up at (advertising agency) Bates, working in their PR division for six years before setting up Pead in 2000.

It’s hard to pinpoint the most significant achievement in my career so far. In South Africa, I worked on an inspiring affirmative action plan that was so effective for its time. It was successful and paved the way for wonderful careers for some of the talent.

After 20 years of building Pead PR, I brought three fantastic partners into the business. That felt like a great achievement, but it was also bittersweet as it marked the beginning of an exit strategy and the handing over of the reins.

I celebrated that deal with a two-month trip around Europe. We definitely turned left when we entered the plane. We stayed in a beautiful home in the south of France and hosted friends. I also celebrated by building the Taj Mahal of dog quarters for my four jack russell terriers.

I have become better at balancing work and life now that I have partners in the business who share responsibility for the company’s success. 

I work hard and socialise hard, and network when I can. On a Friday, you’ll see me heading up north to our farm in Paparoa. It’s a total change of lifestyle. We have an Angus beef farm and are on a journey towards regenerative agriculture.

My friends would describe me as empathetic, strong, kind, generous, a straight talker, and a source of home truths. Fierce, as well. One friend told me I was a terrific swearer, which is also true.

I’m an active rester, so I love heading out for a walk and going on a possum hunt with my jack russells. I also love cooking and entertaining people at the farm – and writing to-do lists for my husband.

The last thing I splurged on was a huge red tractor. I’m not allowed to drive it yet, but it’s paying for itself because of the regenerative agriculture programme we are on at the farm. It made sense to buy.

I know the value of everything I own, but the things I really value are my family and friends, the greeting I get from my four doggies when I arrive on the farm, and a smile from my mother, who has dementia. I love the smile on her face when she remembers who I am.

As told to Daniel Dunkley.
This interview has been edited for clarity.