Welcome to My Net Worth, our regular column on the lives and motivations of our country’s top business, legal and political people, in their own words.
Marisa Fong co-founded Madison Recruitment, which was New Zealand’s largest privately owned recruitment company when it was acquired by AWF in a $36 million deal in 2013. She is now a keen angel investor, and sits on boards including recruitment software firm Weirdly, software and services investment firm Enprise and her new skincare start-up, Arne.
I was made in Hong Kong and born in New Zealand. We were Westies – I was brought up in New Windsor in Auckland. When you have immigrant parents, they're always working. So, of course, the eldest daughter is always the one who picks up all the slack. It probably explains why I didn't have children until way, way older. I felt like I’d done the kid-raising thing.
My parents mainly had restaurants and hospitality, but they were smart, and owned a lot of real estate as well.
I worked as a waitress. I used to hate going to the restaurant – you know, you have to get ready, put the uniform on. But, actually, I just like to deal with people. And you know, everybody was happy to be there. And my parents were really great hosts; they always remembered the customers’ names.
My parents were ahead of their time – they brought chefs out from Hong Kong and places like that. So they really lifted the standards of food and the result was incredible. We used to have queues at the door on Friday and at weekends.
I was running a cocktail bar at the back of Stanley’s, which was huge back then. It was pre-GFC and people were spending big money on huge cocktails and champagne. There were big tips! It was a good time to work in the nightclub scene and in the mid- to late-eighties, there was all the disco stuff, but also the cool stuff – you know, underground and funky.
I tried university but it wasn’t my style of learning, and also, looking back, I think you have to be passionate about something to apply yourself to learning. I think back then we didn’t have the diversity of subjects.
I basically just applied for every single consultant role I saw in the paper and finally a small company gave me my first break and that's how I got into the recruitment industry. For my training they gave me a Yellow Pages and the vacancies from out of the Herald – back in the day, it was quite thick.
They sent me back into this little room and away I went – and I picked up a vacancy! I’ll always remember it was for an office-junior role for Croxley, the stationery people. They said, sure, come out and we’ll tell you all about it. I couldn’t believe it – it was my first day.
Later, I worked for a big international company but it got put into perspective for me when my Australian counterpart (I was then group sales director) said to me, “Oh, you know, rounding up the New Zealand revenue is just a rounding-up of a decimal point for the whole of the global company.”
So, I went into business with my partner Wynnis Armour, who I had hired into the business. She'd moved way her up. We were peers and we got along great. And we had a lot of fun. I learned a lot about confidence from her.
But it was relentless. It was never like you could just stop there. You had to be there every day, even sometimes on the weekends. When you're new and you're growing, you can't get off that roller-coaster ride.
When we were finalising the deal for the sale of Madison, coincidentally, I had organised to take my parents on a Mediterranean cruise. I was faxing the deal papers on the ship with its dodgy internet. Finally, we got it all signed off. So, we're in the middle of the Mediterranean, I had this bottle of Veuve and canapes sitting on a balcony; I told my parents then.
Afterwards, I walked into a Chanel store and thought, I'm going to buy myself a Chanel jacket. I tried them all on. And I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Your upbringing just doesn't let you do that kind of stuff.
I think of start-ups as my gambling money. Once I’ve done as much due diligence as I can, after that it’s just fingers crossed that they get it across the line.
I’m Kiwi Chinese and part of a group of businesses and ecommerce brands, looking to go to China. There's a lot of Chinese born in China or born in Hong Kong. We're not just this one homogenous group of people and I think unfortunately from the outside people go, “Oh, well, you're all Chinese, you must all be the same.” Honestly, it's so different, it's like saying, “Well, Europeans are the same”, and treating Germans as if they come from France.
Women rarely ever say no, that’s the problem. So, I have a little list of ways to say no by my phone. I just need the phrases to say.
I’m quite full with my angel portfolio but recently I’ve been looking at commercial property. I actually got my first industrial property at the beginning of the year.
As told to Victoria Young.
This interview has been edited for clarity.