Carmel Fisher: The $5 billion woman

Sitting pretty: Self-made woman Carmel Fisher admits she has enough money to make her own choices.
Sitting pretty: Self-made woman Carmel Fisher admits she has enough money to make her own choices.

This isn't about the money. Though it could have been. After all, we're talking in excess of $5 billion. And it isn't about the get-up, either. Thoughit could have been that too. The heels are twice the height of a sensible court shoe, the lush green dress sits just so, and the diamond is... well, let's just sayit's really big.

So there is all that, but what this is really about is a woman who's been extremely successful. Unusually successful. A businesswoman in a sea of businessmen. What it's about is a woman whose glamour, whose sang-froid, can, at times, jar with her compatriots.

Carmel Fisher is a director and principal of Fisher Funds Management, a company that manages $5.5 billion on behalf of 250,000 investors. Not a bunch of fat cats but ordinary New Zealanders. "We invest people's money so we can grow it or preserve it. The smallest investors being $1000 and the largest ones being tens of millions of dollars."

Okay, so a few fat cats too. "A lot of people are put off investing because they think they've got to wait until they've got enough and they don't know what enough is. The cost of a pair of shoes or a new jacket is enough. If someone was prepared to start investing regularly, we could do it for $100 a month and then once they got to $1000 we could stop. Anyone can start somewhere."

Fisher Funds' 'somewhere' was the spare bedroomof a villa in the sleepy seaside village of Devonport, on Auckland's North Shore. Fifteen years ago, Fisher, on maternity leave from her job managing an investment team for Sovereign Assurance, figured she couldn'tbe the kind of mother she wanted to be and do a joblike that. So she and husband Hugh (that's him sitting over there in the corner; they met at a mutual friend's 21st, and she has had, she says, the good fortune to be married to her best friend for the past 26 years), with a $17 million fund Sovereign suggested she could "look after" from home, started their own investment business.

Within two years they had grown it to $50 million. Now 29 employees take care of all that money from offices in flashy Takapuna, with a remarkable backdrop of Rangitoto Island. On the day Sunday visits, those 29 employees are digging into morning tea in the open-plan space. Fisher isn't fussed on missing out. She says she would have only eaten the grapes anyway.

At 50 she is extremely slender, but doesn't pretend to be this way thanks only to good genes. "I enjoy food butI don't need a whole lot. I lead a very sedentary lifestyle and if I ate all day, everyday, I wouldn't be healthy." She doesn't go to the gym, but walks every morningfor 40 minutes. She has the same thing for lunch every day: a southwest chicken salad with extra chicken and avocado, and beetroot on the side,from the salad bar downstairs.

On paper, Fisher seems pretty fancy. In the flesh there is a plainness to her. Not her looks. She is a woman you'd look at twice in the street, but in her talk, and in her approach, there is an unexpected starkness. She slightly purses her lips at the end of every statement she makes. "Hmm," she says, in a way that punctuates rather than leaves things open-ended.

Business journalists say she is the queen of communication. A polarising figure that Jo Public laps up, while within the industry they gripe about her. Just the other day, she says, she met a guy who told her about all the men he's encountered with strong opinions about her. That she has a reputation for being quite aggressive. "He didn't use the term 'ball breaker', but that's almost the impression I got.

"And he said, 'I just don't know where they got that from.' Well, I don't know. I've never known really. I don't network with people. I don't spend a lotof time with the business community in Auckland."

Presumably it is precisely this self-containment that sets others on edge. Needy is not a word you would use to describe her. "My career path has not been littered with the bodies of those I've stepped over or stabbed. You know I'd prefer it that people didn't make comments and didn't prejudge, or whatever. But other people's opinions are not all that important to me. My family's opinion of me is important; my colleagues' and my clients' opinions are important; but outside that it probably doesn't matter."

It is only when she talks about 2008 - "the worst year ever" - that she displays any trace of vulnerability. With the global financial crisis, people who had invested with the company in late 2007 saw a third of their wealth wiped out in six months. The way fund management works, the company you have employed to invest your money is not liable.

"So you're still continuing to get your cheque every week but their wealth is falling. It's awful and there's no way you can explain it or claim that it's a good thing."  Fisher has the numbers ready to defend their performance though.

"At the end of 2008, the fundwas down 21 percent, but then if every other yearhas averaged a positive return of 17 percent, you can get your money back." Each year Fisher Funds takes to the road and fronts up to their clients. Asked to give a human face to the figures, Fisher tells a tale of a retired couple whoentrusted the company with their money early on.

"It was just Hugh and me working at home at that stage,and the fax machine roared into life on a Saturday morning and it was a handwritten note from this couple. They'd invested a relatively small amount of money and they'd come down to see us in our home -you know, the cat had sat on their lap. It was lovely. Andthey wrote, 'Carmel and Hugh, we love you.' And then they signed it with their names, which rhymed, so it wasthis little ditty; a poem thing."

After 2008, though, the husband was livid. Would barely speak to them. "So he went from a sort of love affair with us, because he was able to actually enjoy his retirement lifestyle courtesy of the returns we generated, to yeah, hating us." She says she doesn't feel burdened by the responsibility of all that money, but honoured.

"It's easy to keep it real when you go round the country and investors will askyou the pointed questions. 'Why did you buy that stock? It was a dog; I could have told you it was a dog.' And you have to explain. People keep you honest."

We're not accustomed to, or particularly keen on, displays of wealth in New Zealand. To get over our discomfort, says Fisher, what Kiwis try to do is bring those people who have succeeded down a notch. The Fishers live on the beach, have a boat, a holiday home in Matakana, nice cars in the garage (she won't say what sort) and their two daughters (15 and 11) are privately schooled. She loves clothes, but while she could conceivably afford Dior or Gucci, she doesn't feel she can justify it when she never wears an outfit year after year.

"I don't like to think I flash anything, but neither am I going to downplay the way I wantto live just in case people are put off by that." Fisher grew up in Wellington, one of four children to a part-Maori mother from a dairy farming background and a Lebanese accountant father, who died when she was 11. "It meant there wasn't a whole lot to go around. I think it was middle class, probably, but there was no excess."

She set out studying accounting at university, but in the boom times of the early '80s was quickly drawn to the sharemarket. She and each of her siblings inherited $20,000 when they turned 20. On her mother's advice she bought a microwave, a car and an overseas trip -an early lesson in how not to manage your finances.

"I did one of those Contiki Europe tours, had a lovelytime, blew it all on clothes and I've got a photo album full of these people who I've never met again." Money doesn't scare her, but other people's attitudes to it do. "I've got a pretty healthy attitude towards money. It is what it is. It helps you. It has a function. I don't love it for what it is, but I do like it for what it can do. I don't like it when money makes people greedy and it makes them do irrational or wrong things.  But then I can also see what it's done for people in terms of the lifestyle it's been able to create for them and their children and the country. I don't get it why people don't have conversations around where their retirement savings are, or if they've been able to grow their wealth It might help others to make similar decisions."

Financial literacy, and our lack of it, is important to her. Aside from the obvious monetary rewards, it perhaps explains Fisher Funds' purchase of three KiwiSaver schemes, the most recent, and biggest, being Tower. When her mother died 20 years ago, says Fisher, there wasn't a heck of a lot.

"I'm sure that's somewhere planted in the back of my mind - that I don't want to finish my life like that." It isn't, however, money that drives her on. "It never has. I've always just wanted to make enough money to have choices and enable my daughters when I'm not there to have choices. And I've got to that point. I don't need toys. We don't need a bigger and better boat. We don't want five houses around the world. It's not what does it for us really. If I've got friends and family around and I've got good food, good drink and good company, that's sort of it. You don't need money for that.

"Look, I don't think it buys happiness. I've been happier without - well, with a lesser amount than I've got now. The house that I'm going home to might be slightly better than someone else's, but it's still a house. All the experiences you have once you get there - you get up, you go to work, you have conversations with people, you have a few laughs, you go home, you see the kids, you talk about their day, you watch Coronation Street - are essentially the same as somebody with less wealth.''

Sunday Magazine