AIB Featured Business Leader – Imelda Roche

Last modified 25 August 2022
Categories: Business Leaders
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

When Imelda Roche met her future husband Bill in 1957, the idea that women could be business savvy wasn’t just new, it was actively met with hostility. Together, the Roches have built a multi-million dollar empire, most notably through Nutrimetics and latterly property development.

Along the way, Imelda encountered some serious opposition. Bank managers refused to forward finance to her without her husband’s signature, and relatives expressed concern that she wasn’t at home with her children, of which she has four. Her perseverance in the face of discrimination is just part of her story, which showcases a woman of determination at any cost.

Born in 1934, Roche was born in humble circumstances into a large family. Her mother sent her to live with her grandmother for a few years when Roche was just two, a decision which sowed the seeds of her future determination. “She taught me you can do whatever you want”, Roche later told Smart Company, citing her grandmother’s ‘eight words of wisdom’ that “if it’s to be, it’s up to me”.

Money was an ongoing concern for the family, and like many girls of her day, Roche left school after Year Ten. She took any job going, working in industries from journalism to bookkeeping and rising through the ranks due to her determination and hard work. In 1957, she was a manager with the National Cash Register Company. Canberra’s first self-service food department opened that year, and Roche attended the opening in order to train staff in how to operate the registers. There, she met a young man named Bill, who was with the Kellogg Company.

The attraction was instant, and it wasn’t long before the two decided that they wanted to marry. Although she was already working a second job three nights a week, and had a third working weekends, it wasn’t enough. The couple had siblings and parents to help support, so they needed to come up with another income stream before they could contemplate setting up house on their own.

Televisions were new on the scene, having commenced broadcasting in Australia in 1956, and there was a belief that to protect your eyes when watching television, you should have a soft light on the set. So Imelda and Bill developed ‘television lamps’, designed to be sold with a new television which would sit atop the set. They secured a few orders from country home stores and set about creating them in their mothers’ living rooms with the help of relatives.

Business was slow but steady and the demand was there. Bill’s older brother suggested that they cut out the middle man and try selling the lamps directly door to door. They put together a small sales team, with a financing arrangement that took deposits and instalment payments to pay off the lamps. The plan was successful and opened up the door to a broader scheme. Housewives would ask what else they sold, and the couple turned their minds to the challenge. They tried manchester, but couldn’t compete with the department stores on price. Next, they added clothing to their line, and here they found success. Roche Fashions was born, and soon it was taking up enough of their time and bringing in enough money that the two quit their salaried jobs to concentrate on the business full-time. They had neither venture capital nor experience, and neither had finished high school, but they had determination and energy in spades.

In 1968, Roche saw an advertisement from an American Direct Selling company, looking for Australian entrepreneurs to set up an Australasia franchise. She responded to the advertisement, and a few months later an American voice called up and asked her to come to a meeting in Sydney. The voice was “the most charming voice I had ever heard” and the concept he presented was thrilling: “there was nothing like that in Australia”, Roche remembers. The company was Nutrimetics, and the Roches bought the entire Australian franchise. Starting with $6,000 in stock which they financed themselves, they began with five consultants in the first week and expanded quickly from there. By the end of their first trading year, they had a staggering five thousand consultants, and had expanded into Queensland and Victoria as well as New South Wales.

By 1973, their Nutrimetics franchise had expanded into New Zealand, the UK and Asia, and the Roche family had expanded to include four young children. Roche managed the household with the help of her mother, while visiting every Australian capital at least once a month and flying overseas as the business spread. She paid for domestic help so that she could concentrate on the business as much as possible, much to the objections of her aunts.

In 1991, the Roches bought out the international arm of Nutrimetics, before selling the entire company to Sara Lee in 1997 for a reported $150 million. They were both in their early sixties, an ideal time to take their considerable fortune to retire. Instead, they turned their hands to property development, and within ten years, they’d quadrupled that amount.

The Roche Group, which is now jointly directed by their sons Dominic and Damian, has built high end developments within blue chip locations, including the Gold Coast canal development Calypso Bay, Lake Macquarie and the Hunter Valley. Hunter Valley Gardens has become one of the region’s major tourist attractions, opening in 2003 after the Roches spent five years and $80 million on its development. Their portfolio also includes cattle breeding stations and three Irish pubs.

In 1995, Roche was awarded an Order of Australia in recognition of her services to business and commerce, women’s affairs and the community. She received an honorary doctorate from Macquarie University in 1996 and was Chancellor of Bond University from 1999 to 2003. Bond later awarded her a second doctorate in 2004. She has served on numerous boards and foundations, worked for the Asia Pacific Economic Forum under two prime ministers, and a portrait of her hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

Now retired, with children and grandchildren gathered close around her, Roche hasn’t lost sight of what’s important. “It’s a progressive step that a recognisable role model can be a businesswoman”, she says, and a role model more exemplary than Roche is hard to imagine.

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This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: The Australian, Business Insider, Australian Financial Review, Smart Company and Chief Executive Women.

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