As we were arranging this interview with Dame Wendy Pye, she responded to one of our emails at midnight. Another reply arrived at 6 in the morning. When you’re the founder and managing director of one of the world’s most successful education exporters, sticking to ordinary working hours in New Zealand’s time zone is not an option.
Dame Wendy launched Sunshine Books in 1985, with the aim of going global. The Kiwi market, she says, is simply too small. Since then, her publishing company has produced more than 1800 titles across every communications platform, and helped improve the literacy of millions of children in more than 20 countries.
“The export market has changed a great deal in the last three decades,” observes the New Zealand Business Hall of Fame laureate.
The high New Zealand dollar continues to be a major challenge. “In previous years the dollar was very low. There are far more competitors now. New mobile and other electronic devices are contributing to a constantly changing market, and personal visits cost money.”
Her solution to all these potential pitfalls can be summed up in a single word: work. For local business owners eyeing opportunities overseas, it would pay to follow the example of this altruistic entrepreneur.
“Work the markets every day and explore new options. We are active in meeting people and discovering “where to next”. Research your products but also listen to what the customer and the market are telling you. Sometimes we get this wrong, and sometimes we get it right. But if we get it right more times than wrong, we are happy and stay above the curve.”
She adds that technology has transformed her business. (When Dame Wendy started in publishing more than 50 years ago, “there weren’t even fax machines”.)
“Digital makes communication easy. In our case it is the way to ensure all children learn as we pioneer the use of extensive digital product. It will open up new markets, but many of them are still at stage one with the Internet and there is a very long way to go.”
Around 70% of New Zealand’s exports are primary products and just 25% are manufactured goods. “Agriculture will continue to be this country’s main export,” she says. “The real issue is getting the R&D to develop new products for the international market, and then servicing the market.”
For Dame Wendy, exporting knowledge and ideas has enabled her to build a multi-million dollar, multinational company. But the rewards extend far beyond the purely financial. “I know that if I am run over by a bus tomorrow, the legacy of literacy will make a difference for many many years, particularly in Africa and Asian countries.”
Dame Wendy is a finalist in the Business Entrepreneur category of the Women of Influence Awards. The winners are announced on 8 October.