A WA powerhouse – the remarkable story of Dame Wendy Pye

Wendy has launched her autobiography, Teaching the World to Read: My multi-million dollar story in Perth

From tomboy helping out her father on their Yarloop farm to multi-millionaire publisher, Dame Wendy Pye is celebrating her 80th birthday with the launch of her autobiography.

One of New Zealand’s wealthiest women, Dame Wendy owns a stable of 65 racehorses and apartments in London and New York as well as her home in New Zealand, having built an international publishing empire. She has launched her autobiography Teaching the World to Read: My multi-million dollar story.

She is returning to WA, the state of her birth. She was born in Cookernup, not far from Yarloop in the South West, the youngest of four daughters.

“I wanted to launch it in Western Australia because I’m getting on now,” Dame Wendy says. 

“I’ve had a lot of success. I’ve had a lot of failures as well. I’ve helped a lot of people, mentored people, but I thought, if I put it down, I really want people to understand that you don’t have to be born on the right side of the road, you don’t have to go to a posh private school, you don’t have to have lots of money.

“You can actually make it in the world if you’re determined and you can have lots of failures as well. Anyone who hasn’t had a failure has never really succeeded, so I wanted to put in the book all those failures as well.”

Her story is a remarkable one. From high school in Harvey and then Bunbury, Dame Wendy headed for Perth and got a job copywriting for radio station 6KY, then off to David Jones department store writing fashion copy.

At the Hong Kong races

Out of the blue, she decided to head for Sydney. She had one suitcase and £17 ($34) to her name, got on the train at Yarloop Station and crossed the Nullarbor changing trains at Adelaide because of the different railway gauge in those days.

She marched into David Jones large copy department in Sydney and talked her way into a job, then on to a North Shore advertising agency.

“I always wanted to be a journalist which was my dream, initially because my grandfather was a journalist, the editor of the Bunbury Times and a feature writer in Perth.

“I never knew him. Unfortunately, he died when I was very young but my mother inherited a love of literature. It was a time, as we all know from history now, that was an emerging time of writers, people like Henry Lawson and poets and some of the great writers of Australia were emerging. The British still published their work, of course, because they never ever thought that Australia could publish anything.” 

Even now Dame Wendy says they never quite know what do with her when she goes to London once or twice a year.

“The funny part is that you’ll ring up to some snooty restaurant to have dinner.

“When I say this is Dame Wendy here. ‘Oh dear, we don’t have a table’. This IS Dame Wendy here. ‘Yes, yes, yes and they immediately give me a table. There are some advantages to being a Dame.”

She met her husband-to-be Don on a trip to New Zealand and that country became her home.

And it was there in New Zealand’s corporate world that Dame Wendy’s reputation grew, spending 20 years building up magazines and restructuring the Evening Newspaper which was dying.

“I had the job of reconstructing the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, but it was too late. I worked with Ita Buttrose in Australia. I flew over, looked at ideas. I brought the Australians over to help me. We pioneered a lot.” 

That was until corporate raider Ron Brierley stepped in and bought the company and Wendy found herself being marched out of the office and made redundant.

“I thought, well, you can either get a marketing job or you can go and work for Uncle Rupert if you want to. And then I thought, well, no, I might as well do my own thing, hang up my shingle and away we go.”

From those beginnings, Dame Wendy built a $100 million company in America.

Her Sunshine Books brand of learn-to-read texts has sold 300 million copies around the world.

Now the WA-born entrepreneur has written her own inspirational memoir, from growing up in the South West to becoming one of the biggest names in educational publishing, stories of dinners with world leaders, global trade deals, IT think-tanks and even the winner’s circle at the Wellington Cup.

New Zealand’s 37th prime minister Helen Clark presenting Dame Wendy with the Wellington Cup

Dame Wendy wants the book to be a template for young entrepreneurs and anyone who aspires to create a business and life on their terms.

“Hopefully they don’t make the same mistakes that I made, because I had to pioneer educational material from Australia, New Zealand, into America. No one was selling it. I went across America selling it out the back of a car like a soap opera, trying to do all the things, learning about America, learning about American history.”

Dame Wendy will give $20 from the sale of each book to a charity. The books are only available online from the Melbourne office which sells Sunshine Books rights throughout Australia. Books are available from www.sunshine books.com.au/dame-wendy-pye.

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Journalist and public relations specialist Allen Newton has worked across major media organisations in Western Australia and PR locally and internationally. He and wife Helen Ganska operate Newton Ganska Communications. Allen started his journalism career at the long defunct Sunday Independent and went on to become the founding editor for news website PerthNow, Managing Editor of The Sunday Times and PerthNow and then Editor-In-Chief of news website WAtoday. As well as news, he has been an editor of food and wine, real estate, TV and travel sections. He’s done everything from co-hosting a local ABC television pop show, to editing a pop music section called Breakout with Big Al, and publishing his own media and marketing magazine.