New Zealand CEO Survey 2017

Interview with Cecilia and James Robinson

Co-CEOs My Food Bag

"Transparency really is the start of trust so that when we are talking to customers we are being absolutely transparent about what we do and how we work. Through being transparent with them, they form a strong trusting relationship with us."

Cecilia and James Robinson are co-CEOs of My Food Bag, as well as the co-founders of Au Pair Link. Cecilia’s key focus centres on the strategic and operational management of the business, while James runs the Marketing, IT and Finance teams. Since starting, My food Bag has won a number of awards, including the TVNZ Marketing awards, while Cecilia has also won the NEXT Business woman of the year 2012.

For this year’s CEO Survey, we interviewed both Cecilia and James to hear their unique take on managing a fast-growing business and how they are harnessing trends like social media to shape their customer experience.

PwC: So if we think about the way that businesses work, what’s the biggest change you’ve seen in recent years?

Cecilia: If you look at the definition of success for a business, it has changed in the last few years. You only have to look at those businesses that were publically listed in the 70s and how many of them are still around to see that change – less than 20 per cent are still left. A lot of the fast-moving companies are now taking up the oxygen in the business world, it’s not those old school firms that are leading the way.

James: You’ve also got social media handing a lot of power back to customers. For a long time that mantra of ‘the customer always comes first’ had become a bit tokenistic, but now there’s real power behind your customers. Social media really is a double-edged sword in that regard.

Cecilia: I don’t even think it’s power back to customers, it’s power to customers, which I don’t think we’ve ever really seen before.

James: One of the first rules of good governance was one we learnt from Dr Lee Mathias – she’s all about the first rule of good governance being about transparency. I think the rise of social media and the power it’s given to customers means that the rule of transparency is not just an internal rule, it’s an external one for your customer base.

PwC: Does that present a threat in its own right? Because these are conversations online that you haven’t started but that you can either choose to participate in or not. Do you see that as a threat?

Cecilia: It’s certainly not a threat. For us, social media is about listening to our customers and then taking those learnings to act and approach our customers accordingly.

It’s not that different to 10 years ago. It’s just that now when customers have a conversation about your business they aren’t doing it over a coffee with a friend, they are doing it through social media. They absolutely have the right to do that, and what’s fantastic about it is that it gives us the opportunity to respond. 10 years ago when you were having the coffee with a friend, we weren’t able to take part in that conversation. Now, we have an opportunity to be in the room, listen to our customers and take part in the conversation.

James: Another aspect we’ve seen is that staff are looking for more out of their jobs. They aren’t as focused on money or influence, they are more motivated by a feeling that they are part of something worthwhile, that they are making a difference, that they are heard and respected. Those things are all really important.

PwC: Those are all qualities that we associate with ‘Gen Y’ – is it just a cohort of employees who are making those claims or is it a more fundamental change in the way we work?

James: So I think human beings have always wanted a sense of belonging. It’s more that the modern business environment has evolved and is less focused on telling people what to do and more focused on helping them grow. I think business is now better meeting what people want from their employer. So now you don’t have to be the highest wage payer in your industry if you’re providing your team with a sense of belonging and purpose that you can’t find anywhere else.

PwC: So was it your mission as an organisation right from the beginning to have a broader purpose and social responsibility?

Cecilia: As a group of directors, we’ve always said that we want to change the way New Zealand eats. We want to create healthier communities across New Zealand by changing the way people eat. That’s been one of our core beliefs and our focus since day one.

PwC: How do you balance that mission against the need to run a business day-to-day and keep growing?

Cecilia: I think the way we measure success is changing and that’s changing the way we do things. Companies are now measured on other aspects to determine their success. Such as social, environmental as well as governance – not just on their bottom line. At My Food Bag it’s about integrating all of those aspects while also continuing to build a highly sustainable business.

James: Humans also have a really innate sense of right and wrong, so when you’re in a position where you are making decisions, you have to be guided by that innate sense of ethical conduct. We saw that play out when we chose to move to entirely free-range meat. It costs us a bit more money but it really resonates with our customers. We’re also lucky that, because we are now I think the largest buyer of free-range pork in New Zealand, that our decision to go free-range at scale is changing the way we produce pork and it’s making it cheaper for those free-range suppliers.

PwC: So do you have to be actively engaging with customers and building trust, or does it just develop with time?

Cecilia: Well I think part of it is transparency. Transparency really is the start of trust so that when we are talking to customers we are being absolutely transparent about what we do and how we work. Through being transparent with them, they form a strong trusting relationship with us.

PwC: Continuing that theme of trust – you must have a lot of data in your business that’s at risk from a cyber attack – how are you managing that risk?

James: The cyber security world is moving so fast that you have to be constantly improving because the next threat is just around the corner. We have a lot of different security layers and different mechanisms that we use to keep our services secure. Ultimately though, it’s about taking a good look at yourself in the mirror, looking at what you do, getting an external review and continuing to improve. We aren’t perfect, and we never will be. All we can do is keep improving and having a methodology in place to ensure cyber is taken seriously. That’s something that’s especially important in a fast-growing company.

I think cybersecurity is a bit like the wicketkeeper in a game of cricket. No one notices when they are doing their role well – but they certainly notice if they make a mistake. It’s that same risk that you face when protecting your customer data.

PwC: So thinking about automation – are there any areas where you have automated roles or you have seen the potential to automate them in the future?

Cecilia: A big part of automation’s potential for us is around scale. Our Customer Love team is around 30 people now, and that team has so far grown in tandem with our client base. But now we are looking at ways to make sure those people are able to do more. That means automating systems and put better processes in place so that the team doesn’t have to just keep growing exponentially.

James: For My Food Bag in particular, we are a young company. We’ve only been around three years so we are a baby in the corporate world. Because we are so young, there’s still a lot of room for us to improve our processes. We’re also moving so quickly that we can outgrow our own processes in a year, which doesn’t happen in your typical business.

Where we are automating is in areas like marketing. We are still getting those processes right, but we’re really getting a lot better at those processes – whether that’s A/B testing our emails or setting up rules around the frequency of our communications.

PwC: So it feels like your organisation is always going to be quite people-heavy?

James: No, not at all. The nature of our business and our industry is that it isn’t very people-heavy. Compared to another start-up with a similar turnover, we have a much smaller workforce.

That’s because we work with partners for a lot of the areas that aren’t core competencies of ours. So our warehousing and logistics, for example, are managed by other companies because that isn’t a core competency of ours. As we grow we assess the key areas that we consider our core competency, so over time these evolve and change. An example of this recently was bringing some core functions in-house – such as our website. However the approach we’ve taken has still allowed us to run quite a lean business.

PwC: Do you feel like you are actively changing the way New Zealanders eat, or are you riding a broader wave of change in how people create food?

Cecilia: It’s most certainly not a wave. We believe we are at the forefront and leading the change.  You only have to look at our customer base to see that we are changing the way people eat, we are getting people cooking with their children and with their family, and they are finding new products and coming back to us to ask about them because they’ve become part of their lives. So that is the proof that we are creating change.

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