Virtually every Kiwi in the country has heard of My Food Bag and recognises its public face, Nadia Lim. In the past five years, the company has produced 45 million meals; it’s New Zealand’s third-largest food retailer, and has changed the way many of us shop for and prepare our meals. My Food Bag’s ‘nude food’ concept has changed the way many of us eat, making healthy, low-salt, preservative-free meals filled with fresh ingredients easy peasy.

WORDS ANDY TAYLOR / PHOTOS GARTH BADGER

What many of us don’t know is that its creator, Cecilia Robinson, had been there, done that. She’s also co-founder of the groundbreaking and successful Au Pair Link, another company that altered the way a traditional service was delivered while changing lives along the way. Having achieved all this in just 10 short years, it’s easy to see why Cecilia has been dubbed ‘New Zealand’s greatest entrepreneur’ by Theresa Gattung, ex Telecom chief executive and frequent flyer on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in International Business list.

Cecilia’s journey began a long, long way from New Zealand. “Sweden is a nice place to grow up,” she says of her birthplace. “It’s quite different from New Zealand, though, and the winters can be very demoralising. It’s still a very nice place to be, but New Zealand is just such a fantastic place, with beautiful beaches and a safe environment in which to bring up children.”

Which brings us to Papamoa, where Cecilia’s husband James’s parents live. “They fell in love with Papamoa, and we love the beach. And nearby, at Bayfair, is the best Farmers in the country – have you seen their toy department?! [When we visit] we go to the beach and playgrounds, then hit the cafés – it’s really just a magical place.

“Sometimes in life, you just don’t know where the road is going to lead you. Driving down last year to see my parents-in-law, we went through Katikati. It brought back so many memories, as  it was where we made one of our first  Au Pair Link placements. Ten years later, I’m driving back through with my own family.”

Cecilia’s first forays into the business world began at an early age. “Back in Sweden, my friends and I used to make things like friendship bracelets, then sell them outside the local supermarket, and I went door-to-door for the World Wildlife Fund. But there was never one particular event that started my interest in being an entrepreneur.

“Every week, my father used to say, ‘When I win Lotto, when I win Lotto, when I win Lotto…’ and it used to drive me crazy – it was part of our everyday vocabulary. It made me think that I didn’t want to be at the mercy of winning Lotto to change my life. So that was actually a good driver. Thanks, Dad!”

Once Cecilia had graduated from selling bracelets at the supermarket, it was the world of law rather than business that caught her eye. Her parents were both academics – “I think they have four or five degrees between them,” she says – so higher education was practically a given. But for someone who clearly likes to see things through to the end, the outcome was surprising.

“I studied in Sweden, New Zealand and the United States, but I still don’t have
a degree,” says Cecilia. “James jokes that
I’m a law-school dropout in three countries, which is true. But on our first date, we talked about financial freedom and making your own fortune, about business and thinking about things differently.”

James’s name pops up frequently in conversation with Cecilia. They’re not only life partners, but also business partners, and joint CEOs of My Food Bag. While Cecilia has been described as a “serial entrepreneur with sass”, James brings his own skill set to the table, running the marketing, IT and finance teams of both My Food Bag and Au Pair Link. Mixing a personal relationship with business has been the undoing of many couples, but not  so the Robinsons, who seem to positively thrive on it.

“Who would you rather be in business with than the person you know the best, and trust and love the most?” says Cecilia. “And when the leadership culture is collaborative like ours, it makes a huge difference to the business. So although we do separate the various parts of the business, we also spend a lot of time providing feedback to each other. We work very collaboratively and respect each other professionally. In fact, I think the collaboration within the My Food Bag team has been one of the key reasons
we’ve been so successful.”

The couple’s first meeting and the intertwined lives that ensued sound like pure serendipity. “I’d been working as an au pair in the United States while I studied, but decided I wanted to work in New Zealand instead, because my brother was working there,” says Cecilia. “He had a dinner party to welcome me to New Zealand – and that’s where I met James, on my first night in the country.” The rest, as they say, is history.

An exciting new chapter in their story began in 2006, with the launch of their first major project together: Au Pair Link. “We were living in a little two-bedroom apartment in Auckland’s CBD, working and studying full-time, but also thinking about how much I’d got out of being an au pair – it had been such an amazing experience,” recalls Cecilia. “I gained so much from it that I thought other people would want to do it too. James was really supportive, so we started a website, and suddenly we were getting phone calls at seven in the morning from all over the country. We thought, ‘Well, there must be something here, because people really need us.’”

There certainly was, and people certainly did. Au Pair Link was New Zealand’s first dedicated au pair agency that made sure au pairs were safe and fully supported by a national network – a far cry from the previous system of classified ads and word of mouth. The company has grown to employ 40 full-time staff and has placed thousands of au pairs throughout Australasia.

“It was very challenging, because we were starting with something that was very much a cottage industry, and we realised that to succeed, we had to take a new approach,” says Cecilia. “Instead of saying an au pair was someone who just appeared in your home to look after your child, we saw them as licensed childcare providers who add to your child’s education. And that was a game-changer. Within five years, we were one of the largest companies of our kind in the world.”

Having revolutionised the au pair scene and reset the horizons of several thousand young Kiwis who suddenly had an international influence in their homes, you’d think that it was time for the credits to roll and the Robinsons and Au Pair Link to settle into a stately rhythm that would see them through the rest of their careers. But no – luckily for New Zealand, Cecilia got bored with pottering around the house.

“We were travelling in Europe and saw a model there similar to what would become My Food Bag,” she says. “I have a husband who loves to eat but not to cook, and it struck me that there would be a lot of people in similar situations. Back in New Zealand, I was on maternity leave from Au Pair Link. I’d done all the ironing and everything I could do around the house, and I got bored really fast, so I said to James that I wanted to explore the possibilities around this new idea. I did all the research, then started on the business plan. And within four hours of finishing it, I was in labour. So I kind of say that My Food Bag and our son, Tom, are twins.”

As if bringing two new creations into the world in one day wasn’t enough, just four weeks later, the Robinsons presented Cecilia’s business plan to Theresa Gattung and the rest of the Au Pair Link board. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with Theresa particularly impressed and keen to get the project moving forward as soon as possible.

“Theresa came up to me straight after I’d presented it and said, ‘This is what I’ve been waiting for – so what’s next?’” says Celcilia. “We had a month-old baby, 1000 au pairs throughout New Zealand and so many existing business obligations to deal with already, but it just seemed so right, so we reached out to Nadia [Lim] and her husband, Carlos [Bagrie]. They came in thinking we were pitching something around Au Pair Link or baby food.

“Nadia and Carlos were on their way to the airport for a three-week trip to Europe and jumped on their flight straight afterwards, so we heard nothing for 24 hours. And then they said they were in! We assembled the team in November and by March [2013] we were in the market. That was a pretty intense summer.”

Understatements occur frequently in conversation with Cecilia. But if she makes it sound easy, it wasn’t. Bringing the My Food Bag vision to life required the team to master a raft of technical challenges and inject the kind of human touch that would get people out of their routines and see them up for some chang e in the kitchen. And, of course, the food had to be fantastic too.

“It’s complicated,” says Cecilia. “There are so many variations involved. But we have a really great team and what people don’t realise is that each recipe gets tested multiple times. It’s an amazing process and our suppliers come in and show us new cuts of meat or new products that we can utilise. We want to be cutting edge but still provide meals people will love and that become new family favourites.”

Like other new business models – think Uber, for example – My Food Bag has been described as ‘disruptive’, but unlike many others, it’s actually profitable. “My Food Bag is incredibly disruptive, because five years in, we were the third-largest food retailer in New Zealand,” says Cecilia. “Actually, that was probably true after two or three years – it happened so fast.

“For us, it’s been incredibly powerful to be part of giving people new options, which is what we did with Au Pair Link: instead of just having someone in your home or on a trip helping with your children, which was the old model, we changed that and added the education factor. So with My Food Bag, it was again taking an old model and making
it brand new, and when people ask how My Food Bag happened so fast and became so successful so quickly, they forget the many years that we spent reaching that point.”

What’s also not immediately apparent about My Food Bag, but becomes clear if you spend any time with Cecilia, is that beyond disruptive technologies, recipe development and delivery schedules, the company is incredibly people-focused. Staff are encouraged to bring their children to work, and virtually scolded for not leaving early if they have to pick them up.

“For us, it’s always been about people and then letting the numbers and business fall out of that,” says Cecilia. “And when I say ‘people’, I mean our team, suppliers and customers – we start with them. Leading in that way has given us great clarity about how we make decisions. We bring our kids into work and make sure people take the time to do what they need to do around their kids, so we’re people first and on the business side second. We’re mums and dads, we’re husbands, we’re wives, and we’re friends before we become business people. And that builds a lot of love and trust both inside and outside the company.”

Perhaps the most remarkable part of all in the Robinsons’ story is that by the time you read this, the couple will have stepped back from the empire they’ve created and handed over the leadership to new CEO, Kevin Bowler. During our interview, Kevin calls Cecilia. She asks UNO to stop recording, then excitedly congratulates him on his new role and invites him to dinner with James, Theresa, Nadia and Carlos, and to a photo shoot to announce the appointment to the press. “We’re a ‘check your suit at the door’ kind of company,” she tells him. “Just wear something relaxed.”

It may surprise some that Cecilia and James are willing to step down from something they’re so passionate about and that’s going so well. “One of the biggest drivers for entrepreneurs is financial freedom,” says Cecilia. “It’s like being in the Olympics. You prepare and train, and then you run the race and win and achieve everything you wanted –
but what then? You keep running?! And that’s what approaching this change was like for us.

“Once the company had reached the point it’s at now, we had financial freedom and did a lot of things that we’d dreamt of, but the key thing we wanted was the freedom of more time. So James and I said that we’d give it 12 months after we partly sold to Waterman Capital [in late 2016], get stability for our team and ensure that we were delivering, and then our time was done.

“Finding the right person to come in has been something we’ve taken very seriously, and we’ll be continuing in governance roles because we have a real passion for our people, our foodies and our products,” continues Cecilia. “But basically, we are retiring. There are people who achieve financial freedom and want to keep working, to keep running, but that’s not us – we want to use that freedom to spend time with our kids.”

Retiring. It’s hard to believe that the energy and dynamism of the half-Swedish family Robinson will fit the retired life, but they have redefined the way we eat, so they may well  redefine retirement, too.

robinsonduo.co.nz