The Retail Hotlist: Cecilia Robinson is 'Most influential in retail'

  • News
  • August 13, 2018
  • Sarah Dunn
The Retail Hotlist: Cecilia Robinson is 'Most influential in retail'
Nominees: Cecilia Robinson, My Food Bag; Chris Wilkinson, First Retail; Neil Cowie, Mitre 10; Lizzi Whaley, Spaceworks; Ludo Campbell-Reid, Auckland Council; Jon Macdonald, Trade Me; James and Janene Draper, Farro Fresh; Rod Duke, Briscoe Group; Xavier Simonet, Kathmandu; Michelle Pratt, Child Labour Free; Iain Lees-Galloway, Workplace Relations and Safety Minister; Chris Gudgeon, Kiwi Property; Toni Brandso and Liv Patience, Material Creative; Gary Rohloff, Laybuy.

People’s choice

James and Janene Draper, co-founders of Farro Fresh

Judges’ choice
Cecilia Robinson, My Food Bag founder

Cecilia Robinson finalised the business plan for My Food Bag the night before giving birth to son Thomas, and built the meal-kit delivery service into New Zealand’s third-largest food retailer while co-parenting two children under five with her husband, co-CEO James Robinson. My Food Bag is a tastemaker across the grocery sector and has influenced the growth of dozens of niche supplier food companies.

Within five years of its 2012 launch date, My Food Bag has the heft to seriously challenge incumbents in the grocery industry. Co-founder Cecilia Robinson says the business has delivered on its growth targets faster than expected, but it’s still “only scratching the surface” of its potential.

“We had a really clear vision for the business in terms of what we wanted to achieve.”

The company was the first of its kind to effectively base itself off an ecommerce platform, and Robinson says the grocery category is still moving towards greater digital fluency. She believes My Food Bag has spurred change in that regard.

“For example, with travel, 50 percent of travel is purely online, but when we launched My Food Bag, the digital online spend in grocery was sub-0.5 percent.”

“We’ve created the entire digital grocery market in New Zealand.”

Robinson predicts that more and more grocery retailers will move online over the next 10 years, saying other retailers are starting to realise what the future looks like.

“For customers, 10 years down the track, this category is going to be just like travel.”

Robinson says a lot of Kiwi companies have become “a bit fat and clunky” over time, and aren’t moving towards digital fast enough. It’s a “massive big leap” from where many companies are at – “having a website and selling a few things online” – to a fully digital retail experience like My Food Bag offers.

The challenge of the next 10 years will be bridging this gap, she says, and making complex digital systems user-friendly.

My Food Bag works with around 300 mostly-local suppliers, many of which have scaled up alongside the company. Robinson has praised the wider retail category for its increasing focus on locally-sourced product: “We’re getting much much better at that.”

Robinson, a mother of two, is well-known for talking openly about her family and the importance of a work-life balance. She explains there’s still a long-standing expectation that for women to succeed at the highest level, they must compromise their family life, but she believes it is possible to balance both.

“If you’re a corporate mum and a working mum, [there’s a perception that] you have to sacrifice your personal life in order to achieve that.”

Work is now expected to come home with staff as they take laptops back from the office and answer messages on their smartphones around the clock, so, Robinson says, home should be expected to follow staff into work as well.

“Make space for kids in your everyday life,” she says.

She recommends parents take the time to do things like going to piano recitals, or leave early to take their kids to rugby. The My Food Bag head office has flexible policies in place that allow staff to follow Robinson’s lead here, and meetings are never held before 9am as the Robinsons always drop their eldest off to school in the morning.

“Don’t live to work: you can have a job you love, but also lead a life you love,” Robinson says.

My Food Bag has a 50/50 gender equitable executive leadership team, but this is rare in New Zealand’s marketplace. Robinson feels that in order for New Zealand’s “shocking” underrepresentation of women in leadership roles to be addressed, a clear message must be sent that women do not need to sacrifice their family life to succeed professionally.

She says the dearth of women at C-level is due to a restricted pipeline of new talent at lower levels. Companies’ leadership teams must work harder to identify talent early on and put more effort into bringing women back into the workforce after parental leave, Robinson says.

Robinson and her husband James Robinson are currently transitioning into a governance role and stepping down as co-CEOs. The appointment of their replacement, former Tourism New Zealand and Frucor Suntory CEO Kevin Bowler, was announced in mid-May.

Moving into governance means she and her husband can keep adding the best bits from their leadership into the business while continuing to prioritise their private lives, Robinson says.

Judges’ comments from Scott Fisher: Cecilia Robinson of My Food Bag has helped define a category that has changed the way New Zealanders shop and eat. The category has become competitive and has helped launch many niche supplier companies. A special mention to Briscoe Group’s Rod Duke, whose pragmatic down-to-earth approach to retailing has provided direction to many other retailers.

This story originally appeared in NZ Retail magazine issue 756 June/July 2018

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