Cecilia Robinson has leadership in the bag

Conviction drives Food Bag's Cecilia Robinson to success, writes Tao Lin.

Cecilia Robinson won the 2013 EY Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in the same year she launched My Food Bag.
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Cecilia Robinson won the 2013 EY Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in the same year she launched My Food Bag.

Google the top qualities of a great leader and there will be no shortage of definitive lists on what makes successful business people tick.

For My Food Bag chief executive Cecilia Robinson, self-reflection on her own leadership style brought out words like "dynamic", "fast-paced", "fun" and "passionate".

"In essence, I'm pretty full on," she said.

The My Food Bag team has a team of visionary and committed leaders, including Nadia Lim (left), Theresa Gattung and ...
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The My Food Bag team has a team of visionary and committed leaders, including Nadia Lim (left), Theresa Gattung and Cecilia Robinson.

"Full on" is also an accurate description of her entrepreneurial journey so far, which started eight years ago when she set up Au Pair Link with her husband James. They sold the business at the end of last year, after growing it into the country's largest au pair agency.

By that time, My Food Bag had already been established. The couple first saw the idea of home-delivered meals in a bag when they visited Robinson's homeland, Sweden, in 2010.

Robinson started researching the My Food Bag concept when she went on maternity leave and presented her plan to her board at Au Pair Link when her son Thomas was four weeks old.

Just two years later, My Food Bag is turning over $65 million a year and is available in cities across New Zealand and Australia, with plans to expand farther in the future.

Robinson exhibits many of the qualities listed by the likes of Forbes and Time as top traits that define great leadership: confidence, commitment, ability to inspire, a positive attitude.

But there was one thing above all else that Robinson believed was both universal and crucial.

"Belief and conviction is essential for being in a leadership position. My day to day life is spent making decisions. Often I need to make hard decisions without having the necessary information to validate my position," she said.

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"Therefore my sense of belief and the trust in my gut feel - and that of my team - becomes pivotal."

Her team, including her co-founders - husband James, 2011 MasterChef winner Nadia Lim and businesswoman Theresa Gattung, was one thing she was never short of praise on.

"Without people you've got nothing. It's the heartbeat of our business. It's pivotal to have the best team and to surround yourself with people who believe in you and who you believe in," she said.

Her approach to working with her team was straightforward: " It's always been about empowering my team and finding a way of saying yes, rather than a reason to say no". 

Together, they tackled the challenges of going from zero to $65 million in just two years, such as ensuring they had suppliers who could grow with the company and changing business processes to become more professional.

As the team grew and overcame challenges, so too did Robinson in her personal life - in the past 16 months she suffered two late pregnancy losses.

"We all go through tough times. But I do have to walk in here, and I have to be a leader and I have to be the person who sets the direction and the vision.

"That doesn't mean I'm not human – and when we've gone through hard times we've been transparent about this to our team and they have rallied behind us.

"Our little family of 3 often feels like a family of 50."

Raising a young child while running her own business gave Robinson new insight into the difficulties of juggling parenthood with career.

She believed there needs to be more women in leadership roles and importantly, they need to be empowered to achieve their full potential. 

"It's important for women to keep in mind that we can't do everything, nor can we be everything to everyone. It's really important that we understand what is truly important and we prioritise these things," she said.

A big part of that for her was being present for Thomas, which meant often not leaving home until 9am and returning in the afternoons to spend time with him.

Her team was used to her spending six or seven hours in the office each day, which Robinson said was more than enough time to achieve what she needed to.

Outside of these hours, she happily worked on anything extra that needed to be done.

"It's not about watching the clock - it's about what you achieve. I don't have to be in here 12 hours a day to show my team I care."

Both Au Pair Link and My Food Bag have featured in previous years of the Deloitte Fast 50, which ranks the country's fastest growing companies.

Au Pair Link was 12th in 2012 with 417.79 per cent growth and then 44th in 2013, with 175.58 per cent growth.

My Food Bag won the rising star award in 2014, which complements the Fast 50 and is open to early-stage companies less than three years old that are not eligible for the major growth awards. 

Deloitte private partner Andrew Boivin said being a successful business leader is never as simple as ticking off a list of the best leadership qualities.

The very best leaders have a certain je ne sais quoi, something inherent that makes people want to follow them, he said.

To start though, there must be vision. Visionary ideas have seen companies like Facebook, Uber and Airbnb change the way people live and do things and My Food Bag was no different.

"There are plenty of supermarkets out there and people come up with ideas with different ways to eat. But Cecilia and her team had a vision in terms of healthy eating and making a life that's a lot easier for the average family," Boivin said.

Alongside this was strong belief in self, in the idea and in the people who make up the team.

"People will question you, therefore leaders need to have that absolute belief that what they're doing is the right thing," Boivin said.

Entries for the Deloitte Fast 50 2015 are open until July 31 with final results being revealed on November 4. Visit fast50.co.nz for more information on how to enter and key dates.

 - Stuff

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