Anna Mowbray helped to build one of NZ’s most successful companies but she tells Sharon Stephenson why she walked away, how she learned the value of a dollar and why the time was right to disrupt the job market.
Billionaires, say people who know about these things, are rarely happy.
Not only do they have to worry about losing their fortunes, there’s the constant anxiety of increasing their net worth and/or being overtaken by people with more zeros in their bank accounts.
If Anna Mowbray isn’t a billionaire, she probably isn’t far off – the National Business Review estimates that Anna and her brothers Nick and Mat, co-founders of ZURU, one of the world’s largest toy companies, are worth around $3 billion. But Anna defies every unhappy mega-rich stereotype there is.
The 40-year-old is kind, relentlessly positive and radiates so much energy she could be plugged into the national grid. The sort of person who, if we were doing this interview in person, would probably have whipped up a batch of biscuits and sent me home with the rest in a Tupperware container.
Instead, we’re chatting by Whatsapp, ostensibly about Anna’s new venture, the online recruitment app ZEIL which launched in August and has been branded Tinder for Jobs (more on that later).
First, though, I want to know why anyone would walk away from the top table of one of the most successful NZ companies in recent history, one they helped build from scratch.
“I get asked that a lot,” says Anna, pushing a lock of her trademark platinum blonde hair behind one ear.
“But when I turned 35, I realised that I didn’t want ZURU to be the biggest mountain I ever climbed. I wanted to do something else before I was 40, something that allowed me to get out of my comfort zone and push into uncomfortable spaces. I was itching to start again, to do the all-nighters and feel the stress of a start-up.”
She’d been here before, of course, leaving Aotearoa straight out of Massey University to join her brothers in their madcap quest to take on global toy giants Mattel, Fisher-Price and Hasbro.
“We were three young, naive Kiwis with no understanding of business or the corporate world, dropped into the middle of China without being able to speak the language. I’d only ever been to Australia once when I was 13 and had never even travelled to the South Island and here I am, in a city of 15 million people. It was a wild, exhilarating and crazy ride but we had a vision of building a million dollar company, then a billion dollar company, then the biggest toy company in the world.”
As with most start-ups, there were lean times.
“We lived in the factory for ages, with my bedroom just off the factory floor,” recalls Anna who today resides in a $24 million home in Auckland’s Westmere with her partner, former All Black Ali Williams.
“There was no air-conditioning so it was boiling in summer. We survived on a few dollars a day for years, working 16-18 hour days.”
But the Mowbray siblings are black belts in never giving up. “We were so driven and focused on today, then tomorrow, then the next challenge. Yes it was tough but that experience taught me that you can’t let challenges paralyse you. You have to use them to push yourself forward because that gives you the confidence to keep going.”
We all know how pushing themselves forward worked out: 17 years after starting ZURU, it employs more than 8,500 people in 26 offices globally and its reach covers not just toys but also fast moving consumer goods and, most recently, property.
“It taught me that when you change the life of a woman, you change a generation.”Anna Mowbray
While Anna loved the cut and thrust of finding new markets and setting up production facilities, her real passion was people.
“I realised my purpose was to empower others to unlock their talent and capability, to help them achieve things they didn’t think they could.”
That came not only via the global teams she put together and the business culture she was responsible for setting, but also via ZURU’s philanthropic projects which work with women in remote parts of China.
“We set up a project where we’d go into rural areas to work with women who hadn’t been able to get an education, many of them single mothers. We’d put them through various vocational and educational programmes, including medical, sewing and cooking training, to enable them to find work.”
It wasn’t just about giving money, she says, it was also about giving time and opportunities. “ZURU staff would stay with these families, often sleeping on dirt floors next to pigs and farmyard animals that they’d bring inside for the night. Spending time with those families in their homes was one of the most grounding and humbling things I’ve ever done. We put 800 women a year though the programme, women who’ve gone on to open their own shops and find work in factories, opportunities they wouldn’t have had before. It taught me that when you change the life of a woman, you change a generation.”
Her passion for people is what led Anna to ZEIL. While researching HR tech to find out where the disruption was, the mother of two boys (11 and 6) and a 10-year-old daughter was surprised there wasn’t any.
“The online job recruitment space hasn’t been disrupted since the internet came along! It was an opportunity for me to look at how we could bring innovation to job seekers in a way that’s data-driven, fun and delivers jobs the way the digital-native workforce wants them to be delivered, as well as allowing businesses to showcase their brand and culture and use data to understand what candidates are looking for.”
Enter the Tinder-style app, which allows job seekers to swipe right on jobs recommend by the ZEIL algorithm.
Anna, who admits she pulled “quite a few” all-nighters getting the business up and running, has been overwhelmed with the response.
“It’s been incredible. ZEIL was the biggest business app in NZ for the first 10 days after we launched and third among all apps, ahead of TikTok, Instagram and Threads, and well above Seek and Trade Me who were #46 and #47 respectively. More than 15, 000 people have downloaded the app and we now have 700 companies on board, from a start of 115, and 1,000 jobs on the platform.”
But there’s more to come she says proudly, pointing to the whiteboards dotted around her Freemans Bay office with headings such as ‘One Month’, ‘Three Months’ and ‘Dream Bigger’.
“After we’ve established ZEIL in Aotearoa, we’ll be taking our Kiwi ingenuity and culture to the world.”
Flick through any society pages and you’ll invariably see Anna dressed in a designer gown with impeccable hair and make-up, surrounded by NZ business and sporting royalty.
It’s a stark contrast to her childhood on a Waikato lifestyle block where, thanks to her three brothers, Anna was “a real tomboy who ran with the boys, played with the boys and fought with the boys”.
“I remember when I was five screaming and refusing to wear a dress.”
Her parents – father an engineer, mother a teacher – had relocated the family from Tokoroa, where Anna was born, specifically so that their four children could attend St Peter’s School in Cambridge.
“We didn’t have a lot but Mum and Dad focused on our health, well-being and education. They also had this incredible entrepreneur spirit we all inherited that empowered us to be whatever we wanted.”
Anna credits her parents with teaching her the value of money and hard-work.
“I knew I always wanted to be wealthy. I’ve worked since I was 12 babysitting, feeding out the neighbour’s horses and picking lilies. Even when I was at university I had a part-time job because I didn’t want to take out a student loan.”
After constantly nagging her parents for a horse they finally bought her one for $400. Anna later sold it for $800.
“I was always buying things, making them better and selling them for more.”
The initial plan was to become a vet but after a summer working with a local vet who told her there was no money or career progression in the profession, she switched her allegiance to a food technology degree at Massey’s Palmerston North campus.
“University was always really a box to be ticked, because I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. Nick and Mat had gone to China the year before and they called me saying, get on a plane we desperately need you. But I wanted to finish my degree. I’m actually the only one of us four kids who finished their degrees.”
Anna might still be living in China if it wasn’t for Covid.
“We always brought the kids back to NZ during Chinese New Year but in 2020 we got stuck here when the borders closed. We had to have our house in China packed up and our new puppy put into quarantine and sent over. We basically had to reset our whole lives but we love being back home.”
Anna admits her biggest challenge these days is finding balance between work and family.
“Like all working mothers I have to redefine what balance looks like for me. My three children live with us and Ali shares custody of his two daughters so we always have a full house. But our focus is on raising our kids to be passionate, driven and humble.”
It’s a schedule that doesn’t leave a lot of personal time but Anna admits she doesn’t need much.
“My EA is always trying to book me massages and facials which I never go to because I’m not the type who can lie there doing nothing, my head doesn’t stop whirring! I’m an active relaxer and Ali and I do Pilates and boxing. To be honest, I get energised by being with the kids, I don’t need time to myself.”
By now, we’ve overshot our allotted interview time by 20 minutes and although I’ve yet to ask Anna about her future plans or philanthropic work, she warns me she’s getting “the look” from her EA.
I manage to sneak in one last question: the hardest job Anna’s ever had.
“Raising children, without a doubt! It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the one I stress the most about, but it’s also the most rewarding.”
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