Rich pickings: Zuru’s Nick Mowbray on winning the disruptive brand war

Zuru’s multi-millionaire co-owner Nick Mowbray and partner Jaimee Lupton tell how and why they’re taking on leading consumer brands and knocking them off the top shelf. Exclusive interview by Jane Phare.

Nick Mowbray is running down an alleyway in Auckland’s Britomart, late for a meeting which is in the opposite direction.

“He’s going the wrong way,” Jaimee Lupton says helplessly. She’s wearing heels too high for pursuit and is in the middle of a Herald photoshoot.

So I rush after Mowbray, calling him back and pointing him in the right direction. He’s all laughter and good cheer, no sign of embarrassment at being rescued.

“Welcome to my world,” Lupton quips.

Mowbray is the first to admit he doesn’t waste time on things he’s no good at – cooking, mowing vast lawns, navigation. It’s inefficient, he says.

“I just stick to what I’m really good at (he calls it ROT, return on time) and I don’t want any other distraction. Is that healthy?” He grins. “Probably not.”

Better to use his time and talents to build a global empire. That’s Mowbray’s mission: to create a 21st Century version of global giant Procter & Gamble in record time. He’s already well on the way with Zuru Edge, which, when he’s finished, will be the mother ship to dozens of “disruptive” consumer brands taking supermarkets by storm.

He’s using knowledge, contacts and credibility soaked up from Zuru Toys, now the sixth largest toy company in the world and getting close to $US1 billion in turnover. He’s hiring the “youngest, smartest, most awesome talent” to help him get there.

“I think we can go 10 times faster.”

Already there are nappies, haircare, pet food, collagen products, disinfectant and sanitisers, and health supplements, with scores more in the pipeline.

This month Zuru Edge launched feminine hygiene line ME using the slogan “Don’t hide me” for its models. Watch out for more baby products, batteries, condoms, laundry products and a tea brand from Sri Lanka.

Lupton has four more beauty ranges in the planning on the back of her MONDAY haircare success.

Like everything about Mowbray, he’s moving fast. “I think it took Xero nine years to get to $100 million in revenue. When we started [Zuru] Edge two and half years ago it took us one year in that business.”

The modus operandi is fairly simple. He and Lupton go window shopping at supermarkets, not to buy food but to zero in on their next disruptive brand. It’s their “hobby”.

They examine every product on every shelf in every aisle. Who’s had the market cornered for years? Who’s over-priced? Who’s packaging is dull or too loud or too bright?

“We tried to whisper when everything else was screaming. Through whispering ours [MONDAY] stands out more than everything”.

They’ve just opened an office in Sydney and are setting one up in LA. Rascal + Friends nappies now sell in 26 markets.

“We’ll very quickly be the third biggest brand [of nappies] in the world I would say,” Mowbray says matter-of-factly.

It’s all about creating new-age brands; knocking long-standing traditional products off the top shelf. It’s war, this disruptive brand business.

Mowbray: “Millennials, Gen Z, Centennials are consuming brands and advertising in totally different ways and are demanding things from brands like sustainability, authenticity, purpose, transparency.”

This comes out at machine-gun speed and the last four words become a mantra he repeats throughout the interview.

He quotes ancient Chinese general, strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu, credited as the author of The Art of War.

“The victorious strategist has won the fight before he enters the arena, the losing strategist fights first and then looks for victory later. This is what I hammer into the team all the time. Prepare to win.”

It almost makes you feel sorry for the competing brands cowering on the shelves under Mowbray’s penetrating gaze. He talks about the “massive adrenaline rush” from going up against a product that’s had the high ground for years.

He admits he’s hooked on it, watching those daily graphs eat up market share, seeing the hard work pay off.

Mowbray is an unstoppable bundle of energy, his 35-year-old brain jammed in top gear. He talks non-stop at a speed 20 per cent faster than average in a constant stream of words and data. Sometimes, Lupton says, she has to ask him to just stop talking.

Mowbray’s Hong Kong office staff print out examples of his emails and stick them on the wall with the comment, “This is how Nick asks us to do stuff.” He admits they are written so fast there isn’t a single recognisable word.

Interviewing him is like watching an excitable golden labrador puppy steal the show at a baby shower. We’re supposed to be talking about Lupton’s global expansion plans for MONDAY haircare after its runaway success in New Zealand and Australia, but Mowbray’s busy brain can’t stay on topic.

Lupton, 28, masterminded a marketing plan using model and former primary school friend Georgia Fowler as the face of the brand, social media and a series of “muses” and influencers to launch MONDAY. Then Covid-19 and lockdown level 4 happened. Kiwis couldn’t shop anywhere other than supermarkets.

Lupton pushed go on the launch and sold 22,000 bottles of the $9 hair product in the first week of lockdown. Within two weeks MONDAY had 25 per cent market share.

Six months worth of stock sold out in six weeks. The same thing happened in Australia, selling through Coles. In three months MONDAY overtook Pantene, the market leader for decades.

The product is on track to hit $25 million in retail sales in New Zealand and Australia in its first year, with new lines about to launch.

Mowbray credits Lupton’s marketing genius for creating a MONDAY launch that “just exploded” even by Zuru’s standards.

It’s a talent he spotted a Mowbray mile off after hiring Lupton seven years ago to help with Zuru Toys’ PR. She’d done a Bachelor of Communications at AUT, majoring in journalism and PR.

They kept in touch when Lupton took up a job in Sydney and once they were a couple he convinced Lupton her talents were wasted promoting other people’s products.

There’s little doubt they’re a tight team. He calls her “Jay”, she calls him “Babe.”

They’re up early, checking sales data and straight to the Albany office from their Coatesville home. Lupton likes to leave at 5pm or 6pm. Mowbray stays until 8pm or 9pm before heading home.

Lupton: “Then we’ll have dinner, talk about the whole entire day. He’ll sit there and go ‘have-you-done-this-what-about-this-remember-this-have you done this’ and then we’ll stop. Then we might watch something and then we’ll go to bed. And he goes ‘hey I was just thinking,’ just as I’m going to sleep, ‘have you done blah,blah, and what about this?’. And then I can’t sleep.”

We both look at Mowbray. “Personally,” he says, pausing for effect, “I agree with that… BUT! I have almost created a monster as well because she now is so addicted to it.”

Lupton acknowledges Mowbray’s constant drive to launch new products was hard to understand before the success of MONDAY, but now she too is hooked.

“It’s so contagious once you get a taste.”

Next up in the MONDAY story is its own factory in China, painted baby pink just like the shampoo bottles. It’ll be half automated with pale pink, self-drive automated vehicles zooming around the massive floor moving finished product. The wheels will have the MONDAY logo on the hubcaps.

There is a point to this froufrou. No-one except the Chinese workers, those that aren’t automated, will see those hubcaps first-hand. But Lupton is the master of storytelling.

That baby pink factory with its pink production line and pink hubcaps will become part of the MONDAY story on social media. No-one wants to see an industrial grey factory pumping out shampoo.

If it weren’t for Covid-19, the couple would be in Los Angeles now, preparing to launch MONDAY on American soil. Lupton won’t be using muses this time. Not even a Kardashian?

And Mowbray’s off, talking about Khloe Kardashian becoming the face of the brand for collagen product Dose @ Co, one of Zuru Edge’s babies.

Did I see her on Ellen [DeGeneres] this week?”I can’t believe the mainstream media didn’t pick it up. Ellen, Khloe, Dose, like, I mean it’s mega.”

He searches for the video on his laptop and later sends it by email, one of 22 he sends in response to a question: more data, thoughts, Zuru Edge product launch images.
It’s a Lupton “welcome-to-my-world” moment.

Fair Go had a bit of a go at the whole collagen story, throwing doubt on its efficacy. Tall poppy stuff, say Mowbray and Lupton. The same happened when MONDAY launched, flak on social media from enraged hairdressers claiming it was ruining their clients’ hair.

The reason Dose & Co has “exploded”, says Mowbray, is that it works. He put steroid cream on his eczema for years with little success. Apparently, a dose of Dose cleared it up.

Mowbray speeds up, firing out data, showing graphs on the laptop while Lupton sips on green tea and waits for a gap.

“We’re now 30 per cent of the whole nutritional category share in supermarkets. I mean it is craaazy.”He does this a lot, stretching his vowels to make a point.

“If you go onto the Dose & Co Instagram, the reviews file, it’s not coming from us. You can see thoouwsands of people posting their before and afters. Thoouwsands.

“I can tell you today, for example, we just ran a two-hour sale in New Zealand on Dose & Co and the team just sent to me. I was talking to Jay on the way here, and this is why it works, right, because literally today…in the last two hours it’s done $30,000 in New Zealand just on e-com [online sales]. Because it works.”He says this very, very fast.

And even faster: “We’ve become the number one nutritional brand in Coles Australia. Now we’ve launched in Target, all these stores across America, we’ve got Khloe on board, it’s on Ellen, it’s been in 60 major press articles in the US in the last two weeks and then New Zealand comes out with Fair Go to tear it down. It’s like, really? “

But he’s soon off-topic again, laptop open, fingers flying over the keys to access a dizzying array of Zuru graphs and images. Look at this, market share, new disruptive brands, the plans of new factories in China and Vietnam, the Fair Go insult forgotten.

In six years Zuru Toys now employs 8500 people, has 26 offices around the world including a nine-storey HQ in Shenzhen, and 22 hectares of factory space in China, much the same size as the park-like grounds that surround the Mowbray Coatesville home.

There’s a mini R&D factory testing Zuru Tech technology to build low-cost, eco-friendly houses, a project run by brother Mat Mowbray. A second production line factory is being built at one-fifth scale to make sure it all works.

Then the whole operation will be transferred to Vietnam in what will be the largest factory in the world that will take the best part of a day to walk around.

“It’s insane. Pretty crazy.”

Mowbray admits he “hates” not being able to travel but acknowledges Zoom meetings are “super-efficient”.

Lockdown meant 17-hour days, no lie-ins or weekends, and deals done online. It was during that period that Lupton and Mowbray lined up MONDAY haircare deals with 8000 retail outlets in the US, Canada and the UK from the office of their Coatesville home at all hours of the night.

Now Mowbray’s a fan of the distance meeting.

“This morning I’ve already done a call with White Aid [Medical Supplies] which has 2500 drug stores in the US. Yesterday I was on a call to [multinational beauty retailer] Sephora.”

Mowbray was publicly vocal after Covid-19 lockdown ended, criticising profitable Kiwi companies for keeping the wage subsidy.

That sparked mutterings in response: what had Mowbray ever done for New Zealand, making tonnes of plastic toys in China, hiring offshore, and selling mostly overseas and online? So I ask him for a response.

“Which is a really great question,” he says. And he’s off. In the past two years, Zuru has hired 120 people in New Zealand and is hiring five or six more “Every.Single.Week”.

There are plans to build a New Zealand office to house 500 staff across consumer goods over the next three years. And three of the brands are now manufactured in New Zealand.

Sustainability not only makes good planet sense, it makes good business sense. To that end the ME feminine hygiene products have no plastic packaging, a bio-degradable wrap and are made from organic cotton, he says. And Rascal + Friends has introduced an eco-nappy.

It’s his ambition to help build a global company in New Zealand and an ecosystem of Kiwi talent. Mowbray sees himself as a “confidence capitalist”, helping to mentor young people to “leverage their talents on a global scale”.

Always looking for efficiency, the couple are now taking on office space in Britomart close to their city apartment. They’ll bounce between the city and “the farm”, the 12-bedroom Coatesville “Dotcom” mansion the Mowbray siblings bought four years ago for $32.5m.

Does Lupton have to rein Mowbray back in? They both nod.

“All the time,” Mowbray adds, “otherwise I’d start a new business every week.”

Lupton says there’s a competitive gene running through the Mowbray siblings, Nick, Mat and Anna.

“We’ll be talking and Nick will fact-check me on Google. It’s like a Mowbray thing to do.”

Mowbray agrees, saying successful people have to be competitive. So what’s it like playing Monopoly or cards?

“He’d cheat and win,” Lupton shoots out.

Not cheat, he argues back, more like find an angle. “But I’d win.”

It’s that determination that saw Mowbray claw his way back to good health two years ago after he was hit by Crohn’s disease, which attacked his bowel, liver, bile ducts, joints and hair follicles. He dropped to 67kg, went bald and was so sick he couldn’t walk.

That didn’t stop him; he held business meetings in his bedroom.

During three surgeries he had his large bowel removed, had a temporary colostomy and a new bowel made from stretching his small intestine. It took him 18 months to fully recover but, not to be held back, he left for Europe on business just eight weeks after his last operation.

Mowbray shares all this with the same cheerful openness, searching among the graphs and data on his laptop for a photo showing him bald. He’s upfront with most personal questions – giving an answer and then pleading not to publish with a plaintive “I don’t want to look like a w****r.”

Mowbray took up golf 18 months ago, joining an exclusive club he doesn’t want me to name. Another of those “w****r” details. Now he’s addicted to the game and, much like the war of the brands, is driven to win.

Lupton says she doesn’t hear the end of it if he loses until Mowbray gets the chance to face off again with his opponent.

“We have a rule in our house, ‘you can play golf but I just don’t want to hear about it’.”

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