Maintaining your purpose through times of crisis with Lisa King from Eat My Lunch
Back when times were a little more socially distant and uncertain, Inspire Group’s Auckland Regional Manager, Aidan Stoate, had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa King. She is the founder of ‘eat my lunch’, one of New Zealand's most successful for-profit social businesses on a mission to ensure no child goes to school hungry. Lisa believes that business should be used as a force for good and can drive significant social change. Using an innovative model, eat my lunch has shown you can do well and do good at the same time.
Listen to the interview here:
Or read the interview summary below:
Lisa was one of three finalists for New Zealander of the Year in 2019, acknowledging not just her desire to address the issue of kids going to school hungry but also using her passion, creativity, and commercial expertise to make it a reality. To date, eat my lunch has provided over 1.5 million lunches in four years. It's an innovative and successful model that is sustainably transforming the lives of Kiwi kids.
The big question
Much like many other businesses, Lisa and the eat my lunch team have had their own significant changes with everything that’s happening in the world right now, as much of their core revenue came from providing lunches to corporate businesses. With the majority of New Zealanders working from home and offices closing, their business was impacted substantially in just a matter of days. They had to think very quickly about how they could adapt and leverage their strengths in the rapidly changing environment.
"How were they going to get food to THOUSANDS OF children daily during a pandemic?"
The business itself operates with two parts; one is providing lunches to paying customers, the other is ensuring kids in need do not go hungry through providing free lunches through a school distribution network. The biggest challenge with this part of the business model was the issue of schools closing through the lockdown period. How were they going to get food to thousands of children daily during a pandemic? It was a significant problem, and a complex one to solve quickly.
Having the commercial and the social elements so interlinked and so interdependent created the challenge of trying to adjust to a very different commercial landscape, but also, in being able to retain their primary social purpose. Lisa and the team did not want to lose sight of the core principles on which the business was driven. For the team at eat my lunch, it was always about finding whatever way possible to stick to their mission. Lisa believes this is what prompted them to look at things differently from both the commercial side, as well as the social side.
The commercial challenge
Thousands of children depend on eat my lunch for possibly their only daily meal, so they simply couldn’t just close for lockdown. While that would have been much easier for them to do, they had to challenge themselves to think of innovative and different solutions so they could keep going. They assessed their core capabilities and realised that on the commercial side they are highly skilled in logistics and supply chain having spent several years developing advanced logistics and courier systems. Impressively, they also have their own courier fleet.
"Lisa and the team changed their offering from corporate lunches to fresh groceries delivered."
They are also experienced at sourcing fresh food, so moving into the lockdown period, the thought process was ‘what are people going to need?’. And the simple answer, ‘groceries delivered to their door’. Capitalising on people stocking up and trying to get online delivery slots, Lisa and the team changed their offering from corporate lunches to fresh groceries delivered to people's homes. Playing to their core strengths, they were also able to benefit from being a small business. Decisions are made more immediately and plans are adaptable.
Eat my lunch has Foodstuffs as one of their key investors, so they were able to acquire support sourcing produce, ingredients and face masks. They also leveraged this relationship to develop some of the important operational processes like implementing health and safety standards. Being a small, flexible, adaptable, agile business, and having the support of a big company like Foodstuffs, eat my lunch could adapt their commercial operation very quickly.
The social challenge
On the social side, the main challenge was that kids weren't at school. How were Lisa and her team going to get their lunches to them? Again, utilising their logistics expertise, they decided to explore delivering to the children’s homes as an alternative. As a cost model, it's expensive to do this individually; increasing to 2,500 home deliveries from the normal 77 school deliveries. Logistically they could make it work, but in terms of cost, there was a funding issue. They collaborated with strategic partners who supported eat my lunch with funding to cover a portion of the costs, and they also went to the public to raise charitable funds - an additional $90,000 - which would further enable this initiative. Through this approach, Lisa and her team were able to deliver 10,500 lunches weekly.
"They altered their model To delivering ‘lunch packs’ so kids were able to have all the ingredients to make their OWN lunch."
They altered their model slightly to delivering ‘lunch packs’ so kids were able to have all the ingredients to make their lunches themselves. Now that kids are back at school, what that period actually showed is that delivering ‘lunch packs’ is a far better model. From the feedback Lisa received, the impact of these kids getting to make their own food was clear; they were learning to make food! They were experimenting and getting creative and learning independence and self-sufficiency. The educational element regarding food couldn't be achieved using their traditional model, so this change in approach offered an improved outcome for the kids. Moving forward, the question was, ‘How do we continue to do what's best for the kids and what's going to have the most positive impact?’.
Being realistic, Lisa acknowledges that there is a commercial reality. While they got through a tough period, they needed to ensure they were always adapting and changing to whatever was coming, as so much may still change over the next few months. For eat my lunch, and so many other companies during this time, imposed change is driving real innovation and efficiency.
Health and safety
Aside from the obvious challenges of having to essentially change an entire business model within a week, Lisa and her team had to make other significant changes. Ensuring the health and safety of the team was paramount, both the physical health and safety, as well as ensuring that they felt safe and secure coming to work. Implementing these procedures and processes and making sure that everyone was committed was a big challenge.
"Lisa was also going into work, showing her team that she would never ask them to do something the executive team weren't willing to do."
They made everyone sign a commitment form around what they were doing both outside and inside work. Sometimes it’s easy to leave work and not think that what you do in your personal life has a huge impact, but staying within their bubbles and making sure that they were constantly thinking about the safety of their colleagues was paramount. Having a strong leader who is able to communicate effectively is also essential. Their new General Manager, who happened to join just a few months before lockdown came into place, was great in terms of leading by example. Lisa was also regularly present onsite, showing her team that she would never ask them to do something the executive team weren't willing to do themselves. Most importantly, there was constant reinforcement of the purpose of eat my lunch. Effectively communicating the reason they decided to keep open during lockdown, the reason they changed their offering so quickly and why they had to change procedures was very important if they wanted to keep feeding kids and if they wanted to keep all their staff employed throughout that period.
At Inspire Group, leadership is a big part of what we focus on in terms of how we engage with individuals, organisations and the teams within them. It's almost an unprecedented situation that we've faced and although that term has become overused, for leaders it’s been a particularly challenging time, constantly thinking about how they need to adapt, and what kind of behaviours and attitudes they need to demonstrate to support their people through an environment that is very unfamiliar.
"As a leader it’s important to be clear about what you’re going to do and then executing it really fast."
As a leader it’s important to be clear about what you’re going to do and then executing on that decision rapidly. Lisa explains that at eat my lunch, one of the key values is action. Leaders need to have the ability to make those decisions and act on them quickly. COVID-19 was an emergency situation, so it was important for her to stay calm, make decisions immediately and stick to a clear course. There's no ego involved. Commitment from the top has to be not just talked about, but shown and felt by all of the team; something that the government in New Zealand have given an example of in a global context during this time.
When you're distanced from your people and a crisis occurs, and when people are faced with a lot of uncertainty and adversity, often you can find that people disconnect from that social purpose quite quickly, because they're overwhelmed by fear or uncertainty. At eat my lunch, they started with the purpose which is at their core and drives everything they do, so this was never an issue for them. The issue for eat my lunch was more about the change as the team got bigger. They had to hire more people during this period, hiring new employees that had been displaced by heavily impacted industries, and renting additional courier vehicles to help meet their increased delivery numbers.
Having an edge
Lisa has a high level of expertise within the marketing and FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) space. Something that many businesses have found tough during this time has been establishing how to best market their products and services. Many organisations have a sense of apprehension around how they engage with their customers; how they market their products and services effectively, what the messaging needs to look and feel like to ensure they are not seen to be capitalising on a negative situation, whilst continuing to generate revenue to sustain themselves. That is why it is vital for them to convey an authentic purpose at this time.
Connecting to a strong social purpose is so important; consumers want to see a level of genuine care, and that this isn't just about making money and profiting off a crisis or situation. Lisa also believes partnerships are so important. Eat my lunch got through the last 6–8 weeks with the help of major partners and suppliers and people coming together to collaborate. It shows willingness to do something for the greater good, not just for your bottom line. The partnership nature of approaching opportunities and challenges as a community is critical too.
What has been learned?
In the past couple of months, many lessons were learned. Lisa believes she now has a much clearer idea of her organisation's strengths and weaknesses, as they get exposed very quickly during times of crisis. The eat my lunch team also learned more about who they truly are as a business. They are not a company that's about making lunches, they are a logistics supply chain business and that's what they’re really good at. Just before Easter a huge weakness was exposed in their technology and online platform, as their website crashed when they had a massive number of orders. Being able to identify opportunities for improvement such as these has been a positive in an otherwise highly challenging situation.
It is vital for businesses to think differently from now on, and not just go back to their ‘old way’ of doing things. It is important to set your business up with a strong and different positioning and use this fresh perspective as a great opportunity to reset the business and optimise your strategy.
Thank you to Lisa for taking the time to speak with Inspire Group. We wish the team at eat my lunch well and thanks for keeping communities fed during lockdown.
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About the author
An experienced senior leader responsible for leading Inspire Group's continued growth and development across the Auckland region.