"The surgeon said it would feel like being hit by a double-decker bus," says Nick Mowbray.

The 34-year-old rich-lister reveals he has been battling Crohn's disease - a painful gastrointestinal tract condition that, in extreme cases, can be fatal.

Mowbray - with siblings Anna and Mat - has spent most of the past 15 years in China and Hong Kong, growing their Zuru toy business into a company with $600 million revenue, 5500 employees and 22 hectares of factory.

"The only reason I really came back is because I have Crohn's," he says.

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Mowbray has based himself in New Zealand for the past year as he's undergone a series of surgeries to have most of his large intestine removed.

Surgery wasn't his first choice. Steve Jobs-like, he tried a series of alternative therapies "but nothing worked. I was too far gone," he said.

"There were days when it was hard to get out of bed. I lost a lot of weight. I went into my first surgery I was about 68kg. My normal weight is around 85kg. The drugs I was on made me lose my hair. I was pretty sick."

On an inflammation scale where most people measure between 0 and 5, Mowbray was a 150.

He was told there was a high risk of cancer if he didn't agree to an operation.

"In the end, my large bowel looked like craters. It was horrific. The surgeon said the tissue was falling to pieces as it came out.

"I know Crohn's is genetic, but wonder if something triggered it," Mowbray says. "So many years eating bad food, living on a plane for six or seven months of the year, having no money."

He and his brother and sister moved to a small city in China when Mowbray was 18. They scrounged a $1 a day to live on as they lived in a tiny eighth-floor apartment with no elevator and subsisted on rice and vegetables.

LATEST: US court hands $43m waterfight win to NZ's Zuru Toys

The promise of a painful recovery proved accurate, and Mowbray still has a round of restorative surgery to go, scheduled for April - just six weeks before he heads to Monaco for the finals of EY's World Entrepreneur of the Year 2019.

But the surgery so far has been successful. And visiting the Herald this week, the entrepreneur looked sprightly and well down the road to a full recovery.

Resting and recuperating is a relative term on Planet Mowbray.

The youngest sibling has turned his mind to environmental issues.

And while he supports the Government's moves to eliminate single-use plastic shopping bags, he says it has to think a lot bigger.

"You have to have economically sustainable solutions that work at the macro level, incentivising manufacturers and disincentivise consumers."

He wants governments around the world, including New Zealand, to follow the lead of France, whose lawmakers recently voted for a tax on single-use plastic. The UK has already followed suit, with a 10 per cent tax on single-use plastic that does not include at least 30 per cent recycled content, which will kick in from 2022.

L-R: Nick, Anna and Mat Mowbray in 2015. Photo / Supplied.
L-R: Nick, Anna and Mat Mowbray in 2015. Photo / Supplied.

"If you don't implement these macro-level policies, then companies that don't take responsibility have a huge competitive advantage and that's unfair," he says.

"You have to level the playing field - and that's about creating sustainable economics."

Money from both the French and UK taxes will be earmarked for recycling new recycling centres and related R&D. Again, NZ should follow suit, Mowbray says.

He would like to see a 15 per cent tax on virgin, single-use plastic ("virgin" being the industry term for plastic containing no recycled content).

His second big idea: "Where single-use plastic is substitutable, like straws, ban it. Paper straws are fine, right?"

His third: tax landfill, and exempt recycling companies from any taxes.

Mowbray says he's talked to politicians, but has yet to do any formal lobbying.

Zuru now has 54 acres of manufacturing capacity in China and Hong Kong, around half custom-built and under its own control. Photo / Supplied.
Zuru now has 54 acres of manufacturing capacity in China and Hong Kong, around half custom-built and under its own control. Photo / Supplied.

Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage has responsibility for waste issues. The Herald approached her for comment on Mowbray's proposals. A spokeswoman for her office responded, "We're not doing media this week out of respect for Christchurch victims."

Some will say Mowbray's eco-warrior stance is a bit rich.

After he won the EY's New Zealand Entrepreneur of the Year award last year - putting him on track for the finals in Monaco -sustainability consultant Campbell Sturrock said, "I don't think celebrating producing 400,000 pieces of plastic a day is contributing to building a better world," - a reference to Zuru's first and enduring hit: Bunch-O-Balloons.

The Herald had some sympathy for Sturrock's comments in December, having spent an afternoon digging bits of plastic out of a lawn after a Bunch-O-Balloons waterfight.

Founded by Cambridge siblings Anna, Mat and Nick Mowbray, Zuru employs around 5500 staff - mostly in China and Hong Kong, but with satellite offices in India, Italy and NZ. Photo / Supplied.
Founded by Cambridge siblings Anna, Mat and Nick Mowbray, Zuru employs around 5500 staff - mostly in China and Hong Kong, but with satellite offices in India, Italy and NZ. Photo / Supplied.

But Mowbray says it's a bum rap.

He says his company's balloons are made from natural latex rubber, which biodegrades naturally over six to 12 months, depending on the conditions.

The balloon's stems are made from recycled polypropylene plastic, which can in turn be recycled. All of the packaging is also recyclable. Sturrock called that "green washing".

Mowbray counters that his company has inked a partnership with Terracyle this month that will make recycling more practical and likely for Bunch-O-Balloon customers in NZ, Australia, the US and Canada - where people can print a free-postage label from Terracyle's website then send all leftover elements of the product to the nearest Terracyle recycling station. The US-based multinational says it has donated US $45m in profits to environmental initiatives since 2001.

Mowbray says his company has an ongoing transformation with its other Zuru toy lines.

And he says his major new project, Zuru Edge, will built from the ground up around sustainability and recycling.

A foray into the nappy market with Rascals and Friends last year was a runaway hit for Foodstuffs in NZ, he says. He won't divulge figures, but the line was successful enough to attract the attention of Coles in Australia and Walmart in the US. This month, Tesco in the UK has started to stock the brand, too.

Nick Mowbray says unlike some rivals, Zuru's manufacturing has a high degree of automation - especially at its custom-built plants. Photo / Supplied.
Nick Mowbray says unlike some rivals, Zuru's manufacturing has a high degree of automation - especially at its custom-built plants. Photo / Supplied.

Mowbray now wants Zuru Edge to push into a total of 10 "stodgy FMCG" (fast-moving consumer goods) categories.

An all-natural ingredients, or recycled and recyclable packaging pet food line is on the way.

So is bottled water, a haircare line and "trendy" natural supplements, among other products, a portion of whose profits will go to good causes.

All are aimed at millennials who are willing to pay extra for environmentally sustainable products and who "don't trust the big brands. They want a brand with a purpose," Mowbray says.

Brother Mat is in Vietnam, overseeing Zuru Tech and the building of what will become the - by the Mowbrays' billing - the world's third largest factory once all its stages are complete, geared to making pre-fab housing, using software developed by Zuru staff in Italy and India.

"It's our long-term goal to build millions of houses," Nick says.

He shows the Herald a demo of the software, and pics and videos from the Boeing-size factory, though he's not willing to make them public. Another still shows a T-shirted Mat Mowbray during one of a number of meetings with Vietnam's deputy prime minister.

Nick Mowbray still has one more restorative operation to go to complete a procedure that saw most of large intestine removed to battle Crohn's disease, but now close to being back to full fitness.
Nick Mowbray still has one more restorative operation to go to complete a procedure that saw most of large intestine removed to battle Crohn's disease, but now close to being back to full fitness.

"You will be able to use our platform and software to design your house, go through it in real time or virtual reality, even drag and drop furniture and move it in VR to get a fully immersive experience. The graphics are of perfect realism so you can experience your house in its entirety before it is manufactured."

Hundreds of patent claims had been lodged globally and the homes will be built completely by robots.

In between, Anna looks after finance and operations.

Zuru had rapid growth up to the $500m revenue mark, "but last year we had our first ever flat year," Nick Mowbray says.

The company took a hit from giant US chain Toys R Us going bust, leaving a $38m hole in revenue as the retailer became unable to pay its bills - though Mowbray says Zuru could ultimately be less than $10m out of pocket. (Mowbray says the retailers' collapse didn't really offer any clues about the ongoing struggle of bricks-and-mortar vs online sales - but adds large Zuru customers like Walmart and Target buy in bulk then divide the stock themselves between their online and offline operations, making the point moot for his company).

There were also millions in costs involved with ongoing legal action against Telebrands, a US telemarketing company accused of ripping off Bunch-O-Balloons.

And the siblings also put a major focus on building their own, fully-automated factories for products in their stable that have become evergreen brands.

They currently own about 50 per cent of their own manufacturing and contract the rest.

Mowbray shows the Herald videos (which he prefers to keep under wraps) of a series of sci-fi looking production lines, where robots control every step of the process making products like its Metal Machines die-cast cars.

"We make about 35 million Dart Blasters a year from plastic granules to finished blaster it's all automated. Our competitor Hasbro does it by hand," Mowbray says.

He says the push to control its own manufacturing has paid off, and that, along with new hit products, should see Zuru jump from $500m to $600m revenue this year.

He won't comment on profitability, but says the siblings have made enough that they've always been able to fund expansion themselves.

Downsizing from Dotcom mansion

Famously, the Mowbrays bought the 32.5ha Coatesville property nicknamed "Dotcom mansion" after its former tenant in 2016 for $32.5m.

But Mowbray arrived at the Herald from an apartment he's just bought in Britomart. He says it's more convenient to live part of the time in an easily manageable space in the CBD, where he shares his pad with his girlfriend and a newly acquired puppy (which he complains kept them up all night, but he's also quick to share some super-cute pics).

He also has a place at Mt Maunganui. And the Coatesville mansion is still in the frame.

"We've done lots of work on it. It's nice for when Mat and Anna come home, and for all our family at Christmas - we can have 60 people there and it just absorbs every one."

And while NZ-bound, he's assembled a small local office and "recruited some amazing talent."

And Zuru whirs on.

Boppi The Booty Shakin' Llama has just been named Australian Toy of the Year, Parents' Choice Toy of the Year in the US and, as we speak, just bagged an appearance on the highest rating American breakfast TV show.

How do the siblings keep coming up with these ideas?

"Obviously, llamas are on-trend," Mowbray says, as the Herald looks on in bafflement.

"And then we saw a whole lot of twerking Valentine's Day gifts in China. We just put the two together."