BELINDA MacDougall, nee Krum, was 14 years and nine months old and a student at Warners Bay High School in NSW when she got her first job at Charlestown McDonald's.
"I earnt $4.25 an hour and saved enough to get a navy blue Mazda 323, which was huge at the time," MacDougall, now 42, says with a chuckle.
Toohey's News: Listen to Barry Toohey's new podcast in your Podcast app
Today she and her husband, former Newcastle Knights and NRL player Adam "Mad Dog" MacDougall, are serving up a very different kind of nutrition via their lucrative company The Healthy Happy Co.
Their meal replacement products The Man Shake and The Lady Shake, "healthy breakfast" Kids Shake, and a growing list of associated weight loss snacks are stocked in Coles and Terry White chemists, with a deal with Woolworths in the wings.
Sitting on the balcony of her Merewether home in Newcastle for a Facetime call amid social distancing as her husband watches their daughters Harlow, 5, and Mila, 3, inside, MacDougall reveals how her first job was instrumental to her.
"That is what shapes me, the systems of McDonald's - whenever I do anything in business, I think if something is not going right or someone is not following a system or there is not a system, then let's create a system," she says, adding she went on to manage the McDonald's store.
MacDougall was 19 when she met her future husband in 1997. Unlike one of her girlfriends at the time, she wasn't overly impressed by blokes in the footy scene.
"When I first met Adam I said, 'What do you do?' He said he went to uni and didn't mention he was in football. A few weeks later he was on the front page," she laughs.
MacDougall completed her own degree - in Communications, at the University of Newcastle - and worked as a morning presenter on NewFM. Married in 2005 and later living in Sydney when Adam MacDougall was playing for Souths, she got a job selling fitness equipment in shopping centres.
"I saw there was a massive amount of people who needed help [with weight loss] but didn't know what to do," she says.
When the MacDougalls' friend and South Sydney sponsor Dennis Delic died of a heart attack in January, 2013,they thought about creating a product to help men get in shape.
"Dennis' wife Angela said that he had been been on all these health kicks and was buying meal replacement products and he was hungrier than ever," she says.
"A lot of the health products out there had more sugar than a can of Coke in them, I couldn't fathom how the government would allow it to be on a health food aisle."
By then retired and working for the NRL, Adam MacDougall crossed paths with then prime minister Tony Abbott who, upon hearing of his interest in creating a healthier product for overweight blokes, told him, "Well, there are doers or whingers, choose which one you'll be."
On The Man Shake website it is Adam MacDougall who recounts the loss of his friend and his desire to create a product to help men. However his management agency, Sydney-based The Fordham Company, which represents the MacDougalls and has a small interest in the company, describes his wife as its "driving force".
So, who started it? Who does what?
"It's a team effort, I came up with the initial concept and he's more into the [product] formulation and works with the team on ingredients, I'm the business side," Belinda MacDougall says.
Adam MacDougall acknowledges that he is the face of the company but credits his wife as "the brains".
"I always say I am only tall because I stand on Belinda's shoulders," he says.
"When Tony Abbott said what he did I was angry and Belinda said 'He has a point, why don't we try and make a difference'. I would never had done it without her pushing me, because I am too much of a perfectionist. Entrepreneurs are people who solve problems in a simple and effective way and don't wait for it to be perfect."
Belinda MacDougall is happy to claim responsibility for one thing.
"Adam hated the name and I said, 'That's it'," she reveals. "I just liked the simplicity. It was a shake and it was for men. Now everyone likes it. We wouldn't have started the product if we didn't have each other ... But there are a lot of arguments about things!"
In his football days, Adam MacDougall researched best nutrition but it was his wife that put things into perspective.
"I said to him, 'We should create a product for your everyday bloke, because if you are overweight like Dennis and you go to the gym, you are not comfortable, or if you buy a protein powder there's a big muscly guy on the front or a pink box for girls," she says.
Notes her husband: "As an elite athlete, I don't understand why people don't want to be healthy. Belinda is representative of our target market, she's the real person and she gives me insight into what real people want. She has educated me that not everyone cares that there are a gazillion probiotics in every serve. She says it has to taste good and work. Because we want people to succeed. "
By now back in Newcastle - they returned in 2007 when MacDougall re-signed with the Knights - and living in a Merewether property they bought years earlier, the couple began their business in their garage.
"Adam had a friend with a blending facility and he'd work there on the product. I read Tim Ferriss' book The Four-Hour Workweek. I built our own website. I had no idea. We had nothing. We did everything from scratch, packed our own orders," she recalls.
"I remember a guy from Coles said to us they would never take it because it was too expensive. Sugar is in products because it's cheap - sugar is $1 a kilo, protein powder is $20 a kilo.
"So we said OK, we'll create it online for our family and friends. We couldn't compete on price."
On day one of their business journey, MacDougall told someone nearby that she and her husband would "do a million dollars worth of sales" with The Man Shake.
"Everyone laughed ... We've exceeded that but it's not about the money," she says.
MacDougall's plain talk could be traced to her "old school, hard-working" parents.
"Dad was in the mines, his leg was crushed when I was 11, but he went back to work. Mum was a waitress and worked in the mornings. Dad worked nights and dropped us to school, Mum did dinner," she says.
Footy players can make good money but, she says, "it doesn't last forever"", and when she and her husband returned to Newcastle they had lost money in a bad investment.
"We had about $5000 in the bank," she says. "We were running around, picking up lessons on the way - from McDonald's, from reading, working, just having a go. Committing to something and working it out. We made a million mistakes but we kept running and learning."
MacDougall says The Man Shakes and The Lady Shakes are "classed" as a meal replacement product under Food Safety Australia and New Zealand's Food Standards Code.
"Protein powders and supplements are not regulated but by law a meal replacement has to have so many calories, protein, fibre, low in sugar, vitamins and minerals, so it's good because you know what is in a product," she says. "Ours is a proper food."
FSANZ says it does not approve food products, nor determine if they are classified as a meal replacement: "To comply with meal replacement regulations in the... Code, foods must meet minimum protein and energy levels. There are also permissions for several vitamins and minerals to be added in controlled amounts," a spokesperson said. FSANZ adds that the relevant standard requires a statement on the product that it is not a total diet replacement [as Healthy Happy Co products do].
The MacDougalls say their shakes have 84 per cent less sugar than their competitors and, among other things, a superior quality of protein from "grass-fed Australian cows".
Asked if the shakes should replace all meals, and why those trying to lose weight shouldn't just moderate their diet, Belinda MacDougall listens carefully.
"We say it's a healthy meal in a shake which has all the goodness you need," she says, adding that customers get a weight loss and food guide and the option of joining a home training program.
"You'd be hard up to find a better product nutritionally in Australia or overseas. That's what we pride ourselves on."
MacDougall says the shakes, which she and her hubby drink daily, are "a tool to kickstart your life and weight loss".
"It's not really that you take it for a month or two and go on your way. We give you a program that goes with it to make better food choices. It becomes part of your lifestyle. I always say the best diet, or the best exercise, is the one you stick to."
Since launching in 2013, the company has outgrown the MacDougalls' garage and four factories. It is now in Bennetts Green, NSW, and its products manufactured in Brisbane.
Thanks to word of mouth, plugs on national TV and Adam MacDougall's profile, it continues to grow, despite coronavirus-related logistical issues.
"In the early days, people would yell out "Mad Dog!" to Adam, now it's "Mr Man Shake" - they want to talk to him about how it has changed their lives," she says.
Stu Gregor, a founder of leading Sydney PR outfit Liquid Ideas, says the success of The Man Shake lies in its simplicity, Adam's profile and his well-connected agent.
"The branding is straightforward and manly enough for Aussie blokes not to think it's a bit sissy. The language is terrific - 'lose the beer gut without losing the beers': that is marketing gold right there," he says. "Often the simplest messages, delivered in everyday, bullshit-free language, are the best."
The website for the Lady Shake - which MacDougall says she created to help busy mums like her - says the Healthy Happy Co is a "multimillion-dollar" operation.
The lady behind the shake is more coy.
"We keep figures confidential. We do have hundreds of thousands of customers and have helped Australians shred well over 1 million kilos in weight!" MacDougall says, adding that the company has donated more than $500,000 to the Mark Hughes Charity Foundation. "I guess it will keep getting busier because it's the best on the market and we care about helping people."
Mark Hughes' wife, Kirralee, said the foundation is "blown away" by the funds the MacDougalls have donated: "They are just the most generous and caring friends."
MacDougall is fired up about the new Kids Shake, inspired by her discussions with NSW government about sugar-laden "health" products in supermarkets.
"They said they would change their labels but they never will, sugar makes them too much money, so I thought if you won't change, I'll make my own product," she says.
"I'm not judgmental about what people give their kids for breakfast but I get cranky when big companies market towards kids and mums think what they are giving them is healthy and it's not."
MacDougall is in talks with FoodBank Australia to strike a deal whereby for every Kids Shake sold, another is donated to a needy child.
"I sponsor many things. Mum grew up poor, if it wasn't for the Smith Family ... When you can give back, you should," she says.
She is keen to tackle the national problem of obesity: "In our industry, since we came on board big companies have started to lower their sugar. We are creating change."
MacDougall says it can be hard working with her husband - "He wakes up with lots of ideas, I like to wake up in silence with coffee!" - but says their different skill-sets gel.
"I get up early with the kids, make their [Kids Shake], go for a walk, come home, get ready for preschool, make my Shake as I walk out the door, drop the kids, go to work, and when I get there they all say, 'Why don't you make your Shake here?" she laughs.
"Adam comes into work and he makes my lunch for me, then either me or him pick up the girls. We are quite boring. Adam likes to cook, he gloats, I just think my cooking is not up to his standards. When you knock off, you still have a million things to do. I'm not going for Mother Of the Year, I try my best."
The upbeat MacDougall, who loves a wine and a burger and believes "life is to be lived in a good way", would likely be fun company in post-COVID-19 times.
"My life is chaos. I go to meditation classes and I suck," she laughs, "but I think if we focus on others, we can't not be happy. Because if you don't think about yourself, you can't not be happy."
Football, she knows, has afforded her family the chance to start a company "to help people".
"I feel very lucky," she says. "People look and say 'Wow, you are so lucky', but they forget how hard you work. In life there is opportunity and you take it."
While you're with us, did you know the Newcastle Herald offers breaking news alerts, daily email newsletters and more? Keep up to date with all the local news - sign up here
IN THE NEWS:
- Child abuse charges laid at Muswellbrook after Strike Force Trawler investigation into Hunter man
- Documentary about black panthers and big cats in Australia to air on Discovery Channel on May 5
- Prisoners riot at Cessnock jail, lock themselves in rooms, reportedly light fires
- Oyster growers still face ongoing fees despite industry downturn
- Positive sign has no new COVID-19 cases diagnosed in the Hunter
- Guard of honour at constable's farewell