I found out the answer to this question last night at BayCourt Tauranga, from Jennifer Boggiss who is the CE of Heilala Vanilla. She told her story for an audience of about 200 of us.
She spoke very well with just the right amount of humour and stories.
Here are my notes on what I learned from her talk.
Firstly, Heilala is the name of the national flower of Tonga. It is pronounced “hey-la-la”.
Interestingly, her brother is Geoff Ross, founder of NZ’s very own premium vodka brand 42 Below.
Her father, John Ross, founded the vanilla business in 2001 after providing aid via his Rotary Group to a cyclone stricken community in Tonga. He was offered a lease on some land in that community.
At 75 years old he is still intimately involved with the business and spends 6 months of the year living in Tonga and travelling the world visiting vanilla plantations.
When questioned by a member of the audience “what is the secret of your and your brothers success” Jennifer replied “Our parents. They always challenged us to think big, dream big and take on hard challenges and to persist when others would quit”.
With vanilla you get 1 harvest a year. One shot. It only grows within 20 degrees of the equator.
In their first year of production in 2005 (like Kiwifruit it takes about 3 years to get your first harvest) they produced 45kg of vanilla pods.
A visit to the chef at Somerset Cottage in Tauranga confirmed that these were “the best vanilla beans he had ever tasted”.
Afterward, tests showed that their chosen variety has one of the highest “vanillin” counts in the world.
You may not be aware that 98% of worlds vanilla is artificial and is called “vanilla essence” instead of the authentic “vanilla extract”.
Vanilla essence is a by-product of the pulp and paper industry and has no vanilla in it at all.
Jennifer urges us all to use this “vanilla essence” as a fridge cleaner or tip the remainder down the sink and buy the real stuff.
Today the team is 12 strong, has experienced 35% annual revenue growth per year for the past 5 years and hasn’t had anyone resign.
Early on it became obvious that they needed to be more than a tiny bottle on the supermarket shelf.
They needed partners to scale the business. One category for these partnerships is with food manufacturers. Premium food manufacturers don’t like to use numbers in their ingredients lists so liked to use Heilala instead of alternatives.
A second category is chefs. Jennifer tells us that she is incredibly proud when she sees products with “made with Heilala vanilla” when browsing a restaurant menu or written on the packaging of commercial products.
She told an amazing story of how the competition reacted very aggressively to their success.
Here’s a basic timeline:
- It started by inviting a guy to a family BBQ at their home
- Not long after he called to give a heads up that he was now working for established Australian vanilla brand Queens Vanilla (with a huge global corporate as the owner) but they were “not to worry”
- Then they found out he had signed up 300 Tongan vanilla growers and paid them in advance for their crops
- Then they found out he had approached their primary supplier (the family friend from the beginning of the story) who was responsible for 70% of their production, got him drunk and asked him “what will it take to sign with us instead” and when he said “$20k”, they gave him that amount in cash
- The family friend made his confession and said he felt terrible that he’d done such a thing to such close friends and asked for help to back out of the deal
- They were advised by a lawyer to tear up the contract and return the cash to break the deal (they had to throw it into the guys house and run because he wouldn’t accept it)
- Also, he had approached all the supermarket clients and offered to buy all their Heilala stock and supply their own product free for 3 months! They only lost only 1 supermarket which is a testament to the way their built and maintained relationships (as well as how well their product sold)
- They might be in for another fight soon because they have just moved into Queen Vanilla territory by signing a contract for supply into 1500 Cole Supermarkets in Australia
What an exciting story!
Jennifer told us about the relationship between Tonga and Tauranga. She told us that they work very closely together and that they learn more about the Tongan culture every time they visit.
One particular highlight for her is how, for Tongans, Sundays are sacred. There is zero activity. Zero chores. Unplugged and relaxed. We can learn a lot from that way of life.
She talked about her passion “This is my passion. It’s my drive. It’s my mission to be a globally recognised Vanilla brand in a way that benefits the Tongan community”.
And she told us 3 things about the future:
- That digital and strong social media presence is a big component of their marketing. It’s about educating consumers on the differences between real and fake real vanilla
- She was heading off to the USA the following day with NZTE to start on a digital strategy to talk to the big players in the digital space in New York
- Her team is working on an R&D project to explore the potential for vanilla outside of the food category but wouldn’t say anymore than that
For me, I found her story inspiring and admirable for 3 main reasons:
- That a whole industry can come from a single plant and it’s unique properties (in this case, a single flavour). It’s a reminder that options for new businesses are simply unlimited
- I admire the 14 years of hard work that has gone into perfecting the product, the process, the brand, the story, the relationships
- That they care so much for their growers and their families (when growers are so often exploited in the food industry). That this business has created a win-win for the growers, the end consumers and everyone else in the middle of that supply chain
Do you have a bottle of Heilala vanilla in your cupboard? Or a bottle of “vanilla essence” which is a by-product of the pulp and paper industry?