Owen Hembry

Owen Hembry is the business news editor of the New Zealand Herald

Vanilla firm calls in pros to drive exports

Lucy picking beans on Heilala Vanilla's plantation on Vava'u Island in Tonga. Photo / Supplied
Lucy picking beans on Heilala Vanilla's plantation on Vava'u Island in Tonga. Photo / Supplied

Tauranga-based Heilala Vanilla has taken on investors famous for making cheese and vodka in a bid to accelerate export growth of its premium-priced vanilla products.

The company has signed an investment deal which will see the New Zealand Venture Investment Fund and Tauranga-based consortium Enterprise Angels BOP take a 45 per cent stake for an undisclosed sum.

Enterprise Angels involves 12 individual investors, including Kapiti Cheeses founder Ross McCallum and vodka brand 42 Below founder Geoff Ross.

Heilala sales and marketing manager Jennifer Boggiss said a huge capital investment and outlay went into developing export markets.

"We've started but there's a long way to go and so not only are they bringing capital but they're also bringing contacts and expertise, which is invaluable," she said.

"We could have continued doing it ourselves and got there eventually but this is basically to fast-track it."

The business was profitable but that was not a deal breaker for the new investors.

"They've got a long-term view and it's all about building a brand."

The company's vanilla beans are grown on the Vava'u Islands in northern Tonga before being harvested and sent to New Zealand for processing and packaging into products including vanilla beans, extract, paste and syrup.

"It's a true South Pacific partnership," Boggiss said. "The main unique selling point is the whole brand story."

The lease to the plantation in Tonga was granted to Boggiss's father, John Ross, by the Latu family in recognition of his efforts to help rebuild the local community after a cyclone in 2001.

Ross sent money to help repair the Latu family's roof and organised his local Rotary Club in South Auckland to undertake various repair projects in the local villages.

Afterwards, Laulile Latu offered Ross the lease on his family's plot of land in return for establishing a business that would provide for the local community.

Heilala Vanilla was set up in 2002 and in 2005 the first beans were sent to New Zealand - this year the company expects to bring back about five tonnes, of which about half would come from a wider co-operative formed with other growers.

Vanilla is a climbing orchid and the company's own plantation covers 4ha, with 2500 plants growing on coconut husks in a wire frame, Boggiss said.

"If you let them go they'll grow to the heavens."

The plant flowers once a year and has to be pollinated by hand on the day the flowers open.

Nine months later a mature green vanilla bean is harvested, which then undergoes three months of drying and curing.

The investment deal would provide a capital injection to expand the business and ramp up exports to Australia, US and southeast Asia, while new opportunities in the US, UK and Japan would be explored this year.

Consumers were more aware of where their food came from and wanted to use quality ingredients, Boggiss said.

"At a retail level there's strong evidence that people are cooking at home a lot more and it's like an affordable luxury almost to use real vanilla as opposed to artificial," she said.

"We're not the most expensive real vanilla but we're definitely a premium product."

The company was focused on high-end food markets, including products for retail, food service and manufacturers, such as a packet of three vanilla pods and a jar of paste which sell for about $15 and $23 respectively.

Boggiss was an accountant and her husband worked in information technology, when in 2005 her father brought back the first vanilla pods from the Tongan plantation.

"Then, we wouldn't have envisaged what we're doing now so it's definitely been bigger than what we expected and more exciting."

- NZ Herald

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