Small Business: Family businesses - Ashleigh Whittaker

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Ashleigh Whittaker, Gem Food Solutions, which has created Gem Escape Meals, a range of healthy, snap frozen meals that are designed to inspire all people, including those with food allergies

Ashleigh Whittaker, founder of Gem Escape Meals which make a gluten-free range of ready-to-eat meals. Photo / Richard Robinson
Ashleigh Whittaker, founder of Gem Escape Meals which make a gluten-free range of ready-to-eat meals. Photo / Richard Robinson

The Gem Escape Meal range takes inspiration from many ethnic cuisines such as Morocco, Mexico and France because people with food allergies don't have the luxury of being able to pop out to the local takeout shop when convenience calls.

When you were launching the company, did? you enlist your family to help?

My family backed me from the get go which was amazing. My parents are always on the cautious side but they saw the opportunity and knew it was worth exploring. In the early stages I was working closely with a good friend who has a lot of skill in recipe development with a nutritional focus. We worked together to create our delicious recipes.

Gem Escape Meals launched at the Auckland Gluten Free and Allergy Show in May. I had my brother, aunty, cousin and best friend working the stand with me. It was heaps of fun and the extremely positive response made us excited to take the business forward into supermarket retail.

What did your family do for you in the beginning?

My parents are both chartered accountants so their financial experience was very valuable in doing an initial business plan with budgets and forecasts, as well as help working out the product pricing. They now look after ongoing accounting work and assist in stock management.

It was slightly inconvenient timing that just as Gem Escape Meals launched into supermarkets in May, my parents left on a trip to Europe. My 20 year old brother, Daniel, took on managing all the invoicing and order processing, assisted with product demonstrations, helped with deliveries and was an ear to my uncertainties. FMCG was new to all of us.

Are your family still pitching in?

Absolutely. I feel particularly grateful to my mum who has taken time out of her accounting day job to assist me with in-store tastings, which it turns out she real has a knack for. This business has been a great way for us to spend time together. Mum almost always comes on sales visits with me when I need to travel out of Auckland.

Dad helps looking after our logistics and my brother runs errands for me. Daniel is studying for his third year property and commerce exams at Auckland University so I try not to call on him too much.

Could you have done it without them?

No way. I am still working three days a week at Datacom in the Digital Experience team so I physically don't have time to do everything on my own. Not only that, their support and encouragement has seen me through some tough times. This has been a major learning journey for all of us.

What else did your family provide?

Storage! My parents' freezer is full of meal samples, the rumpus room full of our in- store tasting gear. I am flatting so I don't want to take up more than my fair share of the house with Gem business things.

Do you think you get some of your entrepreneurial flair from your Mum and Dad?

To be honest no. They are accountants and more logically and cautious minded. I am creative and a big picture thinker but together it is a wonderful combination. They keep me focused and make sure I don't get ahead of myself.

Do you plan to work on other entrepreneurial ventures?

Yes, because I know I am wired that way. I believe in opportunity and knowing when to act upon it but Gem is my focus right now. I have learnt that you can't be an expert in every area of your business so it is important to get the best people involved to manage the parts you may be weaker in. I enlisted professional help from business coach Zac de Silva to help me put the processes in place to ensure I was using my time as efficiently as possible. We have set goals and have steps to getting more people involved with the business as it grows.

Have you done this all financially on your own or have you called on family and friends?

I have funded Gem out of my own savings and my parents have contributed 25 per cent. I didn't want to rush into finding a business partner because it is such a long-term commitment. My goal is to find someone who will add value to the business through an additional skill set or distribution stream, not just capital.


Next week: I am interested in hearing from businesses who have come out of a so-called dying industry and carved out a new niche for themselves, taking a different tack to reach a market which still wants a product. If your business fits this description please make contact..

- NZ Herald

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