Caitlin Sykes

Caitlin Sykes is the NZ Herald's Your Business editor

Small Business: The Heilala Vanilla story

Heilala Vanilla founder John Ross in the company's vanilla plantation in Tonga.
Heilala Vanilla founder John Ross in the company's vanilla plantation in Tonga.

John Ross got a whole lot more than he was expecting for his 60th birthday.

A retired dairy farmer, Ross' birthday wish was to sail to Tonga on a boat he'd built himself, have a family holiday and indulge his passion for spearfishing.

But he fell in love with the place. So much so that when a cyclone ravaged the Vava'u island group the year after he'd stayed there, Ross rallied a group of Rotary club friends to travel back to Tonga to help with the clean-up.

In thanks, a local family gifted him a plot of land, in exchange for him using it to provide employment for those living there.

The gift sent Ross on a journey of discovery, travelling around the globe to learn all he could about vanilla - a crop that only grows naturally 20 degrees either side of the equator and is perfectly suited to growing conditions in Tonga.

Three years later, in 2005, when the plot yielded its first 45kg vanilla crop, Ross' daughter, Jennifer Boggiss, and her husband Garth brought some back to New Zealand to gauge local interest.

Restaurateurs loved it - and so Heilala Vanilla was born.

Heilala Vanilla's back story describes its past, but also paves the way for its future. The Bay of Plenty-based company is the world's only vanilla producer that grows, manufactures and markets the spice itself.

"Almost all of what we consume today as vanilla flavouring is actually artificial," says Boggiss, Heilala's managing director. "While the relatively small supply of genuine vanilla is typically a commodity product that goes through a long line of traders before it reaches the end user."

Buoyed by consumer trends towards increased food traceability and the rise of foodie culture, Boggiss says Heilala is building on the unique plantation-to-plate provenance of its vanilla to become a premium global food brand.

In 2013 five tonnes of Heilala Vanilla were shipped from Tonga to the company's headquarters, in Te Puna, Tauranga. There it's packaged and processed into a range of products, including vanilla beans, extract, paste, sugar, syrup and ice cream for customers in the restaurant, gourmet food manufacture and specialty food retail trades.

With a staff of eight, the firm now exports to eight markets, including Australia, the US, Japan and Brazil. In 2013 it was named the central region's fastest growing exporter and manufacturer, with 159 per cent revenue growth over the past three years.

But high growth and global ambition mean the company has been capital hungry, so in 2011 the family firm sought investors from the Bay of Plenty angel investment group Enterprise Angels BOP, which together with the government' s New Zealand Venture Investment Fund took a 43 per cent stake in the company.

It can take up to a year-and-a-half to achieve a return on a vanilla bean after it's picked, so the funding has been crucial to keep pace with growth and help develop new export markets, says Boggiss.

"We've always had aspirations to take Heilala Vanilla to the world. It was never about being a ma and pa business or a lifestyle business so I knew we needed capital for growth. Also being a family company with global ambitions I really wanted to have objective and industry-experienced people around us to help us take that next step."

High profile angel investors include Kapiti Cheeses founder Ross McCallum, executive chairman of Craigs Investment Partners Neil Craig and Boggiss' brother Geoff Ross, of 42 Below fame.

Angel investor Bill Capamagian, who also sits on Heilala's board, says he was attracted to the company's potential to capture a premium position in a niche market, bolstered by its compelling brand story. Plus the company's roots as an aid project mean investors have to think more broadly before making decisions. "It's not just us buying something and turning it into something else and selling it; there's a moral responsibility back to the growers. That's got its challenges, but it also has its excitement."

Produced in association with the Angel Association of New Zealand

- NZ Herald

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