The Vanilla Dream

Date: 4th April 2012

The vanilla plant flowers just once a year, offering a mere four hours to complete the intricate act of hand pollination. In this window of opportunity a dream has flowered. The Heilala Vanilla story is a PR dream: 100% natural, sustainable, organic, transpacific, sweet and delicious, much like Heilala’s own success.

The story begins with John Ross, boat builder, farmer and frequent visitor to Tonga. In 2002, following Cyclone Waka, John recruited six Rotary Club colleagues to deliver medical supplies, help rebuild houses and restore infrastructure to the Tongan village of Utungake in Vava’u. In return, a local chief gifted him the use of dormant land. Upon discovering wild vanilla orchids growing, he developed a vanilla plantation, enhanced job prospects for locals and created Heilala Vanilla.

Producing vanilla seed pods is extremely labour intensive, requiring optimum growing conditions. John engaged the expertise of his son-in-law Garth (agriculturalist and IT consultant) to harness this rare opportunity. They carefully matched organic growing principles with the virgin soil, sustainable coconut husk frames, hand pollination and the Pacific sun, achieving the first Heilala vanilla harvest in 2005 – an admirable 40 kg. This grew to two tonne in 2010.

Upon harvest, the vanilla seed pods are imported to Tauranga where the vanilla products are manufactured and packaged per order. They are then dispatched to executive chefs, gourmet food manufacturers and specialty retail outlets.
Heilala Vanilla’s growing product range includes vanilla beans, vanilla extract, vanilla paste, vanilla syrup, ground vanilla, vanilla sugar and vanilla ice cream and has received numerous culinary awards.

From the early days of knocking on restaurant doors with a delicious nameless product it was clear they required a strong brand. The challenge would be enlisting the right advocates – the brand needed to entice. Margins are much tighter on small orders, but they knew this temporary pain would spark wildfire momentum and secure the big orders.
Down the track, John oversees the Tongan plantation. Garth is in charge of research and product development and daughter Jennifer (a qualified accountant with a marketing degree) is onboard to manage sales and marketing. We spoke with Jennifer about their journey to date.
Biggest challenge? Giving up the security of her day job. ‘But if you have the passion then it’s definitely worth it’.

Best management decision? Implementing quarterly Client Advisory Boards with specialised ‘foodies’ to drive their focus and direction. ‘In a family business tunnel vision can be a natural stumbling block’.

Advice? Jennifer was fortunate to utilise her accounting skills within the business, stressing ‘every entrepreneur needs guidance, advice and a close relationship with their accountant’. Clearly defined budgets and goals, performance measurement, viability testing and patience are also required for any long term business model.
Jennifer emphasised ‘when engaging external services you get what you pay for’. Don’t scrimp on the things that support the backbone of your business, whether it be your branding, marketing, or business mentors.

Highlights so far? ‘Taking Peter Gordon and US pastry chef Natasha MacAller to the Tongan plantation’. The Heilala crew guided 20+ foodies to witness the source of Heilala Vanilla, and enjoy local produce prepared amongst the plantation by Peter and Natasha. Entering the Williams-Sonoma food retail chain (boasting 200 stores across America and Canada) was another memorable milestone.

Having direct ownership of the vanilla seed pods throughout the process, Heilala are proud to have control from plantation to pantry. This ultimately guarantees the quality and integrity of their product.

With each hurdle successfully mounted, the Heilala team keep moving the finish line. As they enter the American market they’re aware that initial margins will be tight, sales and profits low. But they’ll soon achieve the exposure and reputation their product deserves.
Having John on the ground has been vital to this multi-cultural business. Jennifer and Garth are equally committed to maintaining relationships with the locals, keeping in touch with the dream at its roots. When one day John steps back, their succession plan will have a solid foundation.

The passion, hard work and commitment of this Kiwi family and their Tongan colleagues have made Heilala a sweet story of generosity, imagination and ingenuity. It’s about rising to the challenge and seizing the opportunities that are gifted to you.

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