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Sunday, March 3, 2024

Don’t Just Survive, Thrive! Not So Vanilla: The Hidden Struggles of the Vanilla Industry & How One Woman Found the Bravery to Battle Through

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In partnership with BNZ

Welcome to our new series, Don’t Just Survive, Thrive – where we talk to New Zealand women absolutely nailing it in business. We’ll be talking to wonderful wāhine about their experiences – good and bad – in starting businesses, and with the support of BNZ, the tools that make business banking easy. For this edition, meet Jennifer Boggiss, the force behind Heilala, a vanilla company making a huge difference to Tonga’s heart and soul – and hear about the hidden drama of an industry you’d think would be, well… vanilla.

“You won’t BELIEVE what goes on in the vanilla industry!” laughs Heilala Vanilla Director Jennifer Boggiss, chuckling as she recounts some of the bizarre things that have happened to her in her line of work.

“You’d think, ‘Vanilla, plain boring – nothing really happens in vanilla, but you’d be wrong! The dirty tactics played; sometimes I think I could write a book. It’s vanilla wars.”

Ah, the inner workings of running business – nothing is as simple as it seems, and at times -especially for female entrepreneurs and businesswomen – it can feel like a bit too much.  

But after chucking in her safe, secure career as an accountant to work in her family’s philanthropic venture, Heilala Vanilla, Tauranga native Jennifer knows how to crack the female confidence conundrum and overcome some mightily high hurdles to succeed.

The key? Find something that gets you excited to get out of bed in the morning – and for former accountant Jennifer, looking at spreadsheets and forecasts just wasn’t doing it for her anymore.

“I was always good at accounting, so I just kind of fell into it,” Jennifer explains. “It was paying the bills, but it wasn’t purpose-driven, you know? It was then my dad was really starting to develop the vanilla business, and I realised that there’s more to life than accounting for a trucking firm.”

The magic bullet for Jennifer – vanilla, specifically Tongan vanilla. But the Heilala business model is a little different, with the soul of the company dedicated to empowering and enabling the local Tongan community through enterprise. And, of course, the aim is to grow and produce the best vanilla in the world.

It was Jennifer’s dad John who originally had the idea for Heilala. After travelling to Tonga to help rebuild a village devastated by a cyclone, he realised the potential for something more to provide livelihoods and employment. So, after a bit of research, the retired farmer with absolutely no experience with vanilla planted his first plants in 2002 with his first crop in 2005.

It took a lot of guts, nods Jennifer – but now, Heilala products have been used by some of the world’s best chefs, including our own Peter Gordon, and they carry the bold claim to be the world’s most awarded vanilla, and is available internationally. The range is vast, with pastes, extracts and sugars, powders, beans and home and skin lines.

Along with incredible chefs using the products, Heilala has also been featured in publications such as Forbes and Wall Street Journal – all massive ‘pinch me’ moments for Jennifer and her family – and here are her tips for success:

One foot at a time

“I mean, when I started working in the business a few years after that, I never thought, ‘Here’s the start of an empire,” she says with a laugh. “We thought that we’d sell some vanilla to a few chefs and maybe sell in New Zealand and Australia, and that would be that.”

“Although,” she adds, “I’m glad I didn’t know that – I think I would have been scared off!”

Heilala’s evolution from small-time Island plantation to dominant international force has been a deliberate, thoughtful one, with Jennifer and her family determined to take it one step at a time.

“Literally one foot in front of the other,” nods Jennifer. “Getting the first sales was the toughest part, and it always is in any business, I think – and then after that, you find the momentum.”

You’d think – Vanilla, plain, boring – nothing really happens in vanilla. you’d be wrong. The dirty tactics played… sometimes i think i could write a book.

Jennifer Boggiss

Know your why – and start small and on the side!

Heilala saw the gap in the market for a premium vanilla product that was authentic – 98% of vanilla products on shelves are imitation vanilla, just like the random bottle you used to find in your mum’s baking cupboard with the food colouring.

“It had been the same for 50 years or so – the vanilla on the shelf in the same-looking medicine-y bottle. There was an opportunity to create a transparent, purpose-driven brand. We knew what we wanted to do and why knew our ‘why’ and I think that’s one of the most important things you need to know before embarking on a business – your brand story.

The best businesses in the world don’t exist to make money, that’s not a good enough reason. And trust me, you don’t get into vanilla to make money. It doesn’t move quickly off the shelf – most people buy one bottle of extract a year for baking!”

Don’t run before you can walk

Jennifer also recommends to start small and on the side, especially if you’re planning on turning your side hustle into your full-time business.

“Oh, leaving a cushy job to take that step into the great unknown is terrifying,” she tells.

“I vividly remember being in my office on the first day thinking, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’. I just figured, if it doesn’t work, I’ll go back to being an accountant, no harm, no foul. But I just knew it would work, you know? We’d been working on the brand in the evenings and on the weekends, and we’d gone to a few farmers markets and the like, so I had the confidence in the plan already.”

Replace the word ‘confidence’ with ‘bravery’

Ah yes, confidence – the biggest thing that holds women especially back from making the leap to becoming business owners and bosses.

“Only women use that word ‘confidence’,” Jennifer remarks wryly. “It’s really bravery, isn’t it?”

She’s right – and as we alluded to before, it apparently takes a brave soul to conquer the vanilla industry. Jennifer says there are setbacks just like any business – they operate a huge working capital model, and she herself had to practice things like public speaking and pitching.

On that note – be brave, and be determined

And then there’s the aforementioned “dirty tactics”.

“It’s been everything from [competitors] buying our stock off the shelves and replacing it with theirs, and then promising three months’ free stock if they drop our range. We’ve had complaints filed against us with the Commerce Commission, things like that. People say it’s a sign of flattery, but it’s not like we’re Jeff Bezos or anything, we’re a small family business and it can get very exhausting.”

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata (it is people, it is people, it is people)

The key to getting through the varying ups and downs of business, she tells, is also her number one piece of advice – surround yourself with good people early, both in your business and at your bank.

“Banking is all about relationships, just like life. And your banking experience is only as good as your bank manager, and we’ve been so fortunate to have amazing ones at BNZ.

“It was even more important during Covid – we were ok, we actually managed to diversify into sanitiser and then further into a line of hand wash, dishwash and surface spray, all with our signature vanilla bean scent. But it was the weekly check in that Fraser, our bank manager, would call through with that was really reassuring.

“It’s been a massive ride – and we can’t wait for what’s coming next!”

Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of Jennifer Boggiss and Capsule, and do not necessarily represent the views of BNZ, or its related entities. This article is solely for information purposes and is not intended to be financial advice. If you need help, please contact BNZ or your financial adviser. Neither BNZ nor any person involved in this article accepts any liability for any direct or indirect loss or damage arising out of the use of, or reliance on, all or any part of the content. BNZ terms and conditions and fees apply to the products and services mentioned in this article.

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