Twenty-two years ago, Bryant Ambelang was presented with an opportunity to create a business plan for a small tomato company in San Antonio. Investors in the company were recruiting Ambelang to join the company, then called Desert Glory and later rebranded as NatureSweet.
At the time, Ambelang had work experiences including brand manager positions at Kellogg’s and the Campbell Soup Co.
“So I went down there, and I ate the best tomatoes I have ever had,” he said. “I said, ‘I don’t know anything about produce but I think we could make a really powerful brand around a tomato that tastes this great,’” he said.
Now through 10 years as president and CEO of NatureSweet Ltd., Ambelang has been engaged in building a fresh produce brand centered on flavor and the consumer experience and a deep concern for the company’s employees.
When Ambelang first arrived, the company had five greenhouses in Divine, Texas.
“I came from this really big company where everything was done for you and suddenly I was in a double-wide trailer thinking, ‘I just made the worst career move of my life,’” he said.
“But then there’s something really special about people and produce; (produce people) wake up every day, and they say they’re gonna wrestle God. And every once in a while God lets them win.”
Ambelang said the produce industry is full of courageous people who fight weather, disease and commodity prices and still make a great living from all of it.
“I love the people in this industry.”
Today, NatureSweet is almost entirely tomatoes, though it does supply cucumbers and bell peppers to a couple of customers. The majority of NatureSweet’s business is branded snacking tomatoes, including Cherubs, Glories, Comets, Constellations and Twilights.
NatureSweet now has 11 production facilities (in Mexico and the U.S.) and its greenhouse acreage has expanded to about 1,900 acres compared with less than 15 acres at the very beginning.
One important mentor in Ambelang’s life is Fully Clingman, a long-time president and CEO of H. E. Butt Grocery Co. who retired in 2003.
“What (Clingman) taught me is the power of a vision,” Ambelang said.
Clingman told him to determine what he really wanted out of his career.
“Don’t just settle for what you think you can achieve; say what you actually want and you might be interested to see how your life turns out,” Ambelang recalls Clingman’s advice.
“Actually pursue the dreams that you actually want to see (happen) and don’t be afraid to say them out loud; it might be interesting to see what happens,” he said.
Ambelang has followed that advice in expressing his passion for NatureSweet employees.
“The No. 1 concern I have is for the safety and well-being of the people who work for NatureSweet,” he said.
He said the vast majority of associates/employees work directly for the company; the company doesn’t use migrant labor and only employs a small percentage of temporary workers.
“Eight thousand people wake up every single day, and come and work very hard to grow the best tasting tomatoes in the world,” he said.
“So the very first thing I want to ask myself is are they safe, and the next thing I want to ask myself is, ‘Do they know how they can transform their lives through working at NatureSweet, and they do they really understand that there’s a pathway through which you can have training, have high productivity, and fulfill whatever dreams you have in your life, and how NatureSweet can play a role with that in their lives?’”
While the company can’t solve everybody’s problems, Ambelang said NatureSweet can play an enormous role in getting people to where they want, what kind of life they want to lead and what kind of human being they want to become.
“So that really is the first thing I think about when I walk in the front door.”
His passion is contagious, co-workers say.
Ambelang “wakes up committed to transform the lives of agriculture workers in North America every day,” said Erin Byrd, assistant marketing manager at NatureSweet.
“Bryant believes in the unlimited potential of human beings which in turn calls leaders to serve those whom they lead.”
Lori Castillo, vice president of marketing for NatureSweet, said that Ambelang has exquisite storytelling ability that helps him shine as a leader.
“No matter the topic, he charismatically engages his audience in simple, emotional, truthful, real, and valid narratives,” she said, praising his ability to create a positive environment that encourages associates to come to him with ideas, concerns, and compliments.