From the Archives: Bryant Ambelang BA’90
Editor’s Note: This article by Sara Mancuso MA’15 appeared in the spring 2012 issue of UT Dallas Magazine.
Bryant Ambelang BA’90 keeps a container full of cherubs at his work desk — not the angels, but the shiny, bite-sized tomatoes that are sweet and firm and easy to pop in your mouth.
As president and CEO of San Antonio-based NatureSweet, he says it’s important to eat one of the company’s tomatoes each and every day.
For Ambelang the transition from college to corporate foodie happened quite serendipitously. At 19, he was busy playing college football at another university. To earn pocket money, he took an internship with Kellogg’s that opened an unexpected door to UT Dallas and would later lead to a successful career running one of the largest tomato producers in the country.
Kellogg’s wanted Ambelang for the rough and oftentimes dirty job of beautifying the cereal aisles of grocery stores.
“I spent most of my time scraping gum off the bottom of the shelves,” he remembered.
But the money? That’s what made it worth it. With his new salary, Ambelang was able to transfer to UT Dallas.
Though he was sad to leave his football scholarship behind, Ambelang was glad to get back to the Metroplex and closer to his Garland roots. “At the time it tore my heart out to leave football behind. It was a pragmatic decision.”
Ambelang said his personality fit perfectly with the culture of the University at the time. UT Dallas had yet to admit freshmen or sophomores, so “my classmates were very serious about school. And the professors were very serious about teaching,” he said.
Ambelang spent his days working at local grocery stores for Kellogg’s and his nights in the classroom. With his sights set on law school, he feasted on the political science classes in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences. But like many students, there was a moment in class that altered the career path he decided to take.
Ambelang, CEO of Nature-Sweet Tomatoes, discovered his passion for business while taking a political economy class.
While in a political economy course, Ambelang encountered the work of economist Friedrich August Hayek. Classroom discussion of Hayek’s writing turned to the “power of free enterprise to transform society,” Ambelang recalled.
“The discussion intensified my belief in the power of individual freedom. I realized that for me, free enterprise provided the best avenue to unleash the power of people.” And so Ambelang altered his path, striking out in a new direction.
Graduation from UT Dallas came just a few months after a wedding to his fiancée. Shortly after they tied the knot, Kellogg’s sent the couple to Colorado and then to Michigan. During that time, Ambelang held positions in sales and brand management, focusing on new product development for brands like Rice Krispies Treats and Honey Crunch Corn Flakes.
“The experience taught me how to launch new brands into the marketplace, which proved to be very useful for the future,” he said.
Eventually, another major food manufacturer came knocking on his door. Campbell Soup Company had just bought San Antonio-based Pace Foods, which is known for its salsas.
“Campbell’s had purchased the company, but no one in their headquarters knew anything about hot sauce. They needed someone who knew what a picante sauce was supposed to taste like,” said the proud Texan. So the Ambelang family, which included 5 children, headed back to the Lone Star State.
Ambelang’s time in the new position was short-lived; he was soon recruited away by a group of former Pace executives who had started a private equity group and wanted his help investing in high-potential small food companies.
One of their finds proved career-changing. “We found this small company that was selling greenhouses,” Ambelang said. “But what was more interesting were the great-tasting tomatoes inside those greenhouses.”
It struck him that this company — Nature-Sweet — was special. But why?
“From the beginning, I realized that this business had the opportunity to transform agriculture and the lives of the people who work inside the industry.”
The company has built more than 1,000 acres of greenhouses and employs over 5,000 people. “We looked for areas where the temperature and light would allow us to grow tomatoes year-round. Because we grow tomatoes throughout the year, we do not use migrant labor. These full-time employees enjoy health benefits and training.”
Whether Ambelang is in Israel researching new tomato seeds or in Mexico surveying the company’s greenhouses, he acknowledges that sunlight and plant disease present constant challenges to the agriculture business. “We like to say that we wake up each day and wrestle with God to grow the best-tasting tomatoes in the world.”
In his approach to life and business, Ambelang still looks to great authors for inspiration.
“Steve Jobs’ biography talks about how he created Apple to be at the intersection of liberal arts and technology, very similar to how UT Dallas is viewed today,” he said. “My experience at UT Dallas taught me to value the humanities and examine the values of history, what motivates us and what threatens us—all of this impacts how I run the company today.”
Ambelang (center) received a Distinguished Alumni Award from UTD in 2013. He is pictured with Dennis Dean, dean of the School of Economic, Policy and Political Sciences, and former UTD president David E. Daniel (right).