James Ardern's sweet deal with Whittaker's

James Ardern shifted from the US Midwest and the car industry to take up the job of Whittaker’s CEO. Janet McAllister finds out it wasn’t as big a shift as it might seem.

James Ardern portrait
The planets aligned when James Ardern wanted to return from the US just as the Whittaker family sought their first leader from outside their own ranks.

Warning: The first quote in this story may have you reaching for a tiny chocolate violin.

“It’s quite tempting working here because the smell is always around us, which is delicious,” says Whittaker’s CEO, James Ardern, beaming in from the celebrated Porirua chocolate factory.

Yes, let’s file that temptation under ‘problems we all wish we had’. Cheerful and friendly (and no relation to Dame Jacinda Ardern), James appreciates his good fortune. His favourite Whittaker’s creations are the classic Creamy Milk, the smooth newcomer Hazella, and the legendary Peanut Slab – which, he marvels, has remained the same since its 1950s introduction: “Things like shrinkflation, we’ve never done!”

So – apart from following his nose – how did a non-Whittaker family member and former vehicle-trim manufacturer living in the American Midwest end up as chief executive of the family-owned sweet-treats firm?

James insists that the transition was not as outlandish as it might seem. The planets aligned: Waikato-born James and his American wife and two children wanted to move closer to James’s parents just as the Whittaker family was looking for its first non-family executive leader. James grew up in Paeroa and Orewa (his father built his own boats, giving James a love of the water and hands-on engineering) and attended Rosmini College in Takapuna.

While living overseas, James often visited the Arderns’ off-grid Coromandel property where family members have been regenerating native bush for 17 years, contributing to both carbon sinking and biodiversity. They also trap predators themselves, and are delighted to host increasing numbers of kiwi, with the property acting as a corridor between the “awesome work” of Project Kiwi and the Matarangi Bluff Reserve.

There are other people out there who are quite loud and voice their views. New Zealanders should be able to, too.

James Ardern, engineering alumnus Whittaker's CEO

As unlikely as it is, his former US-based employer, Lacks Enterprises, like Whittaker’s, is also run by the third and fourth generations of a family whose name is literally on the building.

For “brilliant” owner-chocolatier brothers Andrew and Brian Whittaker, the company is “like their second home”, says James. “They invest in it; they really care about it.”

James says he works very closely with Andrew’s children, Holly and Matt, who are the company’s co-chief operating officers.

Like his bosses, James is proud of the Miraka Kirīmi block labelled in te reo Māori; and also of the company’s community work, such as assisting schools in Ghana, where it’s mapping every farmer in its supply line to achieve ‘fully traceable cocoa’.

“So, since 2022, not only is it ‘beans to bar’, it’s ‘from farm to beans to bar’, which is fantastic,” says James.

Finally, jumping from cars to food wasn’t a stretch, given James’s focus is on process innovation rather than a particular product. He has manufacturing experience in the UK as well as the US and New Zealand, and credits his Bachelor of Engineering for his professional curiosity and exposing him to a “diversity of thought”, with elective courses in philosophy and accounting.

Majoring in engineering science meant doing mathematical and computer courses on top of mechanical engineering. “It gave us a really good grounding,” he says.

His 25 classmates have gone on to succeed in everything from heading air-conditioning firms, to project management in Malaysia, and financial sector innovation in London. Plus, added bonus: “Some of us are lifelong friends.”

And his advice to aspiring engineering business leaders? Go to Toastmasters. “It was so valuable.”

He learned how to explain technicalities but also how to promote ideas and persuade – a leadership skill he’d like to see New Zealanders flex more internationally. Our opinions, he says, are worth listening to.

“You know, there are other people out there who are quite loud and voice their views. New Zealanders should be able to, too.”

Also helpful: offer your listeners good chocolate.

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2024 edition of Ingenio