The Right Mix for Growth.
Ten years ago, the founders of Christchurch-based, Australasia-wide Seed Force seized their chances when the New Zealand seed industry changed significantly, demonstrating once again that structural industry changes can have big, often unforeseen flow-on effects.
The growth that followed the difficult task of starting a new company brought its own issues. Its successful establishment was reassuring in that they wanted to be a nimble company but their own internal processes had to keep up in terms of management, scalability and flexibility.
They found a number of answers when they were introduced to Montage Online.
Seed Force Limited rose from the massive structural changes in the Australasian proprietary seed industry in 2005 when three of the top four seed companies merged. Bruce Garrett, Warwick Green and Andrew Moorhouse had long been colleagues at one of the seed companies. Involved in plant breeding and product development, they knew each other well along with their business and industry.
Around the same time, RAGT Semences, one of the major European seed companies was looking at opportunities to increase its presence in Australasia. It was already licensing varieties to companies in New Zealand and Australia but saw an opportunity to become more directly involved. RAGT is the only multi-species seed company in Europe with an intensive research effort which spans 24 different species and some 200 proprietary cultivars.
The company's research arm R2n, has 190 breeders and technicians operating from 14 research stations across the broad temperate zones. Its annual investment in R & D is in excess of 12% of turnover. There was a significant opportunity for a new Australasian seed company to bring a totally new stream of forage genetics into the New Zealand and Australian markets. The company was keen to start something new and was prepared to support a new venture.It became apparent that the industry structural changes were also prompting a number of retail customers to review old alliances. Market forces are sophisticated and will naturally support competition. Maybe the structural changes were seen by some as reducing competition in the market. The climate was receptive for a new entrant but not just any entrant, one that could provide a competitive, credible and broad proprietary forage seed offering.
Discussions led to the creation of Seed Force in early 2006. Seed Force shareholders were ambitious and realised they needed to have an Australasian presence rather than just be a New Zealand seed company.
Two significant Australian seed industry leaders, Mike Gout and David Gould, were keen to come on board and Seed Force Australia started in mid-2006.The five local shareholders shared management roles in the business between them covering everything from Sales, Operations, Production, Administration, R&D and everything else needed to get a seed business functioning.
With an initial five staff in New Zealand and three in Australia, they set up the business, speaking confidently to big retailers and leasing buildings including warehouses.
It wasn’t easy, starting from scratch. But some key retail partners wanted the wholesale business to succeed and gave it some great support giving them more choice both as direct customers but also for their farmer clients.
Still, the two arms of the ¬¬¬business – production and sales – required work on the ground, contracting farmers to produce seed for their proprietary products and getting around retailers.
The business resonated in the market, to the point where staff numbers nearly 10 years on have grown to about 45. With a large site in Shepparton, Northern Victoria, company representatives cover the Australian eastern seaboard. In New Zealand, the head office is about to make its second shift, this time to a purpose-built building in Hornby, Christchurch.
Growth brought other challenges. Structures and processes had evolved but Seed Force had become a substantial business in the meantime. The men knew they couldn’t carry on using some business processes the way they had always done them.
Often, what was frustrating were the little things, like knowing who’s going on leave and when. Many of the processes were paper-based which worked well when the company consisted of six people. But as the company grew, processes for expense claims, annual leave and other small but important tasks became more and more unwieldy and onerous.
Another factor for the Christchurch-based company were the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011.
“Although we weren’t particularly badly affected in our business, we saw a lot of businesses around us that were decimated – businesses who didn’t have access to file servers, or records or files for a long time,” Andrew said. “That was a big wake-up call for us.”
Above all, all human resources records were on paper and in different filing systems which prevented their being brought together. That was another sign processes had to be improved.
“We couldn’t interrogate the data,” he said. “We had looked at some off-the-shelf solutions. There are a lot out there but they tend to be regimented in how they’re built – there’s no flexibility.
“We wanted something we could tailor to our business rather than adapt our business to the system. So we were either going to be a totally flexible business on the move all the time, and nobody really knowing what was going on, or we were going to become more structured but still be able to take advantage of making decisions and moving in different directions. We needed something to help us do that.”
They wanted a system to meet the kind of business the men had envisaged. Said Andrew: “We always wanted to be a business that was nimble and fast-moving and could make quick, informed decisions.”
Further, while Australia and New Zealand were two different companies, they operated as one business and needed to work off the same system.
CUE in Montage Online. The breakthrough came when Justin Ryan, of EzyPay, told them after they discussed their issues with him: “You should talk to Montage.”
Montage Online is a web-based application framework designed to automate business processes and allows the system to be configured to actual business processes as clients want them.
Seed Force’s Andrew sat down with Montage’s Simon Lind to thrash around a few ideas. Health and Safety and Human Resources were the initial priorities but discussions led to Andrew seeing what Montage offered had considerable potential across the various departments and therefore could realise other great benefits.
Identifying the priorities was the first issue. Andrew, with his responsibility for HR, wanted to get all that data electronically in one place as quickly as possible.
That was important but selling it to the team was a really important priority as well. They needed to start with things that were actually of benefit to staff so they could see some value immediately.
“We were asking them to change from filling in their expenses on a piece of paper and stapling the receipts to it and posting it to head office to this new online system. “
Change management and the introduction of a new system wasn’t plain sailing always. It was a big cultural change in the business. But as people grew accustomed to the change and familiar with the new way of doing things the objections really died down.
One consistent staff grumble was not knowing where people were or when they were away or on leave. But the introduction of a leave system with a company-wide leave calendar which showed when staff were unavailable or away from the office was quickly and positively received.
Then there were the pressure points in the business, over which they wanted better control. One such area was stock requisitions. Staff could take stock for demonstrations, marketing or research purposes. In the past, stock had been taken from the company’s inventory but why it was needed wasn’t clear because authorisation was paper-based and feedback wasn’t mandatory.
“It’s an investment by the business and we want to get something back as well. So we developed a process to manage that,” Andrew said. “We don’t want to be an operation where everything is locked down but there are a lot of things we do day to day that we can do much more efficiently on a system like this.”
Interfaces with payroll so that leave balances were imported every month from the company’s two payroll systems was another configuration, and the system was now also starting to interface with the finance system.
Another necessary configuration was on-boarding, hiring new staff, generating a contract with all the relevant details for individual staff and undertaking all the other tasks required for new starts.
“It’s about making that process much more streamlined,” he said.
It had to include health and safety. The company’s operations are not high risk but off-road 4WD driving on farms is one area of concern.
With any tightening of regulatory requirements in the future, Seed Force will be able to monitor such behaviour more closely.
Simon Lind and Tommy Sharp from Montage were really good to work with, Andrew said.
Seed Force welcomed the fact that both were stakeholders in the solution.
“We don’t have concerns that they might disappear one day and we’d be left on our own. That was really important for us. We invested a lot in this.”
Andrew recalls occasions where Montage have gone over and beyond what you would expect. Montage’s responsiveness had been fantastic.
Its system was also very scalable, operating on the one over one principle through which branches could be added to the system tree. It was not a system Seed Force would have to replace when they reached a certain size. That had been another great benefit.
Being an online system was also important. There were some significant communication issues with staff because, being a rural business, many operated in remote areas with poor communication at times.
“They can’t necessarily remote into the mother ship and get information. Having something that was web-based was key and obviously, anywhere in Australasia, you can access it.”
In time and, as the budget allows, other configurations will be added.
“We are certainly a much tighter business,” Andrew said.
“It must save us time which is money. We have more time to spend on other things rather than process big wads of paper. It’s a net positive. Definitely.
“We’ve de-risked the business. This is all hosted off-site and backed up. If this building fell down tomorrow, we could still run the system from anywhere which is a real positive.
The Montage solution was now part of the way Seed Force does business. “We’ve equipped all our front-line staff with iPads in the past 12 months. I think they’ve really embraced it now.
“The positive thing for them as well is that they get a lot more information back. The system has the ability to send out notifications. Everyone can now operate it well.
Said Andrew: “It’s been a good experience working with Montage. I’d recommend them to anyone. “We’d struggle more as a business if we didn’t have it. “
Business life would be harder, staff wouldn’t get as much done. “It’s been a significant benefit from that perspective.”
Seed Force has even branded its new system to emphasise its importance. “We call it iSeed Force. That’s how it’s known internally.”