Reinventing the circus

Ringmaster, Simon Tait, is excited that Silvers Circus has significantly evolved through international acts and technology.

Ringmaster, Simon Tait, is excited that Silvers Circus has significantly evolved through international acts and technology.

When you think about how businesses must evolve and adapt to survive, no better example comes to mind than the circus. Dating back to the time of the Roman Colosseum, circuses have undergone huge changes, particularly in the last twenty years, to meet public demand and take on the challenge of new entertainment mediums. 

So, when Silvers Circus rolled into my home town of Castlemaine I just had to pop in and have a chat with its owner, the quietly spoken Anton Gasser, and two of his key staff members. 

Silvers Circus owner, Anton Gasser, believes that a circus is very much like farming.

Silvers Circus owner, Anton Gasser, believes that a circus is very much like farming.

Instead of running away to the circus Swiss born Anton was quite literally born into the circus with a family history of circus performers going right back to the 1600’s.  With circus blood in his veins and celebrating 40 years since establishing Silvers Circus with his wife Anna here in Australia, there is no doubt that it is as much lifestyle as it is a business to this hard working couple and their grown up children.

“If you want to make money, then don’t buy a circus,” says Anton with a wry smile. “But if you want lots of work and to put a smile on people’s faces, then do buy a circus.”

Anton likens a circus to farming which is also dependent on weather and the economy.  “We have our good years and we have our bad years.  Sometimes we have to go without,” he shrugs philosophically, “but we make sure our bills are always paid.”

The fact remains, where many circuses have come and gone, Silvers is a survivor and I was keen to find out how.

When I asked long time employee, Simon Tait, what the secret is to a successful circus, his answer was clear. “Location, location, location!”  The big top is by far their best advertising as no-one can miss it as they drive and walk by.

This is a particularly interesting point given that, for the first time in my memory, a circus has been relegated from the town centre to a reserve on the town outskirts with very little drive by traffic.

One of the negative changes he admits, has been the way circuses are received into towns. 

“In the old days the town would roll out the red carpet and offer us the very best spaces at no charge; they were just so glad to have us come and provide entertainment.”

But times have changed.  Not only are municipal councils now looking to recoup the cost of power and water used, they insist on substantial bonds amounting to thousands of dollars, to cover any damage that may be incurred to the grounds.  Sometimes this is unavoidable due to wet weather and heavy trucks but other times it is a disreputable circus before them that tarnishes the industry image.

Another long term employee is Margaret Petersen. Melbourne born, she actually did run away to the circus and has been with Silvers for 35 years.  Firmly ensconced at the helm of the ticket box, she is in charge of the nerve centre of the circus, efficiently handling the logistics for each town they travel to Australia wide.

“Essentially Margaret has to set up a new business for us in every location,” Simon explains. “She has to jump through the same hoops again and again.”

“We start with the Victorian Building Authority, then have to get the ground lease sorted, contact neighbours as part of the Good Neighbourhood Code of Practice, and then there is council,” Margaret says stopping for a breath.  “Not just one department but engineering, OH&S, building and by-laws.”

“Everything goes by the book,” Simon chips in. “We have to be one hundred percent professional or we go under.”

Well maybe not the time that the monkeys escaped from their enclosure during a sea voyage to Tasmania which I’d dearly love to hear more about but I digress!

With all these additional barriers Silvers has had to work extra hard in marketing their shows.

Well in advance, like a well-oiled machine, the posters pop up in shop windows and advertisements on television and radio herald their arrival in the region.  In addition there are blow up clowns on street corners and vehicles with signage strategically placed around the town.

And then there is the show itself that was voted one of the top ten circuses in the world in 1992.

Driving up to the big top, Silvers gives the external appearance of a traditional circus. The obligatory side show alley clowns, fairy floss and jumping castle can be found outside but the program is vastly different.

Thankfully Margaret doesn’t have to worry about escaping monkeys anymore because the circus has transgressed from exotic animal acts to highly skilled human acts. 

Yes, you will still find the clowns, illusionists, jugglers and acrobats appealing to all ages, but new acts include ones like The Globe of Death featuring motorbike riders who defy gravity and thrill their audiences.  I confess I found this very hard to watch but then again, I didn’t like my son riding a peewee at age five either!

Simon gets visibly excited at this point of the conversation.  He believes that circuses are continuing to evolve and there are two main factors contributing to this; the calibre of the international acts and technology.

“The thrill acts are very appealing to the teenage market,” he explains. “They come on their own and don’t have to be dragged along by mum and dad.  We are competing with so many forms of entertainment these days that everything we provide has to be a quality act.”

I wonder about safety and how the increasing Occupational, Health & Safety regulations affect circuses?

“We have incredibly dangerous acts so safety is paramount,” says Simon. “In many ways circuses have been way ahead of other industries in this respect. These are our family and friends so we have always worked hard to keep them safe.”

Technology is also a big part of how circuses now function.

Far from the old cumbersome canvas tents, the new tent design features only four king poles that can be much more easily erected and yet withstand gale force winds.  Technology enhances the drama of acts through sophisticated music and lighting.

With lifestyle a major factor drawing people to work in the circus industry Simon reflects on how digital technology has also made life on the road easier for him since starting in his early 20’s.

“I remember lining up at a phone box to ring my parents on a Sunday evening to get the cheap STD rates,” he recalls. “Now I can ring family and friends on my mobile, email or skype.”

Performing as Ring Master and an illusionist in the show, Simon can also be found helping out with the publicity and driving trucks. “We all multi task,” he admits. “You should see me on my day off!”

In fact, the more I hear about Silvers Circus, the more it reflects the qualities of any other successful family business.  Anton and Anna are clearly loved and respected by their employees that can number as high as 35 with support staff during peak times.

Silver’s circus performers enjoy a month off just before Christmas but another dream of Anton’s to provide quality children’s entertainment has seen a new show evolve especially for the Christmas market.  Each year in November and December the big top is now set up at Caulfield Racecourse for Santa’s Magical Kingdom.

When I ask Anton what the success of his business is, he puts it down to team work and attention to detail. “We all work together and, if it’s important like making sure your customers have clean toilets, sometimes you have to do it yourself.”  While some of the vehicles may be twenty years old they are meticulously clean, as is the big tent and all Silver’s facilities. This is clearly a source of pride for Anton.

“Silvers Circus is all about quality,” Simon reiterates. “People are totally entertained and remember the show.”

With a clearly happy audience vacating the big top at the conclusion of its last performance in Castlemaine, the team is anxious to start packing up before setting off in convoy to Ballarat. Performers are shedding their costumes and rolling up their sleeves to lend a hand.  From Margaret’s perspective, it is all about jumping through all the logistical hoops again, but for Anton it is about seeing the smile on people’s faces.

Silvers Circus is coming to town!

http://www.silverscircus.com.au/


KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE http://www.kerryanderson.com.au/about/

Rural Co-operatives

Cooperatives are a common solution for rural producers to pool their resources to take on big industry. And the benefits for rural communities are immense as I've written about previously READ MORE

However, a couple of more recent conversations are worthy of bringing to your attention hence this new blog.

The first is a field trip I undertook in Ford County a couple of weeks ago with Joann Knight, Executive Director of Dodge City & Ford County Development Corporation.  The scale is truly immense in this major cattle processing region along with the new emerging wind energy industry.

The second is the recent Farming Together Conference I attended in Adelaide during May 2017 where a new (and free) tool was launched to assist groups to develop a cooperative.  ACCESS TOOL

There is no doubt that rural industries and communities working together with a good business plan can be very lucrative.


KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. She is also an expert adviser for the Farming Together Pilot Program. READ MORE http://www.kerryanderson.com.au/about/

A Collaborative Culture

Increased connectivity and technology is heralding a new economic era with new opportunities and it is up to us (the people) to take advantage of it. Any community, no matter how big or small, has the capacity to develop an entrepreneur ecosystem if it can embrace a collaborative culture.  And, no, this is not just my opinion.  430 entrepreneurship advocates worldwide agree!

Given that I’ve long advocated that the key to strengthening our rural towns is a ‘whole of community conversation’ focussed on encouraging entrepreneurs, imagine my excitement when I was one of only two Australians invited to attend the inaugural E*SHIPSummit held in Kansas City on 21-23 June, 2017. 

Put 430 diverse entrepreneurship advocates in the room and you will get very different perspectives on what is most important in an entrepreneur ecosystem.  Like myself, a few were involved in broadly based programs, but most work in specialist roles that support start-ups or economic development.

Regardless, we could all agree on one thing.  Actively encouraging and supporting entrepreneurs in every city and town is important and there is not just one way to do it; it has to be a multi-faceted and collaborative approach.

We all had a mission at the summit. To help the Kauffman Foundation articulate why entrepreneur ecosystems are important and provide practical examples of how they can be fostered.

The framework that has resulted from research and discussions to date is delightfully simple and I can’t wait for the extended version to share because this is already a fantastic tool for us all to use.  I particularly fell in love with the graphic above because it aptly describes how an effective framework works and the value that every Pitchfest, start-up conference, and networking event contributes to developing a stronger ecosystem. 

People are undoubtedly the centre of an entrepreneurial ecosystem and where they are able to connect they naturally contribute to an ecosystem. But how do we get them to connect?  Sometimes it is through a program, an incubator, or networking events.  And they naturally gravitate towards each other because of common interests.  In a modern world of technology we can connect in the virtual world as well and I know many successful business people who develop ideas and partnerships through twitter hashtags, Facebook discussion groups and other mediums.

It is important to note that when we are talking about people we are including both the entrepreneurs and the people who support them – the very important champions and convenors. They are the enablers who help entrepreneurs in a variety of ways whether it be as advocates, mentors, investors, or customers. They are the people who influence policy that paves the way for ecosystems to develop.

Talent is another important factor. Nurturing the skills and talent required to drive the entrepreneurial business activities forward is essential. This is why business and educators need to work together so that talent supply and demand are efficiently matched.  In a fast paced world where many future careers haven’t been invented yet agile and adaptable skill sets such as critical thinking and data analysis are far more valuable than a defined career qualification.

In developing the framework we also talked about the need for onramps, an open door providing opportunities to grow networks and encourage new diverse talent to join the conversation.

Intersections was another important part of the framework; places where people can meet to develop ideas and fill gaps or talents.  Onramps and intersections are mostly aided by events bringing people together whether they be in person or in a virtual community.

As people gather together and collectively tell their story and articulate their dreams it makes it possible to articulate the community’s story and help shape your community’s future. Of course this will only be successful if we focus on the positive stories and leave the negatives ones behind.

There was no doubt that increased connectivity and technology is heralding a new economic era with new opportunities and new ways of operating.  It is up to us to take advantage of it.  In fact, with my novel Australian accent, I had the honour of informing the mostly USA delegates that America's old economic development model is officially dead! 

The reality in this modern world of technology is that any community, no matter how big or small, has the capacity to develop an entrepreneur ecosystem if it can embrace a collaborative culture.  Collaboration, cooperation, and trust will inspire people to advance their ideas more quickly, help each other, and be open to new and wonderful ideas never dreamed of before.

Yes, the framework is incredibly important, and if you get that in place along with these seven design principles, then everything else will flow more easily. 

#1Put entrepreneurs front and centre
#2 Foster conversations
#3 Enlist collaborators (everyone is invited!)
#4 Live the values
#5 Connect people (in every direction)
#6 Tell your community's authentic story
#7 Start and be patient

I am pleased to confirm that the Operation Next Gen program and its ‘whole of community conversation’ approachis on the right track when critiqued against these principles.

And now is probably a good point at which I should confess my bias. Perhaps not everyone agrees that small rural communities have the capacity to develop a successful ecosystem of note but I am determined to change that thinking. What the rest of the world and my city colleagues have to understand is that even just one successful entrepreneur, supported by a collaborative culture, can reverse population decline and enable a small town to not only survive but thrive.  While we may not have the physical density of population, we have a vested interest - it is our future at stake.  Rural towns more than make up for lack of density with passion and can access an extended virtual support community.

My sincere thanks goes to the Kauffman Foundation for honouring me with an invitation to the summit and accessing their incredible resources to further this conversation. I look forward to continuing to collaborate with my expanded network of ecosystem builders here in Australia and the USA.

Investing in your home town

For those fortunate to have been successful in life, there is the great privilege of being able to financially support their local community or a cause close to their heart. 

I was reminded of this while visiting Spearville in Kansas recently.  Despite only having a population of 900, this small agricultural town located seventeen miles from Dodge City, is benefiting from a $20 million legacy generating around $200,000 in annual revenue for distribution.

Yes, I have to admit that it took me a moment to process when I first heard that staggering amount of $20 million.  But then I started focusing on the intent which everyone is capable of.

A lifelong resident of Spearville, Tom Feist founded Feist Publications in 1978 which grew into a highly successful business and a major employer for this small community and across the State of Kansas. Prior to his death in 2011 he set in motion something that he knew would continue to give back to his home town well into the future.  A Board of Directors was hand-picked by Tom and his wishes clearly stipulated on what type of projects the Foundation should support.

Operating since 2014, only time will tell how Tom’s legacy will play out as proposals from local community groups are processed and implemented.  Given his business background, knowledge of the community and careful consideration, I suspect it will be far more effective than any government grant program. Already there are signs that the declining population is reversing (the 2010 census noted the population as only 773 while the 2017 figures are estimated by county officials at around 900).

Tom also gave generously during his lifetime.  We see it all the time in Australia as well.  Individuals and businesses investing in community projects and assisting start-ups in their home town.

And the potential doesn’t end there.

When it comes to financing community initiatives and start-up businesses to strengthen a rural town it is natural to look to those who live locally but don’t discount those who may have moved away.

No matter how long ago you lived in a rural town, there is always a strong bond and memories that can never be erased particularly if you were raised or started your business career there.  This is why we have seen founder of the Allied Medical Group, Dr Geoffrey Edelsten, chatting with locals at the Birchip races. His first posting as a country general practitioner was in Birchip!

It never ceases to amaze me when I am approached at city events by former country residents keen to chat about their home towns.  They have fond memories and are genuinely interested in what is happening.  Potentially they could be your biggest investor …. but only if you stay in touch and let them know what your plans are.

This is the beauty of social media which allows ex residents to follow local news from afar.  It is also why we should widely consult on community initiatives and let people know what they can support. You never know who is talking to who and what they would like to support.

When we have the capacity to give, there is a great deal of satisfaction in being able to support something bigger than yourself, whether it be giving a helping hand to someone starting out in business or upgrading a community facility.

And, if you don’t have the capacity for your own foundation or trust, and a tax-deductible receipt is an enticement, then the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal or your local Community Foundation will always be happy to have a conversation.

Tom Feist 

Tom Feist Foundation   

FRRR  


ABOUT KERRY ANDERSON:

Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

Should we invest in stocks?

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Photo Credit: Pixabay

We are often reminded not to 'put all our eggs in the one basket.'  Many small business owners like myself may wonder if there is any value in investing in the stock market as a way of diversifying our income.  Agnes has written this article to help demystify the stock market for us but, as always, you should seek financial advice from a trusted professional before committing to a new investment.

Written in collaboration with Agnes Benefiel

Among the many investment opportunities out there, the stock market is one of the easiest and most profitable options to help build wealth over the long-term. In fact, most of the individuals in the list of the wealthiest Australians as featured by Forbes, such as commodities investor Ivan Glasenberg, have accumulated such wealth due to a large percentage of shares in public and private corporations. 

Using both traditional and innovative techniques, there are several ways to make money through stocks. FXCM's post on 'How to make money in the stock market?' cited a few key strategies to earn a ROI (return of investment) through purchasing, ownership, and sale of stocks on the stock market

• Growth Stocks
• Initial Public Offerings
• Value Stocks
• Income Stocks
• Stock Funds
• Short-Selling
• Stock Splits

Just like any other financial asset, investing in stocks comes with potential risks and losses. But, investors can improve their chances by familiarising themselves with the many different ways to invest and find what that suits their needs and long and short-term goals.

Additionally, there are many reasons why investing in stocks can be lucrative, such as helping you to save for your retirement. Read on below to see why you should invest your money in the stock market. 

Ride out the stock market drops easily

Unlike other financial assets, investing in stocks makes it easy for investors to cut losses and focus on generating revenue. If the market drops, investors should not be worried. It may be painful for a time, but even if the market suffers over a long period, you should be able to ride it out. Stocks are long term investments, so owners can recover from the worst historical declines in the stock market easier that you’d imagine. As long as you are willing to stay the course, stocks will be able to offer the most growth potential. You may even be in a better position for growth when the market recovers. 

Photo credit: Pixabay

Photo credit: Pixabay

Most potential for growth

Even with the regular ups and downs in the market, Australian stocks have consistently earned more than bonds over the long term. Of course, it wasn’t all steady upward growth, but it presents the performance of the stock market historically that shows its greater potential for growth over a long period. Thus, investing in stocks, mutual funds, or exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are considered vital when saving for retirement or other long-term goals. The Sydney Morning Herald said investing in Australian stock offers growth potential for investors for several reasons. These include if businesses are expanding globally, a new economic infrastructure is poised for transformation, technological disruption, a new export economy, and changing demographics, according to author Mark Mulligan.

Asset allocation 

The key to overcoming the volatility of stocks is by diversifying the investment opportunities to ensure growth. While you may still have some bonds and other less risky options (i.e money market accounts), you definitely do not want to put all your money in one place. Asset allocation in stocks will allow investors to balance risk and reward by assigning assets based on their own goals, risk tolerance, and horizon. This strategy
can even help you in gaining international stocks where it can be between 5% for conservative investors to 25% for aggressive ones . Here are the reasons why international stocks are beneficial to your portfolio:

• Potential for higher rates of growth abroad
• International stocks are becoming a larger share of the investment universe
• Potential to lower overall risk in your portfolio
• Multiple currencies can provide an added layer of diversification

Despite the economic turmoil at present, the benefits of investing in the stock market have not changed. What needs to be changed is the perception of people about investing in stocks and its associated risk. In particular, 
Jason Murphy of news.com.au said millennials should invest in the stock market as they have the luxury of time to build their portfolios. As the famous stock investment quote goes: ‘Time in the market beats timing the market.’


Right Bright Learning

Wholebrain's Janeen Barker and Denise Smith are dedicated to inspiring disengaged students to learn.

Wholebrain's Janeen Barker and Denise Smith are dedicated to inspiring disengaged students to learn.

Read any entrepreneur’s biography and often you will find scathing references to their education ranging from ‘I couldn’t wait to leave’ to ‘I was expelled’. It must be a huge surprise that these students, referred to by educators in hushed tones as 'disengaged', can go on to become successful business people. Like Richard Branson, they aren’t stupid; they just learn differently.

Knowing this, imagine my delight when I chanced upon Wholebrain in Central Victoria that is dedicated to inspiring disengaged students to learn. 

Wholebrain founder, Denise Smith, knows first-hand what it is like to be a right brain learner in a left brain orientated education system.  She experienced the difficulty of learning, as did her son.

‘It tends to run in families regardless of gender,’ she explains. ‘We struggle with reading and become overwhelmed by everything in a normal classroom environment. Your self-esteem can suffer terribly.’

Dedicated to equipping students with right brain learning tendencies to learn in a left brain education system, Denise and her husband have donated a rural property at South Mandurang, just outside Bendigo, to host the program that primary school aged students can attend one day a week. Classes for up to eight students are held in a non-threatening family home environment while outdoor areas and a large shed host a range of physical activities to allow students to learn by doing which is their preference. The program is funded by parent fees and the occasional - and much appreciated - philanthropic donations.

‘We want children to understand that they’re not stupid, they just learn differently, and give them the tools to cope in their normal school environment,’ explains Denise. ‘We support the parents and teachers as well, helping them to understand the strengths of right brain learners.’

Incredibly, Denise has spent over a decade developing a specific font, phonics program and word lists to help young people with dyslexia to cope in the classroom. Teachers immediately notice a difference back in the students’ normal classroom.

If anyone is Denise’s biggest fan, it is Janeen Barker, who has taken on the role of principal teacher at Wholebrain for the past ten years.  Like Denise, Janeen has first-hand knowledge of right brain learning although it was not evident to her as a child.

Growing up, Janeen never knew that her father could barely read let alone write. How could she when he was such an active community leader and executive on so many different committees?

What Janeen didn’t know was that her mother was quietly helping in the background writing the meeting minutes while he stuck to what he was good at; numbers.

‘Dad always used to say “there is more than one way to skin a cat,”’Janeen recalls.

Occasionally he hit an obstacle, for instance when getting assessed to become an umpire for bowls.  Despite getting 100 percent in the practical assessment, he failed the theory exam three times. ‘Because Dad had a purpose to his learning he taught himself to pass the exam’, Janeen says with pride.

All this is painfully obvious to Janeen in retrospect, and she considers herself privileged to be a part of Wholebrain and able to make a real difference in the lives of future generations.

‘We are giving these children life skills just as much as we are helping them at school,’ Janeen observes. ‘It’s all about rediscovering the joy in learning.’

How could you not enjoy learning at Wholebrain with such commitment and understanding, not to mention kangaroos grazing in and around your classroom?

As Wholebrain enters its eleventh year of operation, various students are now entering the workforce and finding success.

By understanding right bright learning they are being put on the right track.

An open day is being held at Wholebrain on 18 June 2017 from 2-4pm.
For more information go to:  https://www.wholebrainworkout.com/

ABOUT KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE http://www.kerryanderson.com.au/about/

The Proposal

K&D Restaurantsml.jpg

Kamelle and Duane have taken the ‘leap of faith’ to leave Sydney and open up their own restaurant in the rural mining town of Collie, two hours south of Perth in Western Australia. And they couldn’t be happier!

In a classic case of Kamelle being made redundant and their expensive Sydney flat lease coming up for renewal, Kamelle was looking for an opportunity. She found it in Collie only two hours south of her hometown of Perth where a family friend had purchased a motel.

Previously Kamelle had leased a restaurant in similar circumstances from the owner so it was not hard to put a proposal together and convince her partner Duane that it was a good idea.

‘We just couldn’t see how we could cope in Sydney so we left it all behind,’ Kamelle explains.

Well, to be exact, Kamelle left it all behind.  The plan was for her to get the restaurant established using Duane’s earnings to support her during the start-up phase.

Duane stayed on in Sydney but he also couldn’t wait to escape. ‘A casino is a very depressing place to work,’ he admits. ‘You can’t smile and be happy because people are losing their money.’

With a background in hospitality he was 100 percent behind Kamelle’s plans, so when she rang to say that she was run off her feet with a conference at the motel, Duane had no hesitation in quitting his job and following in her footsteps.

‘I needed to be by her side,’ he smiles.

With most bank managers making themselves scarce when approached to finance a new ‘dream’ café or restaurant, this young couple were able to avoid a big capital outlay by negotiating accommodation and use of the kitchen and dining room in return for work at the motel during the day. But there was still money to be spent.

‘We anticipated spending $10,000 to set up the kitchen but it added up to $15,000’ admits Duane. ‘Our parents have been very supportive and wanted to be part of it.’

Both admit to being nervous in the beginning but are feeling optimistic with the results to date. They open six nights a week for dinner and offer a buffet breakfast on Sunday mornings.

‘It wasn’t such a big risk because there were already customers on site it being a motel,’ explains Duane. ‘But now, even the locals are starting to find out about us.’

So far they have used Facebook and flyers to generate publicity but, as always, word of mouth is their biggest ally.

Their business plan seems to be an organic one but they are clear on what they are offering their customers and where they are heading.

‘Our aim is to offer great service and good value,’ explains Duane who clearly loves being front of house and chatting with the customers. ‘If someone is staying for a while we can make it more homely for them.’

An excel spreadsheet has proven sufficient for their simple accounting needs and the purchase of a square reader gave them immediate access to EFTPOS and receipting without a five week wait.

Their long term plans are to start delivering lunches to workplaces, attract tourist buses, and eventually taking over the whole motel in three or four years.

Only eight weeks into their new enterprise and both are extremely happy with the decision.

‘In Sydney we hardly saw each other but now we spend every day side by side,’ says Duane. ‘It’s been a great decision.’

Which brings me to the second significant proposal in eight weeks. Duane asked for Kamelle’s hand in marriage the day after I took their photograph and she said yes! 

Congratulations Kamelle and Duane!

Check out K &  D's Restaurant's Facebook page


KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

Kerry recently published her first book with 20 inspiring case studies for rural communities and business people READ MORE

Do what you love

BY KERRY ANDERSON

HOW often do we hear that we should do what we love?  Celebrating 40 years of Graffiti Publications and its flagship, Australian Street Rodding Magazine, Larry O’Toole has not only survived but thrived while many other specialist publishers have come and gone in what is a cut throat industry.

Chatting with a semi-retired Larry in his Castlemaine based business that employs six people, it becomes clear that there are two key success factors to the business’s longevity. Authentic and customer focussed pretty much sums it up.

Ask him what the magazine is about and Larry has no hesitation in responding. “Owning, building and modifying street vehicles with an emphasis on pre 1948.”  In addition Graffiti Publications prints and franchises over 300 specialist books and DVDs relating to the modified car industry.

“We know our audience which is why the big corporates fail,” explains Larry. “I am a hot rodder. We talk the same language and have the same interests.”

Growing up on the family farm near Swan Hill, Larry learned driving and mechanical skills at an early age. His interest in street rodding was sparked as a teenager. “One day I picked up a hot rod magazine while on holidays and instantly knew what I wanted to do.”

Ever since there has been a project in progress in Larry’s back shed; an interest that ultimately brought him to Castlemaine in 1973. He was part of the very first wave of street rodding enthusiasts drawn to Castlemaine where interesting things were happening in this field.  Many of these enthusiasts started out with back yard hobbies and, like Graffiti Publications, evolved into successful businesses.

Four partners formed Graffiti Publications in 1976 as an after-hours enterprise. With a disappointingly slow start and personal circumstances intervening, three of the partners sold their shares to Larry and wife Mary who became the sole owners in 1989.

While Mary has worked hard to provide administrative support in between raising their four children, and their son Allister now handles the bulk of the editorial production work, Larry is undoubtedly still the public face of the business.  Over the past forty years he has attended all the major events across Australia to chat with enthusiasts and gather more knowledge and material for the magazine. In addition he has attended the American Street Rod Nationals for over thirty years.

With such diligent research Larry knows his market well.

Rather than being driven by advertising, Graffiti Publications is unashamedly customer focussed that has created a loyal subscription base Australia wide.

“If you produce good content you don’t have to ram advertising down the readers’ throats,” says Larry. “We only include advertising that is beneficial to our readers as well as to the advertiser.”

Flicking through the latest edition, the magazine clearly promotes a sense of community featuring reports from clubs and events across Australia and New Zealand.

Sharing knowledge is another important component of the magazine. “Readers really appreciate the learning element of our magazine and love watching projects take shape in instalments as they take place in backyard sheds.  We have six columnists that share their technical expertise each month.”

While Australian Street Rodding Magazine is stocked in newsagents in every state and territory, the subscription base is an important part of their business and special attention is paid to rewarding members of the Graffiti Club with special offers and a free advertisement to sell their cars. A newsletter promotes inside and breaking news. “It’s a bit more work but the return is good,” says Larry.

Planning and timing are what Larry excels at. Graffiti has never missed a publishing date, crucial in an industry where being one day late can push a print run back a week.

In addition to the mechanical skills learnt on the farm, Larry pays credit to a brief career in photography and pre-production with the Swan Hill Guardian that provided him with a valuable overview of the publishing industry. The rest of his operating skills have been developed along the way and by attending tradeshows and business development events. “I’m always learning,” he admits, “but most often I learn from others how NOT to do it!”

White boards enable staff to plan day-to-day operations and the publication schedule is set up to twelve months ahead to stay on top of multiple deadlines.  In-house production right up until the print ready phase helps them control both quality and timing to minimise delays. 

“Our customers are die hard enthusiasts and expect their magazine to be delivered at the same time each month. Unfortunately Australia Post is creating a challenge for us. What used to take two to three days is now taking in excess of a week,” he admits with a hint of frustration.

Larry’s planning skills also benefit the industry and wider community. Looking decidedly weary, he has just participated in Graffiti’s 40th Anniversary Celebrations and the Boogalo Invitational held at Castlemaine coinciding with the largest ever Australian Street Rod Nationals held in nearby Bendigo. All this was perfectly timed to entice over a thousand enthusiasts to the region for the entire month and entertain huge numbers of spectators.

Timing is king. A full colour catalogue printed in October, just prior to Christmas each year, promotes Graffiti’s offerings including specialist books and DVDs. “It works like magic,” says Larry.

At a time when everyone is embracing the digital era, Larry is bluntly dismissive of online publications. “Too many have gone down that path and failed.” Graffiti has a website to sell its products and utilises social media to complement their marketing, but that is as far as it goes.

A discerning businessman, he instead identifies opportunities such as acting as a franchise for overseas specialist publications that are popular here in Australia.  A sister magazine, Hot Rodding International, is currently being positioned to take on the global market utilising new distribution techniques.

Improving technologies have clearly impacted on the way in which the magazine is produced and printed over the past 40 years. There is an impressive collection of past computers, film processors and type-setters used throughout the magazine’s history but Larry is quick to caution against being an early adopter. “Don’t rush in to new technology,” he advises. “Let them iron out all the bugs first, but stay informed on emerging technology so you know when to make the move.”

Sure and steady with an authentic customer focus, there is no doubt that Australian Street Rodding Magazine is Australia’s longest running magazine in this genre for very good reason.

www.graffitipub.com.au

LARRY’S TOP BUSINESS TIPS:

  • Be customer focussed.
  • Reward your loyal customers.
  • Plan well ahead.
  • Control your own processes as much as you can.
  • Don’t rush into new technology, let them iron the bugs out first.

KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE http://www.kerryanderson.com.au/about/

Kerry recently published her first book with 20 inspiring case studies for rural communities and business people READ MORE http://www.kerryanderson.com.au/book/

Small Business Challenge

“Can any business be ethical?” was the question texted in to ABC’s Central Victoria Radio studio last year when I was chatting about rural communities and the importance of business.

Scrambling to think how to reply live on air, my heart was simultaneously sinking.  Is this truly what society thinks of the business sector?  Why is being successful and making a profit automatically seen as greedy and unethical?

It was at that moment that I found a new cause.

As any rural business owner knows we ARE the backbone of a community and I know that this is also true of our city counterparts.

Sadly the general public is easily influenced by the perceived horror stories of the big corporate world.  A whole generation is being brought up to consider business in a negative light.  ‘Social enterprise’ has become the preferred choice of terminology, almost as if an apology for it being a business.

I have no doubt that there are bad business people in the world at every level.  We are all human at the end of the day and that is just the way it is.  I am the last person to complain if a bad business person gets caught out. Good riddance to them.

However, the reality is that the vast majority of small business owners genuinely work hard and without acknowledgment of their true worth.

How can we educate the next generation about business?  How can we better acknowledge what businesses invest back into their communities through wages, donations, and sponsorship; not to mention the personal service and convenience of not having to drive considerable distances to access that service or product?

Quite simply small business needs to take a stand.  Forget about the ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’. Forget about being too busy in your business.  This is important!

We all need to better communicate what we contribute to our communities so those not involved in business can clearly understand what the impact would be if we didn’t exist. 

Start at a local level and display those appreciation letters.  And be proud if you employ staff because that in turns allows them to support their families and invest money back in your town or city.  You are helping other important local services and businesses remain open. In a small rural town one or two students can be the breaking point where a school is forced to close.  A dip in population can be hugely detrimental to both financial and emotional wellbeing of everyone.

And don’t forget the really big picture.  Profits and taxes paid through business and its employees is the basis of the income on which our government relies to deliver welfare, health, education and other essential services. 

“Isn’t it in everyone’s interest for business to be successful?” I pointed out to the disillusioned radio listener.  Then I wrote a book about it.


KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

Kerry recently published her first book with 20 inspiring case studies for rural communities and business people READ MORE

Business instincts

Kate Tol enjoying the country life at Mount Mitchell - photo credit Stefanie Driscoll

Kate Tol enjoying the country life at Mount Mitchell - photo credit Stefanie Driscoll

When lifestyle becomes a priority how do you balance it with a viable business? Simon and Kate Tol are in the process of finding out if their instincts are on track having just eighteen months ago, taken ownership of the historic property Mount Mitchell near Lexton, in the north-west district of Victoria.

As a youngster living in Geelong Simon Tol recalls driving along the Sunraysia Highway to visit his grandparent’s farm at Donald. “Two bachelors live there,” his father told him once as they passed Mount Mitchell, “and they store their grain in the ballroom.”

While the grand house, built in 1861 and expanded in 1910, was hardly visible from the road, that bizarre story stuck in Simon’s mind. It is hardly surprising that four decades later he and wife Kate were attracted by an advertisement in The Weekly Times seeking expressions of interest for the very same historic property, now reduced to 800 fertile acres.

The timing was right. Simon had been running his own successful plumbing and construction business for ten years, mainly in the commercial space, and was ready for a change.

“I hated the paperwork; having to be compliant, and the whole tender process,” he admits. “You’d work hard, sometimes for three or four years at a time on a big job, and then have to spend a couple of years trying to get paid.”

Kate, who was the Head of Physical Education/Health at The Geelong College for 24 years, in addition to renovating various properties with Simon, was also ready for a new challenge. “We both ran out of projects and were ready to do something else. Neither of us are good at sitting around.”

An inspection of Mount Mitchell revealed that the land was leased out for cropping while the 27-room house, complete with 18 fireplaces and 10 acres of gardens, had been lovingly restored over a 34 year period by Richard Salter. Quite literally Richard, a successful New South Wales grazier with a past family connection to the property, had saved it from the previous bachelor farmers who typically only valued the land and allegedly slept in their car at night, because it was warmer than the house and had a wireless.

“Everywhere we looked, we were amazed,” says Kate recalling their first visit. “We already had a picture-perfect home in Geelong and we were looking for something unique.” Mount Mitchell hit the mark for both of Simon and Kate, while Richard was assured that they would make perfect custodians.

So strong were their instincts, an unconditional offer was made on the property immediately following their second inspection. A six-month settlement allowed them to release their assets to meet the sale requirements and plan for their exciting move with the family.

Lifestyle has proven to be an important component of their decision and not for themselves but for their three children; Will aged 18, Sophie aged 16, and Harry aged 10.

“We wanted our children to have the opportunity to be more hands on,” explains Kate. In other words, everyone is required to pitch in!  Sophie is also raising seven calves in her own little business enterprise. “We’ve all got involved in the local community and are loving country life.”

“We don’t miss the hustle and bustle of Geelong at all,” confirms Simon who has just been elected President of the Waubra Football Club following a term as Vice President.

“So, let’s talk about your business plan for Mount Mitchell,” I suggest.

While Simon promptly informs me that they don’t have one, Kate is more forthcoming. Informal planning and bouncing ideas off each other is part of their daily life.

“We love living here but it still has to be viable. While Richard, the previous owner was very private, we have opened Mount Mitchell up to the community,” she explains. “For the moment, we are focusing on farming produce, events, and accommodation.”

Making the transition from construction to farming could be considered a risk, however, Simon has been fortunate to accumulate some useful skills over the years.

“I got my wool classing certificate in the 1990’s and a few years ago we purchased 250 acres at Moonambel as a weekender and loved it so much that we purchased the adjacent farm,” he explains.

Simon is particularly grateful to their new neighbours at Mount Mitchell. “They’ve been just wonderful with their advice and support.”

His first challenge was to restore the 800 acres previously planted with crops into pasture for prime lamb production. Fortunately, they already had sufficient farming machinery from the Moonambel property and Simon’s construction equipment also came in handy.

Sheep are an important part of the property’s history. Original owners along with assigned convicts, drove forty-eight merino rams down from Elizabeth Farm in New South Wales to Mount Mitchell in 1838. While the current homestead wasn’t constructed until 1861, there were numerous shepherd huts and outbuildings to service the 21,000 acres. Mount Mitchell was established only three years after Melbourne. An early map of the district notes the Adelaide to Geelong Road highlighting that Ballarat didn’t exist at that time.

With the paddock to plate concept becoming more popular world-wide, Simon and Kate were delighted to be introduced to Melbourne based Executive Chef, Ian Curley, who wants to stock their product in his restaurants. Not only their prime lamb but also the produce from their large kitchen garden.

Kate has spent the first year of their property ownership shadowing the gardener of 17 years learning the ropes and has recently taken on the responsibility of maintaining the 10 acres of gardens with some help from contract gardeners.

“My first Christmas present at Mount Mitchell was an eighty metre bore,” she laughs. “Installing an underground sprinkler system is next on my wish list.”

When it comes to events the Tol’s still value Mount Mitchell as their family home and the homestead is strictly off limits. They are targeting outdoor events utilising the extensive garden spaces and historic outbuildings such as the National Trust listed stable block.

“We are deliberately aiming for events at the exclusive end of the market,” Kate explains. “We want to retain Mount Mitchell as a high-quality brand. It’s such a unique place and essential that we don’t over expose it.”

While a coordinator is engaged to look after weddings, Kate and Simon take on most of the other events which include visits by various clubs and outdoor luncheons for groups. Just recently Kate took a film producer on a familiarisation tour, opening up new possibilities. Maybe Doctor Blake will pay a house visit, or an Australian version of Downton Abbey?

The Tol’s are fast learning that some types of events take more work than others. “We just get in casual help when we need it,” says Kate.

For a privileged few that want to stay longer and soak up the magic of Mount Mitchell, there is a historic cottage and brick veneer family home available for casual hire. Kate continues to manage their Moonambel property which is also available for luxury Australian bush experiences.

It becomes evident during our conversation that the Tol’s are good at connecting with the right people and that those relationships are helping to strengthen their vision for Mount Mitchell. In the initial stages, they employed Kate Davis, an events coordinator, that helped establish the brand and get them established. Each discussion leads them to someone else.

“Everyone gets as passionate about Mount Mitchell as we are,” says Kate. “It’s just such a special place. There are moments I love, every day. We are constantly pinching ourselves!”

Kate continues to access workshops and courses as time permits, continually building on her skills and exploring new ideas, as they seek that sweet spot between business and lifestyle.

Marketing through the Pyrenees Tourism Board, Visit Ballarat, and word of mouth referrals are proving most effective.

One gets the impression that Kate and Simon have spent their lives up until this point gathering all the appropriate knowledge and skills required to make Mount Mitchell a viable business. Their skills complement each other and they aren’t afraid to take on something new. Following their instincts may not be such a risk after all.

“Always challenged, rarely defeated,” quips Simon. “We are learning as we go and only take sensible risks.”

And then there is their other motivation.

“The house just seems to love us,” says Kate. “I think it needed children, noise, parties and skateboards!”

“There is no way I’d go back, to my previous life!” agrees Simon.

 Simon and Kate’s Business Tips:

  • Just do it!
  • Have fun.
  • Get involved and give back to your local community.

http://www.mountmitchell.com.au/

ANDERSON Kerry Book 2016 1 ols.jpg

KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

Kerry recently published her first book with 20 inspiring case studies for rural communities and business people READ MORE

Operation Next Gen

BY KERRY ANDERSON

At some point in time every rural town faces major change. Like every good business the trick is to anticipate that change and explore alternatives well before it happens.  And sometimes, to save your town, it means the whole community has to work together.

"Losing 230 jobs in a town with a population of 2000 would be equivalent to losing 460,000 jobs in Melbourne," wrote Ed Gannon in The Weekly Times as he recently lamented the loss of the timber industry in his home town of Heyfield. He admits that the industry has been under threat and gradually declining over multiple decades but the final blow has still been devastating to the people involved.

Similarly, Morwell in the Latrobe Valley is reeling from the announced closure this month of the Hazelwood Power Station that employs 750 people. A huge impact on another community with a population of just over 13,000 as evidenced by a recent episode of Insight on SBS.

Heyfield and Morwell are far from isolated in this experience. Rural towns world wide are all having to reinvent themselves to survive which is why the Operation Next Gen Program was first developed in Australia to help communities look at existing landscapes with fresh eyes and understand the importance of encouraging and supporting entrepreneurs.

The key is to get the whole community on board and working cohesively together.  Yes, easier said than done, but it can be achieved with a bit of pre-planning, some enthusiastic community leadership, and a lot of good will. 

I have seen the evidence with my own eyes in rural Nebraska where organisations such as the Heartland Center and Center for Rural Entrepreneurship have been tackling the issue of declining rural communities for over 35 years. Building an entrepreneurial ecosystem is considered to be the solution to this widespread problem.

A great example of the success of this approach is the rural community of Ord in Valley County.  Ord has a rural population of 2,112 in the township, or 4,647 if you count the whole county.  This community worked strategically and cohesively to turn around huge issues similar to what we are experiencing in many rural towns here in Australia. 

When I spoke with Ord community leaders back in 2013 they had some pretty impressive results to report from their 12 year campaign.  During this period the Ord community had attracted $125 million of private and public investment and created 100 new businesses and 350 new jobs.  The benefits have been wide spread.  In addition to unemployment levels dropping and wages rising, there has been retail growth and the value of properties has risen.   Things are looking much brighter in Ord than they were 15 years ago when they were considering a particularly glum future.

Trust me, this success was not by accident.  A community wide economic plan was agreed upon and a Community Foundation was established specifically for the purpose of supporting new start-up businesses and business expansion.  The County (Shire Council), Chamber of Commerce, School and community leaders came together and all took responsibility to drive various initiatives to ensure the plan’s success.  A paid facilitator helped to keep the key partners informed and engaged.

Oh how I look forward to reporting on similar outcomes here in Australia as part of the Operation Next Gen Program that was first trialled with the rural towns of Birchip, Boort and Cohuna in 2013-14. 

But first we need to establish if a community is ready to successfully take on this challenge.  Here are a few of the key indicators that you can apply to your own community’s state of readiness.

Understanding of the challenges.   What if our community doesn’t understand the issues or the importance of them?  Then this is your number one priority as our political leaders recently discovered in the Federal election.  Don’t wait until you lose a major industry or your last bank or supermarket in town.  Being proactive in analysing the health of your community which is underpinned by the diversity of business and employment opportunities is essential, as is understanding that if business is doing well then so will the rest of your community.

Understanding of the opportunities.  One of our biggest inhibitors is thinking that we have to keep on doing the same old thing in the same old way.  News flash:  Times are changing!  We need to be able to look at existing landscapes with fresh eyes in the context of the technological revolution.  By all means celebrate tradition but don’t get bogged down in it if you want to survive.  The future is all about being adaptable and agile.

Engagement with entrepreneurs.  Understanding the needs and desires of entrepreneurs - both young people and those changing careers - and looking at ways that they can be assisted to build their businesses is essential.  They are our future and, even if they do leave town to study and travel, make them feel connected and know they will be supported upon their return.

Strong Leadership.  Not just in council or in our community and industry groups.  We need a network of leaders who proactively collaborate to come up with a big vision plan that has consistency across the whole community.  Invest in your leaders to ensure that they can be strong, positive, consistent and inclusive in their leadership style.

Inclusive.   I cannot stress enough the importance of involving everyone in your community in this discussion.  At the very least they will understand why these plans are important and hopefully they will provide creative input and take ownership of some of the activities.  Get over the silo approach and respect that everyone has different ways of thinking and processing.  Find the initiatives that you can agree on and run with them.  Success will breed success.

Prepared to commit to the long haul.  In what appears to be the era of instant gratification we need to understand that this won’t happen overnight.  We have to be prepared to celebrate the small milestones along the way and keep revisiting that big picture vision to remind ourselves of where our communities are heading.

Do you think your Australian rural town is in a state of readiness for positive change through an entrepreneurial ecosystem? If so, I’d love to hear from you.


KERRY ANDERSON:  A businesswoman, author, and community advocate from Central Victoria, Kerry is passionate about rural and regional Australia.  She works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

Entrepreneurship: It’s everybody’s businessBOOK

Era of the Entrepreneur

Kerry Anderson is talking about changing the conversation from job seeking to job creation.

Kerry Anderson is talking about changing the conversation from job seeking to job creation.

OUR world is rapidly changing.  As connectivity improves, services that used to be provided by employees are now being contracted to freelancers.  An ageing population is stressing an economy that desperately needs more business creation. We need to start thinking of entrepreneurship and self-employment as a mainstream option, and to do this we need to change the conversation from job seeking to job creation.

Research any high profile entrepreneur and you will most likely hear about how they ‘hated school’ and ‘dropped out of college.’ This was a common story when I interviewed hundreds of entrepreneurs across rural Australia for my book.  

While far from academically minded, entrepreneurs are resourceful people who love solving a problem by looking for a solution. As well as an ability to look at things differently, they have a quiet self-belief and the confidence to persevere.  And yes, they love to experiment and accept failure as part of their pathway to success.

So, when I hear an educator talk about a ‘disengaged student’ or a community member mentions a ‘dreamer’, it is music to my ears. These are the individuals who are most likely to be innovative and entrepreneurial. But who will recognise and support them?

Anyone who has a family member or close friend in business is over 30 percent more likely to go into business themselves. In the meantime there are countless students and the unemployed being channeled through a job seeking system.  How can we inspire them to take control of their own destiny?

Any activity or program designed to encourage entrepreneurs and support business has to fulfill three essential criteria.  To inspire people who want to lead, not follow, it has to be engaging, authentic and relevant.

Clearly, educators and employment consultants cannot achieve this on their own.  It is absolutely essential to forge strong partnerships with the business sector and community leaders.

Let’s change the conversation together. Quite simply, our future depends on it.


Kerry Anderson is author of Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business and has developed an engaging, authentic and relevant Be Your Own Boss program for schools and organisations to implement with their local community.

Avoid getting burnt

AMIDST an Australian summer heat wave the heat is also on small businesses to perform and meet customer expectations.  Dining with a group of friends last evening got me pondering what a small business can do to avoid getting totally burnt when things go wrong.

Shown to a corner table it took a few minutes for us to register that the restaurant was extremely hot.  A staff member had been adjusting the sole split air conditioner for the very large space when we came in.  Unfortunately it appeared we were in for a hot dinner as we were too polite to walk out.

Asking for another table in better alignment with the split air conditioner made it somewhat tolerable but the occupants of a large table booked for a party were looking decidedly red faced as the evening progressed.

Yes, the meal was acceptable as was the service. But then it got worse.  At checkout we were informed that receipts couldn’t be issued as the EFTPOS machine wasn’t working properly.  That wasn’t a problem we assured her.  But then the billing system froze altogether and we were left standing for another five minutes as the clearly frustrated front of house manager tried to sort it out.

“I’m so sorry,” she apologised. “First our air conditioning broke down, then the EFTPOS, and now this.”

Her words told me a lot. It was one of those horror evenings where everything was going wrong.  Knowing that the restaurant was normally air conditioned made a big difference because we were about to walk out and give a bad review to all our friends. I was puzzled why she hadn’t mentioned it beforehand instead of constantly asking how our meal was.

Eventually we did manage to pay our bill and depart.  Overnight I’ve been reflecting on what they could have done better on what was clearly a disastrous day for this small business. I doubt that any of the patrons will return and the bad reviews will be spread far and wide.

In my opinion the staff should have apologised up front for the air conditioning break down so we knew straight away that this was not normal.  Everyone likes to sympathise when something goes wrong and being informed makes us much more forgiving.

If that had been my manager I would also have encouraged and authorised her to automatically make goodwill gestures to keep customers happy when unfortunate circumstances impact on expectations.

At the very least they could have offered ice for the water or a free drink to help keep us cool.  What could have really changed our attitude and possibly enticed us back would have been to offer at checkout a discounted meal voucher for our group of four to return at a later date.

Meanwhile the clock is ticking towards tonight’s opening.  What are their chances of getting someone to fix the air conditioning on a weekend?  Should they cancel bookings, inform staff not to come in, and simply close the restaurant?

What else can they do to prevent getting totally burnt I wonder?


KERRY ANDERSON:  Author of 'Entrepreneurship It's Everybody's Business', Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. 

Rural NBN Innovation

Grant Sutton, co-founder of AgCloud that is addressing NBN inequalities in rural Australia

Grant Sutton, co-founder of AgCloud that is addressing NBN inequalities in rural Australia

AS we often say out in the bush, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Having never personally done so I repeat this at face value, but I can testify as to how innovative rural people are when it comes to problem solving. Such is the case when it comes to the National Broadband Network (NBN) and the inequitable service being presented to rural Australia.

LAST spring, amidst the green rolling hills of central Victoria, a group of farmers was given a sneak preview of a solar-powered broadband repeating system that allows a daisy-chain radio network to be realised. The prototype has been developed by a Bendigo based start-up, aptly named AgCloud.

Showcasing his new purpose built shearing shed and workshop, fourth generation stud merino breeder, Jock MacRae, set the scene by describing his frustration at not being able to utilise the full benefits of the NBN in his business.

Empathising with Jock’s frustration and that of many other rural clients in similar circumstances, Grant Sutton, a self-employed IT professional from Bendigo, recognised the problem and, with the help of some colleagues, found a solution.

“Grant was able to help us connect to the NBN when most providers were saying it couldn’t be done. Once connected to the residence, he was able to take it via a hilltop to the farm infrastructure a few kilometers down the road at Elphinstone,” explains Jock.

“This has delivered low cost high speed internet right across the farm.  From operations in the sheep yards and cattle yards, the workshop and shearing shed, right down to the monitoring of an individual animal, this is the solution I had been looking for.”

Grant says that Jock's case is just one of many.

“Neighbours separated by a single hill are finding that one is eligible for high speed internet services while the other is relegated to either congested Next-G or slow and expensive satellite services,” explains Grant.

Over the past year Grant has collaborated with a local team of experts to develop the proto-type and co-founded a new business aptly named AgCloud

“Our aim has been to address the inequality by repeating services over hills and terrain to fill that void in the service difference. By linking high-speed NBN we’re exploring what high-quality internet can do for them.”

In the case of the prototype service established at Jock’s property, the benefits are already significant particularly in the area of farm security and NBN provision.

“We’ve installed some fixed cameras and gate tags at key points around the property and I can now access live data and receive alerts via my smart phone,” says a clearly delighted Jock who is ever conscious of protecting and monitoring his assets.

All this has been achieved by simply installing a repeating service at the highest point of the property, something that I overlooked when driving in but paid special attention to on the drive out. Solar panels overcome remote power issues and there is the potential to also install wind turbines to ensure continuity in the winter months.

But what happens if the connection is broken or equipment tampered with I wonder?

“Notifications are immediately received by the client,” responds Grant whose expert team has thought through the process carefully.

“Farm sensing products are also solar powered and can be used for a vast number of sensing requirements,” he adds. “Anything from silo levels, livestock locations and environmental conditions can be recorded into the cloud and understood by the farmer from anywhere in the world.”

For farmers who have large remote properties and like to take time off with their families, this is particularly good news. From Jock’s perspective he will be able to check live feed and respond to alerts from wherever he might be.

Having collaborated with electronic specialists, programmers, and manufacturers, Grant has successfully developed a prototype service and products that surpass any off the shelf hardware currently available on the market.

Capital funding is AgCloud’s next big challenge.

“So far we’ve developed the system from our own pockets with zero return,” says Grant who is sincerely grateful to the local individuals and businesses that have generously given their time and resources to get the prototype to this point.

“We are now looking for some serious funding to take us to the next level and roll this service out Australia wide and potentially to a global market.”

Local community leaders and the Victorian Farmers Federation are excited. Jaala Pulford, the Victorian Minister for Agriculture, has also agreed to drop into Jock’s property for a demonstration.

The burning question is, will funding bodies step up to the mark or will this innovation go down the path of many other Australian prototypes and be hijacked for the benefit of overseas competitors?

I sincerely hope it is the former.


KERRY ANDERSON:  A businesswoman, author, and community advocate from Central Victoria, Kerry is passionate about rural and regional Australia.  She works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE  

Kerry recently published her first book with 20 inspiring case studies for rural communities and business people READ MORE

Lifelong Customer

How I saved $1,399 and a business gained free advertising and a lifelong customer.

WITH Boxing Day and New Year sale signs bouncing off every satellite beaming down to earth, it made perfect sense to upgrade my laptop this week, or so I thought.

If I’d been a technology expert I could have simply ordered online or walked in and out of the store without any conversation.  But I’m not.  I like to see first-hand what I’m buying and also need to talk it through to make sure my logic is correct.  After all I’m the one who will be using it every day for my work and lugging it from airport to airport which makes things like weight very important to me.

So, I took myself off to my nearest specialist store this week and I was ready to spend top dollar.  So that I could make visual comparisons, I also brought along my old laptop that had been purchased from this same store two or three years earlier in my first positive experience with them.

“Why do you need a new one?” was the young sale assistant’s first question eyeing my current laptop.

Storage issues was my prompt reply as I’d been struggling with memory (the laptop in particular). Apart from that I love my laptop.

To cut a long story short this lovely young sales assistant went on to explain how I could clean up my laptop and alternate storage options.  He even logged on and showed me how.

“Yes the new model has double the memory but you really don’t need it” was his conclusion.

I walked out of that store with $1,399 still in my bank account and every intention of returning there again when I really do need a new laptop or anything else computer related.  I will also be telling everyone in my region that Centre Com Bendigo has great customer service as I do for a number of other local businesses that give great service and have earnt my trust.

This is exactly how a business wins lifelong customers and generates free word of mouth advertising.

Rejuvenating Small Business

In this day and age of being reminded constantly of how we need to take better care of ourselves, it seems unfair that customer expectations of small businesses are not in tune with this sentiment.

As any holiday period approaches I am reminded of how tough this is for small family businesses in the retail and hospitality sectors, particularly those located in rural towns.

We used to keep our retail shop in central Victoria open seven days a week all year round but the increased penalty rates put an end to that about five years ago.  While the university students we employed on weekends were keen to continue, our profit & loss spreadsheet said differently.  Clearly our core customers were locals during the week, not the tyre kickers that love to browse the shop enjoying a leisurely weekend in the country.  Every business is different but this was the case for ours.

Up until that point we were happy to provide much needed employment and keep the shop open as a courtesy to other tourism related businesses around us, but now the figures were against us. We had a choice. We could work seven days a week all year round ourselves, or take time off to enjoy with our families and keep ourselves healthy for the six days we are required to work extremely hard.  Getting away for at least one or two weeks a year of uninterrupted leisure was another dream we had.  Even better if we could do it together as a family rather than taking turns to mind the shop.

To us it was a no brainer but to the wider public it is not always so clear.  Slowly we have all crept into the expectation that we can shop and do business on any day of our choosing.  Community leaders lament the fact that so much business is being lost as tourists drive through their rural towns on weekends and public holidays.  I’m constantly asked ‘What can we do about it?’ as if it is the fault of small business owners.

Well my suggestion is for community leaders and small business owners to communicate better.  Proactive business communities may be able to negotiate for business closures to be staggered throughout the year.  Most of all, everyone needs to communicate why closures are necessary.

Be loud and proud that small business is the backbone of our economy.  Explain that small business owners are spending time with their families and look forward to giving great service on re-opening day.  All it takes is a sign on shop windows, a notice on websites, and courtesy reminders to core customers.

Don’t be sorry. Just communicate better.


KERRY ANDERSON:  A businesswoman, author, and community advocate from Central Victoria, Kerry is passionate about rural and regional Australia.  She works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

Kerry recently published her first book with 20 inspiring case studies for rural communities and business people READ MORE

Factory and Field

BY KERRY ANDERSON

When Cohuna teenager Jenni Finn got a casual job in an orange juice factory in the 1980’s she had no idea that one day she would own that building and establish one of her home town’s most successful businesses in recent years.

Visitors to Cohuna in northern Victoria often find it hard to find the much talked about Factory and Field store.  Owner, Jenni Finn, is just a little bit embarrassed to admit that she has been too busy to organise signage despite just celebrating their third anniversary.  “It’s still on the to do list,” she admits.

Housed in an old Butter Factory building dating back to the 1880’s and used for a multitude of purposes over the years, Factory and Field is tucked away on the back road to Leitchville amidst an industrial estate.  It’s not exactly where you’d expect to find a popular home wares and gift store and that is part of its charm.

Jenni’s father purchased the old factory site in 1991 to expand his Cohuna Steel business and, when he retired from business in 2012, Jenni and her husband offered to take it on. 

With the artistic eye of a photographer one can understand why Jenni was attracted to the building.  There is something compelling about massive concrete walls and a corrugated iron roof framed with steel girders.  With a three storey high ceiling and extensive natural lighting from the old factory windows high in the roofline, she essentially had a blank canvas to work with.

But of course it wasn’t that simple. Jenni was too busy supporting her husband with his auto electrical business and raising three children to do more at that point in time.

For a while she used one room of the factory as a part time photographic studio while dreaming of what else it could be.  That day finally arrived in 2013.  “The kids were older and it was finally time to do something on my own,” says Jenni.  Profit was another deciding factor. “The commercial rental rate was extremely low, around $600 per month,” she explains.  “I knew I could get a better return than that on our asset.” 

With the encouragement of a very supportive and resourceful husband she made the plunge.  Factory and Field was born in a bit of a rush; three months to be exact.  Jenni made the decision in July, purchased stock at a trade fair in August and opened in September 2013.  Her idea on what to sell was simple.  “I’d only stock things that I’d have in my own house, and fortunately, what I like suits the building.”  A name for the business was also simple. “Factory and Field had a country feel to it.”

What didn’t come so easily, however, was finance.  While their bank had been happy to support the purchase of the building, it wasn’t prepared to finance the business.  Undeterred Jenni gave the building a bit of a tidy up and used her personal credit card to purchase minimal stock.

On opening night around 130 curious locals came and devoured her entire stock in a few hours.  Jenni was both stunned and relieved.  Over the next three days that the store was open she spent her time explaining why they had sold out and people were only too happy to come back the following week when they had restocked.

Three years on and Factory and Field is continuing to grow and evolve.  Additional rooms have been opened up to house a café and a Christmas theme section.  What started off as an idea of self-serve coffee with an urn grew into a fully serviced café.  “As with everything around here it just gets bigger as we talk about it,” Jenni smiles. And she has the space to do it with much more of the four acre site awaiting her vision to be applied.  A function room and holiday accommodation units are just two ideas on the drawing board.

And the customers keep coming from even further afield. “Car loads drive from places as far away as Heathcote and Mildura to browse the shop and have lunch in Cohuna before driving home again,” says Jenni. “People will travel for something different and to be entertained.”

Like everything else Jenni has applied to her business, the marketing has been kept simple.  Facebook is her number one method of advertising and, best of all, it is free.  “I looked at other sites that worked well and used my own photography skills to make the posts interesting.”  One of her monthly ‘Like and Share prize’ postings was viewed over 60,000 times which helps explain the geographical spread of her customers.  Word of mouth has taken care of the rest and the shop is buzzing from Thursday through to Sunday each week when it is staffed by six employees.

Reflecting on the success of her business Jenni concedes that growing up in a family business made her more aware of the possibilities, however, it has still exceeded her expectations.  “I had no time to have an expectation,” she admits.

She is also pragmatic.  “Yes we would have liked $50,000 for some fittings and to properly stock the store when we opened but we could only do what we could afford to do at the time.  Sometimes your instincts are good and, if you have a space to be used, there is nothing stopping you.”

In between serving customers Jenni is busy reviewing what still needs to be done with her ‘space’ and street signage is still on the list.

Jenni’s top business tips:

  • Don’t accept the first ‘no.’
  • Fake it till you make it.
  • Just run with it.
  • Learn as you go.
  • Do what you like to do.
  • Work with people that enjoy doing the same thing you do.
  • Employ enthusiastic and friendly staff.
  • Don't be afraid to make changes in your business when you find something is not working.  Not everything needs to be set in stone.

Follow Factory & Field on Facebook


KERRY ANDERSON:  A businesswoman, author, and community advocate from Central Victoria, Kerry is passionate about rural and regional Australia.  She works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

Kerry recently published her first book with 20 practical and inspiring case studies to assist rural communities and business people Entrepreneurship: It’s everybody’s business

Shop Rural

Field and Factory in Cohuna

Field and Factory in Cohuna

Shopping local is great but shopping rural is even better this holiday period according to rural business advocate Kerry Anderson.

“Every dollar spent in a rural town has a multiplier effect and helps keep businesses alive and retain jobs for rural people,” says Kerry, author of Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business.

Having just returned from a business trip across rural Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, Kerry was delighted to pick up a number of unique gifts in preparation for Christmas and says she was pleasantly surprised where she found them.

“Rural businesses have had to diversify to survive and you will find gifts being sold in conjunction with newsagents, posts offices, and even cafes and butchers,” she explained.  “Spend a day in the country browsing shop to shop and town to town and know that you are making a big difference to these rural communities.”

For those who are unable to find an excuse to spend a pleasant day out in the country, the internet is also an option with some rural based businesses selling specialist products online.

“Check out the ‘about’ or ‘contact’ section on a website to see where they are located,” advises Kerry.  “Fantastic products; everything from teddy bears to soaps and dog coats are being made in rural locations by rural people.  And don't forget a voucher for a service as another option," she adds. "Anything from a massage to computer assistance can be a welcome gift."

No matter where you live, your wisely spent dollars can have maximum impact this holiday period and help rural communities to retain jobs and services.


KERRY ANDERSON:  A businesswoman, author, and community advocate from Central Victoria, Kerry is passionate about rural and regional Australia.  She works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

Entrepreneurship: It’s everybody’s businessTHE BOOK 

Value of Planning

BY KERRY ANDERSON

Having an unrestricted dream and writing it down into a plan can have far reaching consequences according to David and Rebecca Comiskey of “Melton” in Central Queensland.

In a harsh environment that swings from successive years of drought to a flood in the blink of an eye, it is hard to imagine how farming families continue to survive let alone run a successful business.  Recently touring Melton, an 8,500 hectare (21,000 acre) cattle property, in Central Queensland, I was privileged to witness the passion of David and Rebecca Comiskey as they paused to reflect on their achievements eight years into the implementation of a twenty year plan.

Nestled between the Drummond and Great Dividing Ranges, Melton’s Brigalow soils are highly valued in terms of land prices.  Fortunately for the Comiskeys, Melton was under developed at the time of purchase making it affordable, albeit a huge investment, for the young couple.

Drawing on modern farming techniques and networking with other like-minded producers they have taken a whole new approach to farm management since purchasing the property in 2007. 

Entering the organic market, adopting a rotational grazing system, and maximising their herd management forms a three pronged approach to their twenty year plan.  Closely monitoring and benchmarking their progress against previous years’ performances, all three goals have been fast tracked beyond their initial expectations.

Their first big decision was to go organic and the reason was quite simple according to Rebecca.  “We decided to go with grass fed organic cattle because that is what we like to eat ourselves.”

They were also very aware that their capacity to remain viable with inflation and rising costs of inputs  was limited.  “We don’t have the scale that other properties have so we had to focus on quality rather than quantity,” explains David.

To David the biggest difficulty in going organic was believing that they could do it.  “When you’ve been brought up controlling weeds with the use of chemicals, the hardest thing to do is to get rid of that paradigm in your head; to take a risk and go organic.”

In essence, organic status dictates that any input has to be natural or organic for both stock and land.  All new products are thoroughly researched and approved prior to ensure that they are compliant.

Well experienced in conducting audits and monitoring other farm activities Rebecca picked up the annual reporting in her stride. It took just three years from application until they were certified to sell organic beef and the financial benefits were immediate.  Organic beef is currently selling at around $7.20 per kilogram as opposed to $4.50 per kilogram mainstream beef.

David is quick to warn however, that anyone wanting to fast track organic status may encounter unexpected challenges.  “Because our goal has always been to go organic, we were able to deal with everything that came up along the way.”

At the crux of the Comiskey’s planning is the introduction of rotational grazing.  In essence 5,000 acres are divided by electric fencing into four sections all leading to a central water trough. Paddocks are rested  according to the growth rate of the grass, 60 days in the growing period and out to 120 days in the non-growing, allowing time for the ground cover to replenish.

“Everything starts with the earth,” explains David. “Healthy soils leads to healthy pastures which leads to healthy cattle and ultimately to healthy consumers.”

Good grazing practice stimulates growth of the primarily Buffel and native grasses.

“The rotational grazing system is far more climate effective,” says Rebecca. “For every one percent increase in Organic Soil Carbon, achieved through good grazing land management, another 72,000 litres of water can be absorbed into the soils per hectare, making our property more resilient for the droughts that will always be a part of our business.”

Thanks to a Natural Resource Management grant they have been able to fast track their plan with one quarter of the property already under the rotational grazing system.  It has also given them the opportunity to make comparisons with other paddocks still on the set stock system.  At a fence line separating a traditionally grazed paddock from a rotationally grazed paddock, the benefit is clear to see.

“We don’t have to tell anyone, they can see for themselves,” says Rebecca.

Animal health is central to the rotational grazing system.  Thanks to new and extensive water infrastructure powered by solar, the cattle have less than 750 metres to walk to water and are easily transferred from one section to another.

As part of their 20 year plan the Comiskeys have also focussed on maximising management of their 1,000 head of Brahman breeders, currently down in numbers due to recent drought conditions.  The herd originated from David’s father giving them a great base to start with.

“Genetics and genomics will help our rate of improvement and are important tools to help us achieve our breeding goal of well adapted, high eating, quality grass-fed beef,” says Rebecca. “We are focussed on providing what the consumer wants to eat.”  Effectively they have increased the productivity of their breeding cows by introducing seasonal mating so that calves are born when rain is predicted and pasture nutrition is best to assist the lactating cow.

“Each decision we make is weighed up both financially and ecologically,” she adds. “For example we’re not rushing to restock cattle after the recent drought even though we’ve just had unexpected rain.  It’s good to let things recover.  We believe there is a huge link with profitability and good ground cover or land management.”

Chatting with David and Rebecca it becomes evident that they also value their personal time to participate in sports such as barefoot waterskiing that has taken them as far as the national titles.  They engaged a farm hand so ease of management has been a high priority while introducing their three new strategies to the business.  .

Rebecca produces her mobile phone to demonstrate.  Water storage, electric fences, and even rainfall can be monitored from afar.

It goes without saying that none of this has been easily achieved and it is no surprise that, a three year drought aside, accessing capital and managing debt have been their two major challenges.

A schoolteacher by training, Rebecca is quick to pay credit to David’s business acumen that has been fine-tuned during his previous ownership of an earthmoving business and investment in real estate.  Her skills in monitoring and report writing have become equally valuable to the business.

In dealing with debt, they have closely monitored their progress.  Regularly supplying their bank with budgets to actual results and yearly financials has helped establish a strong relationship and negotiate the tough drought years that would normally present lots of hard questions from financial partners.

“We didn’t wait to be asked,” explains Rebecca. “We knocked on the bank’s door and kept giving them information.”  She started with some solid budgeting and putting together lots of reports to help understand how they were travelling; however, this still wasn’t enough to satisfy her own need to confirm that they were making positive progress.  Benchmarking against their own performance was the next step.  “That was a good business decision,” she smiles. “Even the auditing for our organic status and monitoring of our pasture growth has been good for our business.  We know how we are performing at all times. It’s exciting.”

David believes that investing in their management skills has been a key to their success.  Initially they both did an investment course to help them negotiate their finance and invest off farm to help drought proof their business.  Then they joined a business group of like-minded property owners, Resource Consulting Services that helped them further develop their twenty year plan.

David was stunned with the power of simply putting down a dream in writing.  “I didn’t believe how suddenly a wish list can be ticked off and achieved.”

The group also helped them access resources that would have otherwise remained unknown.  By matching a Queensland Rural Adjustment Authority Loan to help fund a Natural Resource Management Project, they were able to fast track their plan.

“We went a bit bigger than we thought but it was too much of a good offer to pass up,” says David.  The result was 51 kilometres of polyurethane piping and 45 kilometres of fencing towards their rotational grazing infrastructure.

Both David and Rebecca are sitting on a number of industry and natural resource management groups.  Joining is a no brainer according to David. “Before that we were just bumping along and inventing our own stuff. You meet so many like-minded people and share many great ideas.”

Changing the perception of their industry is another personal goal they both share.

“We like to think that we are custodians of the land,” says Rebecca who has a number of family members recognised in the Stockman’s Hall of Fame. It is our aim to leave our soils in better shape than how we found them.

“Politics aside, it’s important that city people come out and visit to see exactly what we do and don’t do,” says David.  “While we respect the old ways, we are very open to trialling new ways.”

From my perspective, agriculture’s future is in good hands if this enterprising couple is any indication.

The Comiskey’s Top Business Tips:

  • Dream big and have a plan.
  • Maintain a good relationship with your bank manager, accountant and solicitor.
  • Surround yourself with like minded people.
  • Access good advice and training.
  • Be open to new ideas.


KERRY ANDERSON:  A businesswoman, author, and community advocate from Central Victoria, Kerry is passionate about rural and regional Australia.  She works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

Entrepreneurship: It’s everybody’s businessBOOK

Number Crunching Pork Producer

Photographs courtesy of Shayne Mostyn, Cohuna

Photographs courtesy of Shayne Mostyn, Cohuna

BY KERRY ANDERSON

When a small group of pork producers was faced with an increase in freight costs for the cost of purchasing feed, Aeger Kingma, an enterprising pig grower with a passion for ‘crunching numbers’ was motivated to take action. Five growers subsequently established Pentagon Feeds at Cohuna, in northern Victoria, in 2010. Six years on and it has significantly reduced costs for its members and is turning over $20 million per annum.

Comprising a green site development of a purpose built feed processing mill with capacity to store 3,000 tonnes of grain, Pentagon Feeds is a substantial addition to Cohuna’s industrial district. The mill produces 1,000 tonnes of pig feed a week to meet the needs of its five shareholders and other local pork producers as customers. By controlling their own grain procurement and utilising modern technology to achieve efficiencies, this privately owned company is producing quality feed at a reduced cost.

Creating much interest at the time it opened, and since confirming its viability as a business, Aeger is happy to share why he believes Pentagon has been a success.

In his view, it all comes down to ‘a bit of lateral thinking and ability to crunch the numbers.’ As is often the case in agriculture, he also agrees that adversity is a good catalyst for change, enabled through a spirit of co-operation.

‘For a couple of years, the pig industry wasn’t so good and there wasn’t a lot of money in it,’ explains Aeger.  Given his long involvement in the industry as a current director of Australian Pork and former representative of the Victorian Farmers Federation Pig Group, he is well placed to comment.

‘Changes to the pork industry import regulations in the early 2000s allowed importation of pork into Australia which ultimately decreased pork prices and resulted in an excess of pigs being produced. A number of pork producers exited the market until the national herd was decreased and a balanced industry and pricing was restored in economic terms.’

Then, just as balance was being restored, along came the drought.  ‘This increased our feed costs and impacted severely on our bottom line,’ says Aeger.

Normally 50–60 percent of total costs, in the drought feed costs rose as high as 75 percent. When their local feed mill closed down in 2007 an additional freight impost was introduced to transport feed from St Arnaud. 

As a producer who runs 1,400 sows and cares for a total of 14,000 pigs at any one time, Aeger had very good reason to be concerned. ‘We had no control and were fed up with being dictated to.’

Using his accounting skills, Aeger wrestled with the issue and came up with a business proposal based on a similar model already operating in South Australia.

Operating for about a decade, the Murray Bridge Abattoir, led by Ian Parish, had successfully brought together a group of farmers and processors to control the quality of slaughtering for the export and domestic markets. 

‘It was initially Ian’s suggestion that we look at this model,’ says Aeger. ‘A proposal was prepared but none of us had a lot of spare cash at that point in time so we parked the idea for a couple of years.’

Two years later in 2009, when the timing was right, Aeger updated the figures and put the proposal to five local pork growers. Most of the group had already formed a relationship for joint negotiations to purchase feed at the best price.

In fact, with this existing spirit of co-operation, Pentagon Feeds Pty. Ltd. only took 17 months from the initial concept to turning out the first run of feed pellets.

‘We worked out that we could build a pretty fancy mill for the cost of freight savings and produce at least 600 tonnes of feed per week for ourselves and other customers.’

Initially each partner signed an Expression of Interest and contributed $2,000 to fund a feasibility study to ensure the proposal was sound.

Discussion then turned to operating budgets and the legal side of the business, with agreements drawn up on how profits would be distributed and shares could be traded or sold.

Because the amount of feed required for each partner varied, shares issued was proportional to the amount of feed consumed. This was an important part of the company structure, therefore it was considered fair that the shared risk also be proportional according to the shareholding.

‘We each put in some cash to underwrite a loan for the business. All up we borrowed $3.2 million. The bank co-operated with us to establish proportional guarantees.’

Aeger stresses the importance of having a champion who will drive the process.

‘You need to recognise the points at which you are competitors and where you are not. It’s then easy to create a desire to achieve as long as someone is prepared to lead it.’  Aeger took the time to make a personal approach to each grower, explaining the figures and assisting them to understand the required investment versus anticipated return.

Early on the shareholders decided on a few basic principles.

‘We agreed that we were sharing the mill and that we would be as efficient as we could which meant some compromise.  Efficiency depends on long production runs with similar rations, not lots of different varieties.’

Six years down the track and Aeger, who was appointed non-voting part-time executive director, is clearly delighted with the results.

‘It’s gone significantly better than expected. We bought into the concept based on savings on freight but didn’t understand the savings generated by being involved in our own procurement of raw materials which were obtained at a cheaper price than by the previous supplier.’

The mill was designed to be run with low labour input and, with the unanticipated savings on procurement, Pentagon has been able to weather the storm of increased energy costs.  Aeger proudly claims that they get 33 percent throughput above the average of other mills out of their presses and can recite a range of statistics and figures to back it up.

Strategy is an important part of each board meeting held every two months, especially when it comes to purchasing their main raw ingredient of grain.

‘If commodity prices are at a high point we buy short, and if they are at a low point we buy long,’ says Aeger. ‘We are lucky to have the funds behind us to buy six months’ worth of grain.’

The company has just invested in additional grain storage to maximise buying capacity. They now have eight silos with capacity to store a total of 3,000 tonnes of grain for processing.

As a director of Pork Australia, Aeger also follows with interest the results of any research. 

Specialised equipment from Germany is currently being installed to enable Pentagon to precisely measure and add protein to food pellets, once again maximising available raw materials for the cheapest possible ration cost.

‘Fat is a good source of digestible energy,’ explains Aeger. ‘Every percentage point of energy is worth about $28 to us per tonne.’

$70,000 has been invested in an infra-red machine, the size of a little computer, which gives Pentagon the ability to scan incoming samples of grain, and translate the imagery into data that is then emailed to their nutritionist for analysis.  Another piece of technology then accurately sprays up to an additional 4 percent of fat coating around the food pellets. A nutritionist uses the information from this equipment to formulate appropriate rations for each class of pig.

Six years since being established, and with all this additional investment, there is no doubt that the benefits have been significant for Pentagon Feeds’ shareholders.

‘From a company point of view, over $1 million per year finds its way either back to shareholders or into assets,’ says Aeger. His accounting background compels him to also measure and track his own savings. ‘I personally save $5,000 each week on supplying feed to our farm.’ 

He is acutely aware that the longer they are removed from purchasing through a feed supplier, the more difficult it will be to calculate an accurate return. ‘It’s not just the freight savings, it is the increased ability to control the quality of feed going to your animals.’

Their next challenge as directors is to manage a new, and most welcome, scenario as the company transitions from one that has a big debt to service to one that doesn’t.

Without doubt, Pentagon Feeds is a great success story. As long as there is a viable pork industry, Aeger does not foresee any changes in his lifetime to the company structure or its shareholders, despite an exit strategy being clearly outlined at the very beginning of its formation.

‘All five shareholders are well into succession planning,’ says Aeger. ‘My son is well entrenched in our piggery and while it exists, the need for the mill exists.’ Even if there is a downturn, he says the mill infrastructure can be adapted to process feed for another species if required.

In Aeger’s words, backed up by his number crunching abilities, Pentagon Feeds has ‘turned into quite a useful business!’

Aeger’s top business tips:

  • Understand where control can bring added profit to your business. 
  • Think strategy before structure.
  • Commit the necessary number of people to make it viable.
  • Recognise the points at which you are competitors and where you are not. 
  • Take the personal approach when bringing people on board a business idea.  Explain the vision backed up by the figures and how they work.
  • The simpler you can keep the entity, the easier it is to get off the ground.
  • Be clear on your exit strategy before agreeing to entry.

KERRY ANDERSON:  A businesswoman, author, and community advocate from Central Victoria, Kerry is passionate about rural and regional Australia.  She works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

This story is featured in Kerry's book: Entrepreneurship It’s everybody’s business