Who said manufacturing is dead in Australia? While it can be challenging in a global marketplace and extended dry seasons, Grizzly Engineering is living proof that long term success is possible. Their ground-breaking technology is made in Swan Hill from start to finish and they survived the 2002-2010 drought years with a bold initiative.
It’s an exciting day when I catch up with Grizzly’s three company directors in Swan Hill. This innovative business established in 1983 has such a great reputation and I’m very grateful to spend some time with Wendy McAllister and her two sons, Kurt and Skye Poltrock.
With Australia’s wages much higher than our agricultural competitors in Canada and the United States it has become difficult for some Australian companies to compete in a global market. But when it comes to competing with cheaper imports in the domestic marketplace, Skye who oversees sales and marketing, has no qualms about the reason for their continued success.
‘It’s all about quality manufacturing and backing it up with service. We listen to our customers.’
Kurt, who has stepped into the role of General Manager since the retirement of Wendy from day to day operations, adds that they have invested heavily in technology and design to meet customer needs and grow their sales. Their growing list of equipment meets a wide range of needs including no-till cropping and vineyard maintenance.
Getting the right employees is also crucial according to Kurt. Ninety percent of Grizzly’s employees are sourced locally, and adult apprenticeships are becoming more prevalent.
‘Inhouse training works well for us. We are prepared to put on unskilled people with the right attitude.’
When I suggest we get a photograph of all three directors together, Kurt leads us out on to the factory floor where a startled young man pauses from his welding to pose with the group.
‘I wanted you to see that we build our machinery from start to finish,’ he explains.
The factory floor is also where Kurt started his working life with the company in 2000. He started working in various roles on the assembly line, earning his welding certificate, and spending some time in the stores to get a good overview of the company.
When Wendy started to transition out of the day to day operations of the company, Kurt took a desk upstairs and the title of Acting General Manager until Wendy’s growing absence forced him to drop the “Acting”. At the same time employee numbers have grown from 27 to the current 42 indicating that he is doing well in the leading role.
Kurt is strong on process. ‘Everything needs a procedure,’ he explains. ‘Get it on paper and it makes it easier for everyone.’ He is a great fan of a Manufacturing Resource Planning (MRP) system that controls their production and inventory as well as integrating accounts and payroll. ‘It’s a very powerful product and I can’t understand why other manufacturing companies don’t use these tools. We have full control of our costings.’
He also believes that procedures keep all the team members accountable. ‘We have good processes in place, so my job is really just to help everyone else do their job,’ he explains.
Skye recognises that he has very different strengths to Kurt.
‘I’m quite good at talking to customers,’ Skye says. ‘I love my job. There are so many variables. No two farmers want the same outcome and I get great satisfaction from selling quality machinery to meet their needs.’
Skye credits Kurt’s strong management that continues to keep the company on an even keel when everyone expects it to falter in such a tough marketplace.
I ask about the eight-year drought that saw many Victorian farms and businesses falter.
‘We noticed a gradual decline in sales 2002 onwards,’ Kurt explains, acknowledging the irony of the drought officially ending with extended flooding across the region in 2010. Clearly, they had to do something different to survive in the years between. Looking for a new market turned out to be a saviour.
Through Wendy’s involvement as Grizzly’s representative on the Australian Tractor & Machinery Association, she developed a contact in Russia, which ultimately sold 50 units of their Field Boss and helped them through this difficult period.
Skye joined the company in 2008, the last two years of the drought, and came to quickly came to appreciate the hard work that Wendy and the senior managers had put in to ensure that Grizzly could survive and retain their employees. He also got to travel to Russia. Despite the challenges of doing business in a foreign country, three sales became fifty and Grizzly Engineering staff were kept busy fulfilling the orders.
‘Russia was high risk, but the turnover got us through the drought,’ Kurt acknowledges.
Like all good businesses, success hinges on meeting your customer’s needs, adapting during tough times, and constantly looking towards the future.
KERRY ANDERSON: Founder of the Operation Next Gen program and author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. In 2018 she was named as one of Australia’s Top 50 Regional Agents of Change. READ MORE