Ag-Tech uses agility and innovation to navigate COVID-19
In this article we interview Janine Peters, General Manager of AG Technology. AG-Tech provides services and solutions to leading European machinery manufacturers to enable them to fast-track their time to market. While testing in NZ is their primary focus, they also provide support for R&D projects in Europe, the Americas, Asia and Australia. Based in Cambridge, they have been recently won 2 category awards in the Waipa Network Business Awards and have shown great agility during COVID-19 opening a new division Ag Drive.
1) How long have you been with Ag Technology and please describe your role?
I have been with AG Tech for 11 years and I am the General Manager for the ag tech group of companies, overseeing and managing projects and new ventures and providing detailed financial and management reports to the Directors and management team.
2) What makes Ag Technology a great place to work?
We are a very small team, so we work closely together all the time – the directors are hands on coming up with the vision and direction, and then giving the reigns to the team to make things happen. It is a very collaborative environment, and all team members are encouraged to contribute ideas that will activate positive change and improvement. We love to see our employees grow, and even before COVID-19 we had flexible work options for our staff wherever possible to allow them to balance their lifestyle with work.
3) What impact did COVID-19 have on the company and staff?
Our main business AG Technology NZ suffered hugely during COVID-19 – when the first lockdown occurred in March we wondered if we would have a business at the end of it. This business provides specialist technical assistance to European companies that produce agricultural equipment – harvesters, balers, seed drills and the like. Our team of talented agricultural engineers run testing projects in NZ to allow our clients to run their R&D programs all year round. When our harvesting season finishes, our engineers head into Europe (usually from May through to Aug/Sept) to assist running these R&D projects in the European harvesting season. When the borders were closed and travel was no longer possible, we had to find a new revenue stream to allow us to retain our highly specialist staff. We were faced with potentially four months of no work and no revenue – things looked very bleak. Our staff fully understood the situation, and when the idea for AG Drive was suggested, they all bought into it, and did everything they could to make this project work.
4) Can you tell us how the idea for Ag Drive was born and how successful it has been to date?
A casual conversation between one of the directors and a business acquaintance about the impact of closed borders on staffing for the upcoming harvest season resulted in a bit of a light bulb moment. Andre realised that there was going to be a huge staff shortage in rural contracting in NZ for the 2020-2021 season, and there were going to be a lot of NZ’ers who had found themselves out of work due to COVID-19 now looking for work. We had staff that we needed to keep employed, and we had the equipment and land available so the idea of training kiwis to fill the driver shortage in grass and silage harvesting was born. Our staff wrote the training manuals, created the practical elements and then became the tutors for the students sent to us by the ministry of Social Development. We then approached the rural contractors who were struggling to find staff and placed these newly trained workers into jobs. From the day the idea was born, to getting the course up and running with a contract in place with MSD to find the candidates, took 90 days. We placed over 50 per cent of the students we trained into work, and this was so successful that we now have contractors contacting us directly to fill positions for the 2021-2022 season. Once we were up and running, we decided that we could add value in more ways, and we now also work with the Primary ITO to deliver driver training courses in both tractors and motorbike/quad for workers already employed in the primary sector. Employees can now complete NZQA unit standards with us in agricultural driver training that will give them a micro-credential certificate.
5) I understand you are helping rowers, kids and even displaced pilots through AG Drive, how important is community contribution to AG tech?
Supporting our community is very important to us. We are inspired by those that have had to make some big changes in their lives and careers – we have trained pilots and placed them in work as operators in the AG industry. We are trying to find ways to work with schools to get those school leavers that may not yet have a real direction when it comes to working, to see if we can inspire a new generation of primary industry workers. We support our local rugby clubs with donations for jerseys and gear bags. We recently created a quad bike course specifically aimed at rowing coaches to ensure they can operate these machines safely, and we actively try to support our local sportspeople and tertiary students in getting seasonal work that fits around their timetables.
6) You recently won two Waipa Network Business Awards, could you tell us a bit more about that?
As a team, we were very humbled to be recognised this way. The process of entering the awards is a great way to really look at what you are doing in your business and make improvements and changes. The judges give really detailed feedback, and this can be used to focus a business on what they need to do to get ahead. We won the Award for Excellence in emerging/new business and the Innovation and Adaption Award, which was particularly special to us as the team really had dug deep to adapt to a situation that no-one understood. To be showcased in such well-respected awards amid many other fabulous local businesses was a big honour for us.
7) What are the plans for the future for AG Tech?
We are always looking to see how we can do things better and grow our businesses and our employees to thrive in the future. AG Drive is continuing to grow and we want to become the leading provider of agricultural training in NZ. AG Technology NZ however, continues to face big challenges. With our borders still closed and increasing difficulties in getting machinery and parts into the country, there is a very real possibility that doing business here will become too costly and difficult for our clients. Every year for the last 20 years that we have been doing this R&D work, our German clients have sent their project designers out to NZ in our harvest season to do some rework on their machines and oversee the projects we are working on. Not being allowed to send these senior employees is becoming increasingly frustrating for our clients.
8) What advice would give kiwi businesses looking to adapt to the ‘new normal’ of the global pandemic?
Be open to new opportunities – talk them through with your team. We threw out a few ideas before we hit on the driver training project – we needed to pivot in some way to survive as a business, but it was with the collaboration and buy in of the whole team that we found just the right idea to follow through with.