Word-of-mouth helps grow an innovative business

Michael and Anthony had both worked for larger feed and nutrition companies and understood the market well. They knew that these larger businesses omitted two critical opportunities – emphasising animal health rather than simply selling high volumes of stock feed, and focusing on small, specialised needs.

Many of Hills’ lifestyle farm customers were just waiting for someone to spend a little more time with them, without treating them as ‘small accounts’. A focus on personally talking to every farmer to listen to what they wanted, then providing the range that suited smaller orders and needs, allowed farmers to look at overall value, rather than simply price.

“Reputations are built over time and early on we didn’t have a local reputation that distinguished us from our competitors,” clarifies Michael. “But by continuing to meet farmers’ requests for new products, our range and stock-on-hand grew.”

“This had a flow on effect – as we won new customers, built a better range, gained more credibility within the farming community, and were getting good referrals.”

Nothing beats referral business and as Michael says, “we often have customers ringing because they’ve been told they need to speak to us to solve their problems – something we pride ourselves on.”

They had identified a niche and found a gap in the market – and as a result, their business evolved to become both a stock feed manufacturing plant and a supplier of all things related to producing livestock.

As you would expect there have been bumps along the way. Their hardest challenge? “Cash flow to begin the business was particularly difficult,” explains Michael. Even with all the planning and forecasting, they found it tough to predict early sales and to fund growth.

When the business began to experience double-digit growth year after year, the challenges changed to managing that growth – especially additional staff, invoices and stock.

“Our biggest success is continual expansion with customer referrals still coming through the door. Nothing is more satisfying than knowing we’re meeting customer expectations,” says Michael.

“When you’re running a small business, time is probably the most valuable commodity. When a bank can do all the legwork for you, it means you can get on with running your business and not worrying about chasing up funding arrangements.”

Hills Farm Supplies have a few future goals to work towards. They intend to expand their stock feed manufacturing business to offer services to other rural reseller outlets – and to leave a proud legacy, and a business future, for the next generation of the Bowden and Pearce families.

Michael and Anthony have the following advice for turning a dream into a viable business, and gaining significant customer growth:

  • Be prepared to change – in order to grab opportunities as you go. “Start-up businesses are capital intensive and it’s difficult to predict exactly how they’ll evolve,” says Michael.
  • Under promise and over deliver – to your customers so you’re not only meeting their expectations, but exceeding them.
  • Have sound financial support – and a strong will to succeed. As Michael points out, “despite your best efforts to forecast and plan, things do change and it’s difficult to get the numbers right.”
  • Prepare to delegate as your business grows – with increasing enquiries, sales and deliveries, Michael and Anthony have realised they need to hire more staff and delegate these tasks, to allow them to do what they do best – continue growing their business.

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