The goal is to be the first to find the opportunities, says Bill Nightingale Jr. Then analyse and build on the successes More than anything, it’s taken the nerve to take risks and to keep on taking them, even though you know you won’t wind up on the upside every time. For the Nightingales, innovation is their lifeblood. It’s the heart of their business strategy, and if that sounds hackneyed and trite, like the sort of thing you’d say about any farm or business, take a closer look. This is a farm with its own R & D department. It’s a farm that actively and systematically sources new ideas, analyzes the results and then figures out how to transfer successful technologies to new environments. With an eye on their main goal of extending their growing season, this approach has catapulted their farm business, and it has also attracted a lot of attention. In 2007, the farm won the provincial Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence. Passion drips from Bill Sr. when he talks about the farm’s history of innovation, and it intensifies as he moves on to describe their current projects, but he keeps coming back to their main rationale, which Bill sums up in a simple handful of words. “We’d rather be the first ones with the new technology,” Nightingale says. Nightingale, however, is just as quick to admit that not all their ventures are hits. “That’s just part of the business of farming today,” he says. This attitude is what sometimes separates exceptional farmers from good ones. “They not only believe in the necessity of making mistakes, they see mistakes as virtually synonymous with growth and progress,” says Danny Klinefelter, agricultural economist at Texas A&M and director of The Executive Program for Agricultural Producers (TEPAP) for 22 years. Through his TEPAP work, Klinefelter has come to know some of the most amazing farmers and ranchers in North America, and he says he has developed one key take-home. In order to thrive in farming, Klinefelter says, it’s going to take more than being good at controlling costs, keeping good records and having a sound marketing plan. “In this rapidly changing world, in order to stay ahead, the internal rate of change in the business needs to exceed the rate of change in the business’s external environment,” Klinefelter says. “If it doesn’t, the business is falling behind even though it may be moving forward.” If the farm has never seen failure, says Klinefelter, the farmer hasn't been pushing hard enough. But, he adds, there are two essential attributes that must accompany such risk taking. First, always do your research before diving in, says Klinefelter. Second, never pay twice for the same mistake. February 1, 2012
Analyze Top farmers consistently spend serious time monitoring and analyzing performance, Klinefelter says. They pick up on problems and opportunities earlier than other farmers, and they aren’t just good, they’re highly skilled at thinking in terms of multiple frames of reference. They also don’t ask “who” caused the problem, they ask “why.” It all means that such farmers are more likely to treat the cause and not just the symptoms of any problem, which means they’ve learned how to repeat successes, not failures. Besides, by not always trying to attach blame, they tend to engage everyone in the organization in continuous analysis, Klinefelter says. “They’re also more likely to hear what they need to hear, not just what employees think they want to hear.” This is especially important for farms like Nightingale Farms that rely on employees. The Nightingales’ payroll carries 250 to 300 people, mostly offshore workers on top of the 30 full-time staff in middle management. Bill Sr. and Bill Jr. continually analyze the financial contribution of each crop and try to react to it without emotion or ego, learning as they go. Other farms may say they do the same thing, but the Nightingales make it much more structural than most. “We continually look at every number, and if it’s not making money it has to go or we have to fix it,” says Bill Sr., the farms’ CFO. “Each crop is micromanaged,” he says. “In the fresh produce game, there’s no room for error.” That also means that the Nightingales are ready to walk away from decisions that aren’t working out. A few years ago, as an example, the Nightingales set up an organic warehouse and distribution centre with enough space to subcontract other organic producers in the area. After recently reviewing the financial performance of this entity, they decided to downsize. “We couldn’t afford the risk,” says Bill Sr. The volatility in organic demand and supply was simply too great. Retailers buy as needed, not based on Continued on page 22
Danny Klinefelter’s top reads • Good to Great, Jim Collins • Thriving on Chaos, Tom Peters • First, Break All The Rules, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman • Leadership Is An Art, Max Dupree • The Breakthrough Company, Keith McFarland • Building Effective Farm Management Systems, R. L. (Dick) Wittman, • The Managerial Leadership Bible, Jeffrey Magee • Performance Execution, Jeffrey Magee
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