Ag Info Tech: Focusing On The Business

Tim Norris with Soil-Max Gold Digger drainage plow

Ten years ago, we first met Tim Norris as an agronomist and precision agriculture enthusiast working for a central Ohio cooperative. He had already successfully built precision programs at two Ohio cooperatives, and in 2003 led the development of a separate precision ag services division of Central Ohio Farmers Cooperative called Ag-Knowledge.

Norris has never stopped evolving the business or adding services for growers, and every year has brought something new. He’s built an RTK tower network, and put together a data aggregation and management regimen from soil sample to harvest. He’s weathered some health issues, and had to rise above a devastating fire one Thanksgiving weekend that had him thinking about packing it in.

On the contrary, he’s evolved and grown the business, increasing staff and improving services all along the way. This year was no exception, with the addition of another new employee to handle territory expansion, and business changes that will allow Norris to step out of the day-to-day work and focus more on strategy and growth.

Change From Within

New ideas can lead to powerful change, and that’s what happened this year at Ag Info Tech, in part thanks to a little off-season reading. Norris took some time last winter to read The E-Myth Revisited, the 1995 best-seller that closely examines the reasons why so many small businesses fail, and delivers object lessons in what it takes to be a true entrepreneur. “It really got me to thinking about the business and how we operate,” says Norris.

The E-Myth Revisited details the exploits of people who started businesses for the love of a particular activity, only to find themselves focusing on the activity rather than the business, and losing the business in the process. The stories hit home for Norris, and a couple of objectives came out of reading the book. First, he wants to more clearly market the business as more independent from the manufacturers he represents, and focus on marketing Ag Info Tech as a brand. Second, he wants to structure the business so he has more time to think and act on the business as a whole rather than on day-to-day activities.

One interesting and valuable exercise was the development of an organizational chart to more clearly define roles within the company.

The final chart, which places people with specific functions within the company, is really just the final product of a process that required each employee to write a description of their jobs. The visual representation of the company structure makes it easier to see how changes like adding people and shifting responsibilities impacts the entire organization, and improves the decision making process.

Another of the activities was pretty simple: develop a clear and independent identity for Ag Info Tech, apart from affiliated companies and the product brands they service and sell. Simple changes included creating a PowerPoint slide background style that specifically features the Ag Info Tech logos and colors.

However, it’s also led to some more significant goals he has set for 2013: To find a new location for the business, and create a technical support call center.

Simple technical service calls are an efficiency killer for service providers, but arguably no more so in agriculture where site visits to repair equipment are measured in hours of drive time to remote grower fields. Providing support to run through basic troubleshooting and most common problems would serve not only to streamline service and increase customer satisfaction, but to reduce Norris’ professional investment of time to directly serving customer needs.

Currently the “headquarters” resides on Norris’ own farm, which is adequate given the company’s current size and service profile but not for a business in growth mode. His goal is to find an existing office and storage facility in his area where a call and training center could be placed and inventory would be located.

Finally, Norris is working with a web developer to create an Internet-based solution to streamline service activities. Called AgriVault, the system will provide a platform for Ag Info Tech employees to input and monitor a variety of services to grower-clients, from product and part orders to service calls and field activities.

While not designed specifically for the grower, the customer will be able to use AgriVault to let Norris and his team know when a field has been harvested and is ready to be sampled. It will also interface with the accounting system, allowing employees to pull in product prices, draw up quotes, and generate invoices.

The site, which went live in September, will provide openness and transparency to the service process, says Norris, so that multiple employees can know at an instant at what point service being executed with customers.

Expanding Drainage Service

With increasing farm income and record crop prices, farmers have been open to almost any product or technique to help increase yield. One of the hot trends Norris has tapped into is field drainage design and installation.

He’s worked for about three years with the Trimble Field Level 2 and WM Drain systems, utilizing the FMX display with RTK GPS to create and install drain tile plans. But AgLeader’s purchase of SoilMax and the GoldDigger line of tile plows last year, and its subsequent release of Intellislope software has added a second option to Norris’ suite of offerings. The customer base Ag Info Tech services is split between Trimble and Ag Leader centric systems, so having an option that more easily plugs into one or the other is proving beneficial.

To facilitate understanding of the system, and to help close sales, Norris has a designated tractor and tile plow that serves as demonstration equipment. The process of design and installation of drainage starts with a field survey, which takes about a day to complete. The information is then moved into a software program, Farm Works Surface, which can be used to provide a recommended drain tile layout. Norris and the grower then get together to review the plan and make practical adjustments based on their field knowledge and experience, and a final plan is drafted. For the installation, the tile plow is automatically controlled by the software using the electronic map.

The drainage systems that Norris currently designs and installs have proven highly beneficial in terms of yield and field operation management, but in the future Norris believes that controlled drainage systems — which will allow a grower to “shut off” the system to retain water. Norris is a firm believer that agriculture needs to do whatever it can to preserve the water it receives.

“It seems like everywhere we’re trying our best to move water out and away, rather than trying to find ways to move it and retain it somehow,” he says. “That needs to change and I think it will change with new techniques and technologies that are being tested.”

Expanding Northward

Increasing the company’s service territory has been a goal for some time for Norris. The headquarters is about an hour’s drive northeast of Columbus, but there has been a smattering of customers extending all the way up to Lake Erie and east to the Pennsylvania border.

This time last year, Norris was actively looking for an individual who could work out of their house somewhere between the headquarters office and the service region, and he finally made the hire this summer with the addition of Derik Geitgey. He graduated from The Ohio State University with a degree in environmental sciences.

“He’ll be working out of his pickup,” says Norris. “Hav­ing him up there will save us an hour and a half of drive time for us getting up there and servicing customers in the territory.”

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