Technology and the traditional business

March 30, 2018

Traditional businesses and industries are increasingly embracing technology to meet a raft of challenges. Whether motivated by a desire to remain relevant in an increasingly digital world, to protect market share and drive growth, or address issues of relevance in the wider environment, it is no longer a question of whether to engage, but how.  We spoke to business leaders from two very traditional industries in our region about how they are harnessing the power of technology to address the challenges they face.

Graham Ayres is Managing Director of Weatherbys Limited, a family business at the heart of the horse racing industry since the latter part of the 18th century.  The company has been providing a range of services to race courses, owners, trainers, jockeys and those interested in horse racing since James Weatherby was appointed Secretary of the Jockey Club in 1770.  But the company has always been enthusiastic to innovate and adopt new technologies.  To complement Weatherbys Bank and the Private Bank, a Laboratory was set up in Ireland in 1985, initially offering blood typing services to confirm parentage as part of foal registration.  DNA testing followed and, in 2011, Weatherbys diversified to develop the technology to wider animal species.  Since joining the Board of Weatherbys in 2012 and becoming MD the following year, Graham has led extensive investment into the DNA Lab.

David Wright is a former RAF pilot from a farming background, who is now combining his expertise in these diverse fields to bring precision agriculture to some of the largest crop producers in Europe.   The application of technology in agriculture is becoming ever more widespread and, with global population set to rise to 9.2bn by 2030, the race is on to find sustainable solutions.

Spectrum Aviation, founded by David in 2013, is contributing to the agricultural revolution needed to feed such a rapidly growing population in a sustainable way.  An aerial survey and imagery analytics company, Spectrum Aviation specialises in remote agricultural crop analysis.  David’s team gathers spectral imagery and laser data over agricultural crops from the air, and processes and analyses the results to provide actionable insights into crop performance.  Uniquely, David uses very light manned aircraft platforms to gather the imagery data, as they have significant range advantages over drones and weather resilience / resolution advantages over satellites.  The resultant service is the most viable balance between capability, availability and cost.

David, what prompted you to apply precision technology to agriculture?
“I grew up on a family farm and took a degree in agriculture at Reading University, but rather than moving on to a planned career in the industry, I managed to get through the RAF Pilot selection process and went on to qualify as a Harrier Pilot.  Alongside this rather technical career, I remained actively involved in the family farm and increasingly interested in how military sensor technology might be read across to give an insight into plant health and performance.  Post graduate training in electronic warfare gave a rather non-traditional remote sensing education and the idea of using beyond-visual portions of the electromagnetic spectrum to indicate plant vitality was born.  Techniques are now well developed to measure reflected energy from the crop at visual (red, green, blue) and infrared wavelengths and combine them in algorithms to yield detailed information about the condition of the vegetation, such as nutrient, water, disease and pest stresses.  The challenge is to take academic techniques established in sterile constant-illumination laboratory conditions and make them practically work in real-world field conditions in a temperate climate!”

 What impact is your technology having on the farming sector?
“In simple terms, these techniques are allowing us to move away from an experiential assessment of crop performance towards a repeatable, scientific quantification and qualification of crop biomass.  This gives the potential to progress from treating the field as a single unit and applying inputs evenly across the whole area, to sub-dividing into performance zones which can be treated variably per their direct needs. This targeted input system offers the farmer a net saving while maintaining yields and preventing potential over-application damage to the environment.  My farming background has been crucial to understanding the need for output products that demonstrably add value by either saving on inputs and/or increasing yield. No farmer will simply buy a pretty picture!  The strategic value in our classification products goes well beyond single-season management information though to inform performance trends, cropping decisions, land valuation and disease and weed risk to mention a few.”   

Graham, what impact is the adoption of new technology having at Weatherbys?
“Weatherbys has a varied portfolio of business activities, but technology is very much at its core and has helped shape and drive the growth of our operations. 

We have a strong brand ethos, focusing on the delivery of excellent customer care underpinned by a range of staff values designed to allow our people to reach their full potential.  It’s a philosophy which has served the company well, and the group have always been enthusiastic adopters of technology when the benefits to customers, staff and organisational efficiency are clear and accessible.

Over the last three years we have been investing in the equipment and supporting systems to enable the scientific team in our Ireland Laboratory to develop a new animal DNA testing regime.  Because of this, we then successfully won a tender to provide DNA tests for a million cattle – the largest project of its type in the world and only made possible by blending initiatives, technology, staff expertise and customer expectations.

“The adoption of equipment and process automation has been a natural extension of the scientific expertise of our Laboratory team, but it has meant working under time and resource pressure.  The Lab has been creative in their approach to open up new markets and then found a way to develop and integrate new systems and equipment effectively.  None of this would have been possible without customer engagement, or the commercial quick thinking of the support teams.  The impact on the Laboratory has been revolutionary and ground breaking in the animal DNA sector.  What’s nice is ultimately the virtuous circle which has surfaced.  The new processes have advanced our service proposition, new technology has been created or adopted to enable the service to function and then grow, and time and cost savings have progressively emerged – allowing our customers to access genuine returns for their investments, which in turn attracts more new customers to our services.”

We are currently also in the final stages of a multi-million pound software development programme which, over the last 4 years, has seen us re-developing the core administrative systems for British Thoroughbred Horse Racing. This has been an extensive project involving our own IT team, external specialists, the industry regulator, our racing operations team and a range of major stakeholders in the sport.  The new environment has been designed to enhance the experience of our users, allowing our staff to provide a more focused, resilient service which can also be further developed to more flexibly meet future needs.”

What prompted you to embrace these developments?

Graham “Essentially, we have invested in systems developments or new equipment for simple, consistent reasons: to enhance the experience of our customers when interacting with our products and services, or to deliver new products and services to them.  Technology can be disruptive to established businesses in many ways, and it has removed many traditional barriers to market, particularly when you have to operate across international markets.  We would like to keep building our international customer base and recognise that engaging with opportunities made possible through new technology helps us to protect our market share, and keep growing.”

What have been the major challenges?

Graham “Whilst technology brings with it a wealth of benefits, it is not without its practical issues. It can be difficult to prioritise when time is pressing and ultimately there are constraints on the scale of any investment.  Building up a Programme Model approach is helping us address the challenge of choice, whilst also helping our teams to understand and evaluate the investment decisions in a considered manner.  From this, we then aim to build a sense of team ownership and commitment.”

It can also be challenging to introduce the right expertise and specialist resource with the capability to help initiate and deliver technology based developments, and you don’t always get it right.  We’ve had to be inventive with recruitment; we incentivise staff to introduce new employees, we’ve worked closely to build trust with carefully selected search firms, such as Bailey Fisher, who introduced me to this position, and in the past we’ve even tried using off-shore teams if they could prove they could meet some highly specialised short-term needs.  Finding good business partners who can provide objective inputs and support can also be difficult and time consuming.”

David “Agriculture is an unusually cash and time poor industry and understandably resistant to change when existing techniques have proved successful for decades.  We spent a lot of time at start-up identifying grower businesses at the scientific cutting edge of the industry, who were more likely to try new technology and, who had the scale that would benefit from our wide-area capability.  Early customers were large vegetable grower groups such as G’s Growers and Produce World.  They all had a progressive attitude towards sustainable intensification and saw the contribution that remote sensing might make.  Although initial projects were often in the ‘commercial research’ bracket, most customers saw the immediate commercial value and expanded in-contract spend to cover additional crop types and areas, often at scale and with a wide geographic spread.  Being able to reliably gather imagery at scale and process the output by the next working day, secured an early customer-focused reputation.”

If you hadn’t adapted, what would the consequences have been?

Graham “The simple answer is that we would not have survived for almost 250 years. It’s easy to be complacent, and it’s much harder to keep evolving.  Weatherbys has tried to remain agile across all its core business operations, always being prepared to innovate and find new markets.  In addition, we try hard to keep working with our customers, who are also changing their habits and demanding different products and services, and such changes are at a pace which would have been unthinkable in previous years.”

David, could you comment on the importance of adapting with reference to the agricultural industry?

“I think it is fair to say that industry-wide uptake is still work-in progress!  Current estimates are that only 25-30% of the industry regularly uses precision agriculture products as an indication of the rate of acceptance of innovation. This shows a significant challenge ahead to reach the remainder of the potential market.  The need for continued application innovation, to create increasingly valuable and intuitive products that require very little interpretation is paramount.  We are making very good progress in the high value vegetable grower market and are seeing increasing uptake in area-crops such as cereals and oil seed rape.  The key is to avoid imposing new technology, but rather design applications that meet a declared need.”

What does the future hold?  

Graham “Hopefully another 250 years!  We believe that we must remain fleet of foot, open-minded to change and new ideas, and be prepared to keep diversifying if we are to strengthen our business.

Customer expectations continue to change and grow and across our operations we expect the pace of this growth to keep accelerating.  Our reputation is at stake and so we believe we must continue to invest in technology for our customers, our staff and our future success.”

In the UK, our current efforts are focussed on selling existing products and services over increasing area scale, while continuing reinvestment in new application design.  Several unsolicited approaches from investors have prompted us to now consider outside investment to fuel growth.

We have also enjoyed a surge in international interest from companies that have found us through customer advocacy and word of mouth.  We are investigating active opportunities in Spain, Indonesia and the USA.  We have also completed a pilot project in South Africa and having proven the potential are setting up a new operation there to be active by Q2 2017.  We see Africa as a significant growth opportunity with a farming scale well suited to our model.

I feel very excited and positive about the future. I think Spectrum has a genuine chance to contribute to an agricultural revolution that will establish the systems to feed a rapidly growing global population in a sustainable way.”

Bailey Fisher Executive Search is an independent executive search firm specialising in building high impact boards and leadership teams for growth companies across technology, life sciences and industrials.

This article first appeared in Cambridge Business Magazine.

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