Farming at the click of a Button – How one Kiwi co-operative is transforming Rural Supply

 |   Microsoft New Zealand News Centre

Buyer examines flannel in retail store

The world’s farmers and growers have long been challenged to embrace digital technologies – and nowhere is that more important than in New Zealand, where primary industries are the backbone of our economy. Leading rural supplies and services co-operative, Farmlands, found its own digital transformation accelerated almost overnight as COVID-19 lock-down hit, rising to the challenge with admirable speed and agility. With help from Microsoft Teams, a cloud-based e-commerce platform and apps, Farmlands ushered in a new era of collaboration, communication and tech-enabled customer service. Now it’s prepared for any situation – and even greater success.

Farmlands has been an essential part of New Zealand’s rural communities for more than half a century. It’s New Zealand’s largest rural supplies co-operative, with 82 stores across the country providing more than 70,000 shareholders with vital farming supplies, from clothing to seed and dog biscuits to water pipes.

In 2017, it began working with Microsoft on a sweeping organisation-wide business transformation, dubbed Braveheart. Many of the co-operative’s operations were shifted to a Dynamics 365 platform, harnessing the power of the cloud to unlock a new world of automation and efficiency for the Farmlands team.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, it changed everything almost overnight. Ahead of the countrywide lock-down, every organisation had to find a new model that would allow people to work from home, for food to reach shelves and essential workers to have the tools they needed.

As a company supplying Kiwi farmers and growers, Farmlands was a central link in the supply chain – but the lock-down meant its stores were allowed to open for pick-up only. Having previously taken their outdated e-commerce platform offline while work continued on their new online store, customers weren’t able to browse for what they needed, resorting to phone or email in the hope of checking the availability of certain items. Store workers were spending a lot of time managing phone calls, customers had no visible options to choose from and support office employees had no immediate way of knowing what was selling across the company.

The race was on to find a solution.

An essential link in the chain

To set up an online Click and Collect service in a short space of time was going to require significant collaboration. Product photos and information had to be collated, and the new ordering system integrated into D365 with a PowerAutomate tool that could automatically send orders to the appropriate store, providing full visibility from their support office. Without a reliable online meeting and file-sharing platform, there was no way it could be done with everyone working from home.

Lead by Chief Digital Officer Richard Wilkinson, the Farmlands Technology team mobilised to roll out Microsoft Teams in just two days, so the project team had a way of co-ordinating their efforts. That paved the way for a team of 40 people from Farmlands and Datacom, all working furiously to bring the platform online in a compressed time-frame.

“The success of the whole program all came down to super effective collaboration and Teams was absolutely critical here. We had loads of online chats, file sharing, wiki timelines and we also used Azure DevOps to store our files,” Richard says.

Thanks to the seamless collaboration, they managed it in just four weeks. The benefits for both employees and customers were instantly obvious, with essential items continuing to reach rural communities during one of the most disrupted periods in our history.

Aimee Palmer, Digital Delivery Manager at Farmlands says while phone ordering had been used in the past, the new process allowed everything to be channeled through email for better management of orders.

“This freed staff up to pick items and contact customers with special instructions for collection. At a time when we couldn’t physically be in a room with people, our service never dropped,” she says.

Supporting people without paper

Of course, that wasn’t the only challenge. There were also the compliance issues to be resolved when staff arrived at stores. Using pen and paper to sign in wasn’t optimal in terms of hygiene (or time), and senior managers needed to ensure the correct protocols were being followed, while monitoring the well-being of their team members. As a co-operative, people are at the heart of Farmlands’ operations, and paper forms didn’t allow managers to track employee well-being or address their concerns individually.

To make collection and store operations compliant with government requirements, the team used Microsoft PowerApps to create a staff health tracker to streamline sign-ins on-site and monitor the health status of employees. Pen and paper were out – instead, staff could sign in and confirm they were fit and healthy on their mobile phones, which made audits for adherence to COVID-19 protocols a breeze. Better still, store employees could add comments to raise questions or concerns with their senior leaders for faster response times.

Microsoft also advised the Farmlands Leadership Team on how set up a Teams Live event with a Q&A function that enabled employees to ask questions in real time. Along with a special channel launched on Farmlands’ intranet, where employees could share light-hearted content and enter competitions during lock-down, the apps mark how Farmlands is using its new cloud-based platforms not just for productivity but to actively monitor staff well-being.

Another app supported the switch to remote working. A hardware registration app was developed in just two hours so support staff could take essential equipment home on their last day in the office, and managers could keep track of where things were. Employees could simply add their contact details and log which items they were taking with a photo. Much easier (and more effective) than using a clipboard, and it took a lot of the stress out of the shift.

Leaving “business as usual” behind

While the world is returning to a new normal, Farmlands is looking beyond “business as usual”.

The success of the e-commerce platform has ensured it will remain a permanent fixture. After just one week of trading, the “Click and Collect” e-commerce platform had completed four times as many transactions as the previous platform had completed in a full year.

But it’s how technology is creating an even more collaborative culture that really has the Farmlands team excited.

“This transformation really has changed the way Farmlands looks at communications. We’ve moved from being super heavy email users to everything being driven by Teams and our new intranet,” Richard Wilkinson explains. “There’s so much more awareness of how useful our new tools can be. Now Farmlands employees see the value in our innovations and all the hard slog they put in with our transformation program. It’s opened their eyes to what we as a business are set up to do now.”

Aimee Palmer says she received numerous delighted messages from colleagues about how easy Teams was to use, from Board meetings to project updates.

“It’s so intuitive. They only needed one lesson, even if they weren’t confident using technology. Also, unlike Skype, Teams gives you a visible trail of communications. It streamlines the whole communications process so you can contact everyone in your group at the touch of a button, which is great for health and safety, and you can also set alerts to remind people to action things, so you don’t need to waste time following up.”

Richard adds: “You can get so stuck in email. We’re all so inundated that the messaging doesn’t always reach everyone it needs to, and there can be super-long delays with emails going back and forth. Whereas on Teams, you can have a face-to-face virtual meeting, make a decision on the spot and move on. Turnaround time to get sign-off on decisions is so much faster.”

“This is just the beginning”

Shireen Chetty, Senior Account Executive at Microsoft, says Farmlands is the perfect example of a New Zealand company that’s taken swift action to support its employees and customers during tough times, and come out stronger as a result.

“From the very start of our relationship, Farmlands has embraced change. Now their whole organisation is set up for the future, and they’re already reaping the benefits of Azure cloud computing, better collaboration tools and mobile apps that are making life so much easier for both their workers and customers.”

Farmlands Chief Executive Peter Reidie says the changes will continue, as Farmlands adapts to the changing behaviours and requirements of shareholders. COVID-19 has a ripple effect on New Zealand’s primary sector, with further uncertainty surrounding exports and other global factors.

“That is a huge change in buyer behaviour and it remains to be seen if this will be a long-term change,” Peter says.

“One very pleasing aspect of this crisis is that it has rekindled broader New Zealand’s appreciation of what the landowners of this country contribute to its economic viability and success. We are proud of our role within that.”

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