A Hastings-based rural carrier has developed an industry-first IT solution to manage the demands of transporting livestock in the 21st century. Farmers Transport is the North Island's largest privately owned rural transport business, with a fleet of around 100 trucks and ten operating bases focused mostly on the East Coast and central North Island regions with operations regularly extending into the South Island. When it failed to find a suitable off-the-shelf product to digitalise its growing operation, the firm went in-house and devised an innovative IT management system that puts it ahead of the pack.
Called FROST (for Farmers Rural Operating System for Transport), the system harnesses the power of GPS, radio and mobile communications platforms to capture every detail of a job as it progresses, enabling better use of resources and more accurate calculation of service delivery costs.
"It helps us manage our trucking capacity and job flows with dispatching trucks to jobs," says CEO Jason Roebuck. "We've put in-cab equipment in our trucks that receives job information remotely, and those jobs can be updated in real time.
"If a truck gets dispatched to pick up 500 lambs but gets to the property and finds there are only 450 lambs, then that gets updated at the completion of loading. It allows us to try to optimise our loading capabilities in a day - that truck can then potentially call in somewhere else to top up that load space."
Customers are able to make savings on small jobs by pre-planned load-sharing. And FROST's capacity to deliver up-to-the-minute information on the movement of livestock can be tailored for anyone with a vested interest, from farmers and meat companies to banks and registered security holders.
Roebuck says the technology also enhances traceability - something of a holy grail for meat suppliers given growing consumer demand to know the origins of what they're eating. Farmers Transport was New Zealand's first accredited transport operator to NAIT (National Animal Identification and Tracing), a radio frequency-based system that uses electric ear tags to monitor stock movements that was introduced in 2012.
"We've recognised, as a supplier to the food industry, that there's a growing demand both here and offshore for maximum traceability, information that gives consumers some security about what they are buying. That gives the seller another proposition for buyers to have confidence in their product, and we're responding to that," says Roebuck.
Farmers Transport report that some innovative New Zealand meat companies have jumped at the chance to take advantage of this market-leading logistics capability. They say the just-in-time delivery of livestock to plants across regions utilising partner transport companies is a model that represents the most efficient use of livestock transport assets nationally.
He is not aware of any other rural transport operator with a system like FROST that links dispatch, trucks, third-party hardware and third-party operating systems. "For us, it's very important to be an innovator and a market leader."
That sense of industry leadership is something Farmers Transport shares with other firms in New Zealand's Mid-Market sector - companies with a turnover of anywhere between $2-50 million.
The Mid-Market contributes $66.2 billion to the New Zealand economy every year and provides 33.2 per cent of the country's employment. Agriculture and transport are big sub-sectors of the Mid-Market.
According to a 2014 GE Capital New Zealand report on the Mid-Market, businesses in this sector tend to be more willing than most to try new approaches and to lead by example, setting the standard within their industry through innovation and fresh thinking.
Naturally there have been some challenges. "It's always challenging to be at the leading edge," Roebuck remarks. "You have to really believe in it."
But in this case, innovation has been rewarded. On the strength of FROST, the firm has picked up new customers and extended its offering to larger existing clients. "It's also made our business much more timely, transparent and, importantly, manageable in a highly dynamic operating environment," he says.
It's a long way from the firm's humble origins back in the 1960s, as a small rural haulage outfit operating on Hawkes Bay's back roads. But for all the bells and whistles, Farmers Transport hasn't forgotten its rural roots.
"Transporters to the Heartland" is still the company tagline, and the attitude from the top is 100 per cent old-school. Why are they so successful? "Because we do what we say we'll do," replies Roebuck, "and we do it well."