David Scullin describes a simple digital vision of his company – the NZ farming cooperative Ballance Agri-nutrients. It wants to bring the worlds of precision agriculture, ecommerce, customer experience and analytics together in one beautiful, user-friendly platform, he says.

We caught up with Scullin at SAP’s Sapphire conference earlier this year to discuss the organisation’s digital transformation, which also involved his own professional transformation as well.

Previously, Scullin was the organisation’s chief information officer, “… but this was changed to chief digital officer to reflect the need to put digital at the heart of the enablement of our business strategy.”

Ballance is farmer-owned co-operative, where the customers are the only shareholders. They are also the only ones able to use the Ballance solutions although they can delegate access to other providers. “But they are in control.”

Being a cooperative the profits of the company go back into long-term sustainability of the organsiation, often in the form of research and development. “Rebates are like a co-operative’s form of a dividend, and these also go back to customers,” Scullin says. 

As part of its digital transformation, Ballance has developed a solution called MyBallance – basically a full customer experience platform that incorporates ecommerce, marketing, and mapping.

“And the reason we’ve got the mapping in there is that everything that we do as a business, and everything that our customers do has a geospatial context to it. If you want to have your paddocks designed or laid out on a map, if you want to order from a particular paddock or management area, if you want to notify the spreader that there’s different hazards in different locations, or if you want to record where you put the nutrients, in each case mapping is critical.”

In the future Ballance also plans to close the loop by measuring pasture growth to better understand the full cycle and the effectiveness of the farmers’ strategies on their land. “Companies around the world have been doing yield tracking for crops for a very long time. It’s a very easy thing to do, because you take crops out of the ground and you process them, and you measure the yield that way. But with grass, the cows are just eating it.”

So currently measurement is quite a manual process.

“We want to take all that labour out and automate it if we can in the future,” and he said satellite technology would play a part in this.

According to Scullin, digital technologies will also help farmers extract the best value from the land but in a truly sustainable way.

“Traditionally a nutrient specialist visited a customer and developed the fertilizer plan, and a series of recommendations. Then they put that into SAP as an order.” But he said the way it was done made it hard to optimise the supply chain. “We couldn’t plan properly, so what we’ve done is we’ve re-engineered that whole process and there is now a specific transaction in Hybris (now called C/4HANA) to plan the recommendations for a specific transaction, the orders, and the proof of application.”

As well as optimising the supply chain in the future, Ballance can now connect that supply chain directly to the customer experience platform.

Looking ahead

“What we’ve got on the table for the next 12 to 24 months is integrating business planning and further supply chain optimisation.”

With the work that Ballance has already done with SAP, Scullin says it is now easier for customers to do business with the cooperative.

“For starters, they’ve now got 24 by 7 access. And consistent experience regardless of the channel, too. And being online, it is mostly free. The only thing they have to pay for is the third party GPS tracking which costs about $800 a year.

“A lot of companies in New Zealand are charging a subscription for their digital platforms. We believe that this is all about the customer  – that’s part of our thinking as a Cooperative.

“So we thought,  we’ve got some internal benefits out of it,  why not share those benefits with the customers.”

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