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The Seeds of Success – Wendy Erhart

A passion for rural industry, working systems and keeping staff happy has led to award-winning success for a business that blossomed in a backyard. Cameron Bayley finds there is a bigger picture behind this carefully detailed operation than just making money.

Active ImageWendy Erhart describes herself as a systems person. Perhaps it’s her background in psychiatric nursing that enables her to diagnose her personality type so succinctly. The s-word is one she comes back to continually and it’s not long before you see Erhart is, indeed, a big fan of procedures and easy-to-follow models designed for success.

It seems a little incongruous, then, that this well-ordered approach can be applied to the somewhat unpredictable world of organic plant seedlings and the challenging conditions of Australia’s rural agricultural industry. However, Erhart (along with husband Graham) and the systems she’s devised have enabled their company, Withcott Seedlings, to flourish with an average yearly growth of 25 percent.

The business literally began as a back yard operation. Erhart’s father ran a small nursery in Stanthorpe, south-east Queensland, and would deliver seedlings to Wendy and Graham at their Lockyer Valley home for customers to collect. When he chose to discontinue this service, customers kept approaching the Erharts and so they decided to do it themselves on the side. “In the first year we started with $800, and two customers,” says Erhart. “In that first year we grew 800,000 seedlings.” While this might sound like a lot, it’s nothing compared with the last financial year, when they grew 340 million seedlings.

Why seedlings? Seeds are tricky things, Erhart says, and when planted offer only a 20 or 30 percent chance of sprouting. Farmers like to get seedlings already on their way to becoming a prime cauliflower or head of lettuce. Seeds are nurtured in a protected environment and so “the farmer gets a nice, sturdy seedling ready to plant in the ground”. Withcott, with a nursery now firmly established just outside of Toowoomba, has 900 customers, supplying everyone from individual farmers to large industries.

Staffing Solutions

With almost 200 staff, Erhart admits that managing people isn’t quite as easily compartmentalised as she’d like. “It’s something I’ve had to learn over time. It’s been well worth putting the energy in over the years, to know that people want to be here.” This has included learning that your business isn’t always the be-all and end-all for everyone. “If people aren’t happy, aren’t productive day-to-day, I take time to ask why because it is OK not to be here,” she says.

Active ImageThis, clearly, makes for a largely enthusiastic team. Regular feedback and mentoring sessions with staff play a big part in the burgeoning life of Withcott. As Erhart sees it, innovation can’t happen without adequate communication. “It’s a truly transparent culture, where you allow your staff to be the innovators and bring these ideas up through the business. It really just lets the whole business grow.”

But growth is a major challenge too, and knowing when to say no is vital. “If the business owners took on every opportunity that came to the door, and the people weren’t ready for it—the core people who are going to carry it out—it just doesn’t work.”

Like many agricultural businesses, drought has brought many changes to the business. Even though the Erharts have designed the property so all water used can be captured, re-purified and re-used, they knew their market would be severely affected by drought and needed to find new paths for the business. “When you know some of your customer base is going to decrease, then taking something new on is a risk.” In this case, the ‘something new’ was the launch of the pre-packaged baby leaf salad range called SmartSalads. “That was purely looking at customers who were unsure of their water situation. We had water, what else could we do with it?” she says.

It was the management system involved with SmartSalads which led to Erhart being named this year’s Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year. She didn’t enter on a whim, however, it was all part of a grand plan. She knew they needed to make some noise and let Australia know they existed. The first step involved entering the SmartSalad system in the Premier of Queensland Smart business awards. Winning an award garnered free advertising in the Australian and other national coverage.

Working with Industry Minister, Ian Macfarlane, on a committee came next. “We felt we needed to lift the profile of rural and regional Australia, so Ian offered to nominate me for the Veuve Clicquot award,” says Erhart. Just having the nomination gave Withcott Seedlings additional kudos, winning was a pleasant surprise. “Even Ian was quite incredibly shocked!” Erhart is particularly proud that the win was mentioned in state parliament, and in Canberra. With people in the rural industry still talking about it, she is pleased the award is boosting the image of what can be achieved in rural industries.

Passing on skills is top priority for Erhart who wants more producers to be aware of the funding available for rural training. “Right from the word go, Graham and I realised we had to be teachers,” she says. “There’s no way this business would have got to this size if it was just left up to us.”

Looking ahead is less about systems and more about making definite choices. Erhart is a big advocate of mentoring. “Getting people in the rural industry to sit down and think about ‘what if this happens’, and what is it that I want my life to look like in one year, five years, 10 years,” she says. “And with those decisions, or where my visions are, how do they fit in with the rest of the family. You know, any small to medium enterprise that’s family-based, which a lot are, needs to be looking at those issues.”

The Erharts have just launched their own sprint car team, to give them extra buzz outside the business. Having a profitable business is one thing, but “in the end it’s all sitting in the bank account, which doesn’t do anyone a lot of good really”, says Erhart. “We’ve got to enjoy life while we’re here.”

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