The following is the full interview between Farm Equipment editor Mike Lessiter and Norbert Beaujot.
Norbert Beaujot, co-founder of Seed Hawk and SeedMaster, discusses the innovation that drives their business and the companies’ defining moments – including moving to 100% dealer distribution.
Mike Lessiter: Tell me what SeedMaster does?
Norbert Beaujot: SeedMaster is everything seeding in our part of the world. Like we’ve focused for — or I have and we have — 25 years on perfecting the art of seeding, whether it’s metering, putting in the ground, the placement of fertilizer. So everything for seeding in our part of the world.
I think one of our benefits is that we’ve focused completely on seeding. And when you’re that focused, and I should say no-till seeding, it was zero till seeding, when you’re focused enough like that, focus your energies for that long a period, either you’re in the wrong business or you should become the best at it.
Mike Lessiter: And so the crops that you support in the market.
Norbert Beaujot: The crops we support are wheat, oats, barley, canola is one of the bigger ones, but we also dabble with corns, a fair bit of soybeans are coming into our area. And we’ve done a little bit of sunflower and other, to us, strange type plants.
Mike Lessiter: You’ve been part of the launch of 2 different companies. SeedMaster and Seed Hawk. Tell me about the relationship with those and how that got there.
Norbert Beaujot: Seed Hawk we founded in ’92 so I started that with my brother and he did the marketing portions of the company and I was the designer and more of the manufacturing essence of the company. And then about 10 years later things were less than good I guess in the relationship, so we went separate ways where I started SeedMaster with a lot of similar products, they were all my patents so I utilized the same core thoughts. I did a big update at that time on the opener itself. Once you’re in a manufacturing facility you kind of get into a rut and sometimes it’s nice to get a fresh start where you can kind of throw all those jigs and fixtures away and say okay, if I start again, it’s kind of like building your second new house; as soon as you’ve finished your first one you’ve got ideas of how you’d want to do your second one. So that gave SeedMaster a boost at the beginning and within a very short period we had a second successful business. Seed Hawk was first in ’92.
Mike Lessiter: And SeedMaster?
Norbert Beaujot: 2002, 2003, so about 10, 11 years later.
Mike Lessiter: Your product range is from openers to the…
Norbert Beaujot: It started with openers. 25 years ago I guess I saw that harvest time in the field on our farm and dragged a screwdriver through the soil and thought to myself this can’t be that complicated. We should be able to build a better way of seeding, putting seed in the ground. And for a couple years I just worked on paper drawings and welded up a structure that I could test for trying a new — a terrain following opener and basically looking back in history it was the first hydraulically activated terrain following opener in the world and I didn’t even realize that at the time, but to me it was common sense. So the opener and the placement of seed and fertilizer has been a focus for me for 25, 27 years.
And the metering became equally important, or next to that level of importance, so for the last 10 years I guess I’ve focused a lot on the metering portion of broad-seeded acres. And with all of this we’ve been in the forefront of the move towards no-till, zero-till we call it in Canada.
It’s the way of the future and I think a lot of the bigger companies at the beginning saw it as a gimmick, as something that would pass and they could get back to selling cultivators and diskers and things like that. But now it’s become the convention in many parts of the world.
Mike Lessiter: So when you founded this company you were a fulltime farmer at that point?
Norbert Beaujot: Yeah, I guess I’m an agricultural engineer is my university background. My father retired in about 1985 and while taking over the farm, it’s my passion for efficiency and perfection I guess, I’ve always been a designer at heart and it doesn’t matter what I’m touching, I’m trying to improve on it so that’s how it started. And we still own a part of the family farm and our daughter and son-in-law do the active farming, but I’m sometimes cheap hired help.
I’ve always had a passion for farming and for the soil. I think I always felt that I might end up back at the farm. I worked for other industries for a while and they were not related to agriculture, but enjoyed them as well. And then my father’s retirement was probably a switching of thinking for me back from we were doing more construction type projects prior to that.
Mike Lessiter: So with that, the opener, you incorporated in early 90s, correct?
Norbert Beaujot: Yeah, ’92 on the farm and started commercializing. I filed for patents in ’91, ’92 on the first patents.
Mike Lessiter: What did you see at the time that told you it’s time to make it commercially available?
Norbert Beaujot: Well, once you’re passionate about anything, as soon as you’re convinced, you’re already thinking of how to make it commercially available. So, I don’t think there was ever a doubt in my mind that I would make it commercially available. That all took place within months, very quickly.
We moved fairly fast. Once I had paper drawings that I felt might be workable, I got ahold of a friend, Brian Kent is his name, that helped turn it into a mechanical machine and within a few months we built the first one and planted the first 1,200 acres on our farm right out of the box. So moved quickly after the — in paper drawings I often look at a multitude of directions, but you start eliminating some of them and once you can’t get one out of your mind, then you focus on that one and get some of the details with it. And don’t be afraid of failure. That’s a big part of innovation of course.
Mike Lessiter: What was going on at the time that allowed you the room to come in with a new product?
Norbert Beaujot: In western Canada, which was the market that I knew at the time, the seeding operation was performed with air seeders of various colors and descriptions and the tool for putting the seed in the ground was okay for wheat, but at about in the early 90s the move towards Canola was becoming important for Saskatchewan in particular at that time. When I started farming that way I realized that the methods of seeding were terrible for that kind of crop. And over time I’m sure that every seed, the seed depth, fertilizer placement and packing are important to all crops all around the world. In Saskatchewan we struggle with a very short growing season, so the efficiency of our seeding operation is critical to the farmer’s survival. So, in a way it was being at the right place at the right time, like understanding the criticalness and now we sell our opener in areas of the world like Australia where they have lots of growing season and it’s not important to have it come up that — it’s not important for the same reasons to come up quick, but it’s always important for the plant to have equal emergence.
That was the focus — it was canola to start with, canola’s very sensitive to improper seed depth and when you have no-till you have that precious, precious amount of moisture right at the surface that if you deal with it properly it’ll get that crop going well.
Mike Lessiter: How did you go to market in those early years? How did you get the product out there?
Norbert Beaujot: For the first 10 to 12 years almost, we were direct selling, so we went to trade shows like this, the local ones, and the Farm Progress Show in Regina was the first one we went to. And some farmers stumbled upon us and liked what we were doing and some walked by like this and said, “I’ll never farm that way.” And you have to accept the good and the bad. So, we started with 6 machines the first commercial year and they were spread through Saskatchewan and a bit of Alberta and supported those directly. So we went to the level of over the years went to probably 60 or 70 machines per year that we direct sold.
And then the dealers came to us. At the beginning they — the main line dealers in particular came to us in their region. They recognized that we were taking the market over and one direct comment that one chap, the dealer owner, said to me is, “if I wanted to stay in the seeding business I either had to get out of the seeding business or take you on as a supplier.” So over that 10 or 12 year period the localized dealers recognized the value of the new innovative product. And I think that’s the story that a lot of innovators could tell, a very similar story.
Mike Lessiter: What is it about yours that is so in demand?
Norbert Beaujot: The opener? Well prior to that it was cultivator and disc type units that had a very course adjustment for depth. We went to a very long arm with the gauge wheel at the back that acts as the packer wheel and that long arm gave us very precise seed depth on an individual row basis and with the use of hydraulics we were able to get exactly the same force against the earth with each packer wheel and very, very precise seed depth.
At the same time I recognized the importance of fertilizer placement and so I used a 2-knife system right from the beginning, placing seed and fertilizer in separate bands directly on the same arm. So we’ve always had an extremely precise location fertilizer. And I think there’s parts of the industry in other parts of the world that can probably learn from some of the things we’ve learned about canola. Like I think some of the procedures even around here I think we can do a better job of placing fertilizer at seeding time than a lot of the corn industry is doing today. But part of that is learning from other industries, other parts of the world. We have lots to learn about corn, soybeans — and so keeping an open mind.
Mike Lessiter: Are you 100% dealer distributed today?
Norbert Beaujot: Yeah, the bulk of them are mainline dealers, there are some shortline dealers as well that are successful with our product as well.
Mike Lessiter: How wide of a geographic footprint do you have?
Norbert Beaujot: Well, our main market is still western Canada. We’ve got activity in Montana, North and South Dakota and then we jump all the way to Australia. We’ve done a little bit of work in Kazakhstan and Mongolia and places like that, but our core business is western Canada. And Australia, and of course North and South Dakota, Montana, have similar battles in agriculture.
Mike Lessiter: What would be some of the defining moments in Seedmaster’s history? What about the decision to go out on your own?
Norbert Beaujot: Oh yeah, for sure. That was for sure. At the beginning of SeedMaster, I was 55 years old and I kind of almost had enough money to retire, but I still had a lot of passion for what I was doing and so it didn’t take me overnight to decide that I was starting again. So I started again and my children, who are now young adults, 40 years old plus and minus, they were all — at that time they were a point in their professional development I guess that they were between jobs or just after university and so they all joined us and so it’s become a completely family owned. We’ve taken on a lot of other management and right to the Executive Vice President that we’ve hired recently of Trent Meier. But the family’s been at the core of the decision making.
I know it’s been very positive developments. It’s pretty gradual, like a day doesn’t go by that I’m not thinking of an improvement to some aspect of our — as far as the physical construction of our equipment.
Probably that first dealer that walked in and made that comment might have been a — and looking back I’m never sure whether that — if we hadn’t taken that route of going to dealerships what would we look like today, I don’t know. More successful, possibly, less possibly.
Mike Lessiter: Was that a difficult decision?