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?
Norbert Beaujot: A little bit because we always, and we still do, stay very much in direct communication with the end user —the farmer — and that’s a difficult thing for us and for our dealers because the dealers don’t like you walking directly to their farmers. But we know that we can give them better, clear answers to any problems they might have. Most of our dealers have accepted that and let us through the gate I guess you’d say. It’s an easier business to understand if I’m selling directly to a consumer, it’s easier to set up for service, support, everything.
But easier isn’t necessarily the only way to look at it — it opens up a bigger market of course and trades, trades have been a lifelong problem I guess to be blunt of dealing through dealers. When we dealt directly — we never even thought about it, the farmer had to figure out how to get rid of his used piece of equipment. And so we saw the dealership as a stepping stone to eliminating that problem. But at the end of the day the farmer pays the bill and I’m not sure if the farmer’s better off through a few levels like that or not, but that’s a long story.
Mike Lessiter: Was it a decision that you were going to need to go dealer route to achieve a certain scale?
Norbert Beaujot: No, I don’t think so. Of course there’s a bit of pride and glory involved in somebody coming to you and asking for your product. But no, we were doing fine direct selling and growing organically. We saw the possibility I’m sure of growing quicker because of it, but in hindsight I’m not sure if that would have been true or not.
Mike Lessiter: I imagine there was quite a few things that were different the second time around in the first, probably capital accessibility to capital within a lot of those.
Norbert Beaujot: Yeah, accessibility to capital, but I’m a cautious person as far as investment. Whenever I borrow money in particular, which I hate to do, I want to see that as a short term thing and so even starting again having more capital, I still did it slowly and carefully and I like to pay things off within a couple years of when the expense is there. So, I guess I started slowly. A lot of times it’s good to start a bit slower when you’ve got new things, new ideas because it’s a lot easier to correct 6 mistakes than 100, so we grew fairly quickly at SeedMaster from 6 again the first year to probably 25 or 30 the next year and then kept growing from there.
Mike Lessiter: Would that have been unusual in your area up there for someone to go out and hang out their own shingle at age 55?
Norbert Beaujot: Yeah, somewhat I think. Never really thought about it.
Mike Lessiter: You know when you’re young, reflecting on this as just general business, you see a lot of entrepreneurs who make it happen through grit and the piss and vinegar that they bring, the fight that they have.
Norbert Beaujot: At a younger age, yeah. Yeah, there definitely is, but experience goes a long ways, too. I know I can try new things now that are kind of out there and that’s maybe where DOT comes in, where if I think about it enough I can pretty well taste the success of it. Whereas younger and more inexperienced people, first of all they may be more worried about failure and what people around them might think if they try something too far out there. I think part of experience is just not letting that bother you quite as much. Like the very first farm show that I talked about, I had farmers go by and say, “it’ll be a cold day in hell before I farm this way,” and those farmers all farm this way now. So it must be a cold day in hell.
Mike Lessiter: I was at a farm show in Canada when a dealer and I got in a conversation and he talked about now versus the 1980s and he said, “you know one of the big differences now is that in the early 80s when I took over the dealership, we had to make it. We had to survive,” he said the uncomfortable thing all these years later is now you have something to lose. He said I didn’t have anything to lose in the early 80s. Did that come into play for you?
Norbert Beaujot: For sure, yeah, and that’s a struggle I think you deal with on a daily basis as a business owner. You could lose it anytime if there’s a new technology that pops up, but I guess that keeps you nimble, too.
Mike Lessiter: The awareness of it keeps you moving forward, right?
Norbert Beaujot: Yeah.
Mike Lessiter: What have been the biggest challenges for you and the lessons learned through them?
Norbert Beaujot: I guess dealing with people is always at the core of — like as an engineer you think in mechanical terms and hydraulics and pressures and all these things. But from a business perspective it has to be the heart and soul of the people that work with you and your customers and your suppliers and your dealers. I’ve enjoyed that part, too, but it’s not something you can put equation on. I’m sure one of the hardest things for a lot of developers to deal with because they’re all like me in terms of, they’re thinking about something physical, something that they want to do physically. We’ve built a very solid staff, we’ve got a group of managers and employees that have been with us for a long time, so we’re doing something right. We hold our staff as important elements of our company and they appreciate that.
Mike Lessiter: Were there any real dark days?
Norbert Beaujot: No, I don’t think so, not in a — you know you’re always worried about 2 or 3 years down the road, but like no. Like I say, I’m a fairly cautious type person so try to never get in a position where we’re in financial danger or — I guess there’s always surprises in terms of components that you buy and you expect them to do a certain function and then the supplier kind of didn’t do his homework right and gave you something that is not workable. And so you have to respond very quickly to things like that for the company’s sake, for the sake of your customers and everything.
So that’s happened a few times. Fortunately, knock on wood, hasn’t happened for a few years, but even hydraulic cylinders, for example, are really an important part of our machine and one year we just had a terrible, terrible batch and we — it cost us a lot of money, but we stood behind it, backed it up, did everything we could to switch them all out. And at the end of the day some of those hardships become part of the success story, too, because the farmers and dealers realize that you went above and beyond what a larger company might have done.
Mike Lessiter: Right, word gets around doesn’t it.
Norbert Beaujot: It does, yeah. And as a small company you don’t even think about the choices, you have to do it, you have to satisfy their needs. If a few people get pissed off at you, word gets around, for sure.
Mike Lessiter: When you look back at the product innovations you’ve had, what are the top 3 that were most impactful and that you’re most proud of?
Norbert Beaujot: Well the opener is definitely what made what we are today and what SeedMaster and Seed Hawk is today. And the opener design, if you look at most other no-till manufacturers of seeders in the world, they all use part of the technology that came out of that unit 25 years ago. And, of course, those patents are done and over with, but that’s progress. Like if a company in Australia gains from something that I did 25 years ago, I’m not losing sleep over that for sure.
So, the opener, metering. Metering is a fairly broad topic and it’s there’s 2 lines of interest that I’ve developed and one is bulk metering, which is more air seeder type and more — and so we’ve developed that and metering in terms of individual row metering which is kind of a step between planters and where it meters each row into an individual cup and we’ve done our own development, product development in that regard. So that’s the second is metering.
And the third is definitely DOT.
Mike Lessiter: Did you intend to be independently owned?
Norbert Beaujot: Yeah. I don’t know, most of the people that work for our company as well, including my kids, that’s all we know and that’s the reason we get up in the morning is because it’s ours. And even our employees, they feel very close to us as a family and so I’ve never thought of any other way of ownership.
Mike Lessiter: When it becomes time to hand the keys over to your successor, what are the rules that you’re going to make sure that they hear? The things that you want to make sure that they’re aware of that got the business where it is today and are going to keep it going forward if you adhere to them.
Norbert Beaujot: Well, definitely listening to the customer would be number one. Listening to your customer, being aware of your banker. Yeah, everything you do as a manufacturer it has to make money at the end of the day and being focused on that, yeah, you can’t live without it. The way you treat your staff for sure. And understanding what a failure might mean financially of a certain development, but not shying away from that for sure as well. You can’t do an advancement without accepting some risk for sure.
Mike Lessiter: The one about failures and taking risks…
Norbert Beaujot: Well, I can give you an example. About 2 months ago we decided to put our first DOT unit out for exhibit. And I went to 3 engineers and I said I want to develop a sprayer, a land roller and a grain cart for this unit. And you don’t have to win at it, you can give it your best shot and if it doesn’t work at all we won’t show it, if it kind of works we’ll show it and we’ll keep developing it and we’ll let the public know that it’s a first try at this stuff of course too. And I think that we gained by it, by those 3 individuals accepting the chance of failure. Like when you give something to an engineer and he’s desperate at it not failing, that development might take 5 times as long as if you say it’s okay to fail, just do your best and we’ll start with what you’ve learned tomorrow and develop on that. So all 3 of those devices were extremely successful to the first stage like that in a very, very short period of time, a ridiculously short period of time.
Mike Lessiter: And if you didn’t — so not only that they got it to that stage quickly, but if you didn’t manage that way, they’re probably not getting learning opportunities.
Norbert Beaujot: That’s right. So, of course when you’re producing an item that tomorrow you’re selling it to the public, well that you have to be extremely careful with and it has to succeed, and that’s the right impression. But I think for freedom of thought and innovation, it’s good to keep that other method out there for a longer term project, accept failure, yeah, accept learning from failure. I read something just recently, I played ping-pong a lot at a younger age, and in a sport like that, this article talked about when you’re rallying, you’ll do some crazy shots and maneuvers that you would never do in a game. And to me that’s accepting that failure without letting it control your mind where you in a rally you’ll try that shot behind your back or whatever. And so I think in a little bit of a way that’s how I put these 3 engineers in that position, this is a rally, see what you can do.
Mike Lessiter: Is that approach something that you developed over time through experience?
Norbert Beaujot: I think it developed over the years. Although right from 25 years ago, once I have a thought in my mind, I think about things very broadly. If I want to see an improvement on seeding for example, back then it was very broad, I would think about it very broadly and then think about very fine details, and then flip back and forth and then eventually there’s a thought process that isn’t a conscious process that comes after plugging your mind full of different possibilities and then letting it rest. I don’t know if it was Einstein or somebody that said I’ll dwell on something for 99 times and try and come up with an answer. I’ll go fishing and the answer will come to me in one sitting. I don’t understand psychology or the brain at all, but it works in ways that we don’t understand for sure. And you have to accept that form of energy that comes from your blindside.
Mike Lessiter: So, a lot has changed in the time that you have done the 2 companies. A lot has changed on the distribution side in addition to regulatory and people issues. Could you do this again today in this climate, this economic landscape we’re in?
Norbert Beaujot: Start again where we were 25 years ago with a product today? Yeah.
Mike Lessiter: What would be different about it today? What challenges would exist today that didn’t exist…?
Norbert Beaujot: I don’t know. The whole social media, different ways of communication and exposing your ideas are so much easier now. Like 25 years ago we’d do a paper drawing and send a fax to somebody, and the fax was really quite revolutionary back then. So things are a lot faster now of course.
Yeah, distribution. I don’t think in Canada distribution hasn’t changed much. If you’re dealing with one of the bigger companies, there’s still always that tendency for their store to be pure in their color, but it’s the farmer that really decides. If the farmer comes into a store and wants something they can’t produce, it still speaks as loudly today as it did 25 years ago.
Mike Lessiter: So you feel good and optimistic, bullish on the future of the short line equipment supplier.
Norbert Beaujot: Yeah I do. I think there’s ways that they’ll come together and DOT might make them very powerful. The shortliners all have a good answer for a local market, that’s where they start. And they end up with something that’s better for that local market and eventually they recognize that they can make it better for a bigger and bigger market. And then eventually the big guys buy them out, it’s kind of a common story, but if they stay on their own, and even the big guys, they were all shortliners at one time as well. So that evolution — yeah, just a natural evolution.
Mike Lessiter: But someone who can bring an innovative product to the market, there’s still a place for the speciality.
Norbert Beaujot: In 2017, absolutely. And the same in terms of the same opportunities are there and they always will be in terms of developing a product with direct sales and I think most items start that way really. The dealers won’t take on a product until it’s proven itself. So that’s the only option, in the ag business anyway.
Mike Lessiter: I’m kind of getting toward the end of the questions, but there’s one that I wanted to get with you before we go on to DOT because my dad is working right now on a history of no-till book. He’s covered no-till since 1972 and that’s when the first issue came out. Tell me what you remember about the early days of no-till up in your area and how it was initially regarded.
Norbert Beaujot: Where is your dad from?
Mike Lessiter: We’re in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but his publication is national, international
Norbert Beaujot: Well I guess in ’85 when my father was retiring was the earlier stages of when I became aware of it. I probably had heard about it from the early 80s and people were, including my father, were trying to seed into untilled soil. The methods of course back then were fairly course. And then one of the early machines in our part of the world was the Conservapack and that was only 60 miles from our farm I guess where the factory is. So I understood a little bit of what Jim Halford was the owner, he’s since sold to John Deere. But that was one of the first items in our area. Other items, and including the Conservapack, in the early years it was an adaptation to a standard cultivator, to turn a standard cultivator into something that kind of was a no-till machine.
For the farmers, I think the farmers were in a fairly dry region of the world and very short growing season, so the move to no-till I think the farmers recognized the need fairly early and so a lot of the technology developed out of Saskatchewan did move around the world, including the Conservapack and that’s where the seeder, the Flexi-coil Seeder more as will go Seed Hawk, SeedMaster so there’s a huge amount of seeder manufacturers that incubated out of Saskatchewan and then moved around the world after.
Mike Lessiter: So one of the things, a lot of stories we’re hearing, and I heard when I joined the company was how maverick no-till was down in corn country in particular, in the late 60s, early 70s, to the point where farmers didn’t want to talk about it at coffee shops and were getting ridiculed for their…
Norbert Beaujot: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
Mike Lessiter: Was that not the case up in your area?
Norbert Beaujot: Yeah, for sure to some extent. Like when we seeded the first 1200 acres, it left a hell of a mess behind. I remember a neighbor coming to me all excited about a week after seeding and he says you should go look out there. Every row has plants coming up evenly, all the way down the row and he was all excited that he thought of course that we had just made a terrible mess of seeding, which it was messy, there’s no question about it. But that’s part of the acceptance of no-till is you don’t have that black, flat land that they were used to before that. So yeah, accepting that, accepting what your neighbors might think about you, and that’s so important to farmers. They lose money over how important it is for their neighbor’s thoughts.
Mike Lessiter: But once it got going up there, and with the support structure of the manufacturers that it’s been embraced?
Norbert Beaujot: Yeah, it’s been…yeah, continuous development. Our area was very bad for erosion prior to no-till and erosion’s just a thing of the past now. Unless the odd farmer forgets the lessons we learned 25 years ago. So you’ll see the odd piece of land worked up and the wind blowing it or the water eroding it. But very much an improvement over the land overall from my childhood like in the 50s and 60s. And from my parents’ stories of course in the 30s you wouldn’t recognize the country from those days. So a lot of the environmentalists talk about how polluted we are and how things are going from good to bad, but in so many ways things are so much better, so much better, so much more productive, so much greener.
Mike Lessiter: Anything that you want to say that’s back kind of on the history, your company history or anything I hadn’t asked you that you thought would be important to share while we’re running?
Norbert Beaujot: No, I think we’ve covered a fair bit. We could talk forever, but yeah. Yeah, I don’t know, I’m just kind of — you know you have to make sure you still feel like you’re an average kind of guy and you’re just doing what you good at and really that’s all I feel about what I’ve done. I’m not super intelligent, I just focus — I can focus on a specific problem and come up with a solution.
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