Southern Cotton

Building the Industry

In just four years of operation, Southern Cotton Pty Ltd has quickly grown to become one of the top cotton ginning facilities in all of Australia on the strength of its award-winning business practices. The company has already processed over 700,000 bales of cotton, and is highly respected industry-wide for taking a leadership role in developing the cotton industry throughout southern New South Wales.

Southern Cotton’s excellence was recently recognised by the prestigious Telstra Australian Regional Business Award they picked up at the 2015 National Telstra Business Awards, providing solid proof that the company’s early success was no beginner’s luck.

Located in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (MIA), Southern Cotton was the brainchild of six local growers who were fed up with having to commute 400 kilometres to have their cotton ginned, which was not only time consuming and labour intensive, but also very expensive. Those six friends – now the directors of Southern Cotton – decided to team up to provide a better solution for the local market, and in 2011, the company was born.

Astonishingly, the directors managed to locate a greenfield site, secure the finances, acquire the necessary approvals, hire qualified staff and build a $25 million ginning facility in under 12 months. That amazing feat was outdone the moment Southern Cotton opened its doors, as the company set a record for first-year gins by processing more than 166,000 bales of cotton.

That immediate success can be attributed in large part to the company’s first-class systems and equipment, which have continued to improve with each passing year. They have also been extremely successful in building their brand throughout southern NSW, particularly through effective marketing strategies and an active social media presence.

General Manager Kate O’Callaghan is the architect behind Southern Cotton’s award-winning business structure. After obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture from the University of Sydney, Kate started her career working with farmers in irrigated pasture research. Ten years later, when the Department of Agriculture discontinued that research program, she took on a role as a Production Agronomist in the field of hormone replacement therapy with Novogen.

After spending another decade in that role, Kate moved on to become the Group Safety, Health, Environment and Quality Manager/Acting Operations Manager for CopRice. Whilst that position provided her with valuable experience in the management of a manufacturing facility, her heart was in agriculture, so when the directors of Southern Cotton offered Kate her current role with the company, she “jumped at the chance to work with farmers again.”

“It was an amazing opportunity at a greenfield site to use all my previous work experience to not only build a business from scratch, but also build the relationships with the growers from scratch, and even help develop the industry as a whole because it was sort of in its infancy at the time,” she recalls.

With Kate onboard, Southern Cotton was able to quickly fulfill its vision of providing local growers with a speedy, high-quality ginning service at an affordable price to help them achieve the best returns on their investment, and subsequently, increase the viability of cotton as an alternative crop. The company has undoubtedly accomplished that, as land area dedicated to the cotton industry throughout the MIA has tripled since its inception.

According to Kate, that’s just a by-product of offering a complete service. Southern Cotton goes above and beyond to meet the individual needs of each customer, whether that’s by providing prompt turnover times, in-depth reporting, or even assistance in dealing with logistical or insurance-related issues.

However, it’s the company’s best business practices that truly take its service offering to the next level. Southern Cotton boasts a number of external accreditations covering “99 to 100 per cent” of the ginning process, ranging from equipment calibration and moisture content management all the way through to the presentation of the finished product.

Those best business practices, combined with a full suite of services and dedication to growing the cotton trade throughout the region, have helped turn Southern Cotton into an industry juggernaut whose name is synonymous with excellence.

“Our growers say, ‘You do an excellent job and you exceed our expectations in service, in communication and in the job that you do’ – but we’re not just a cotton gin,” Kate explains. “We’re not just ginning everyone’s cotton, we’re also taking a role in the industry in communicating the benefits of growing cotton, so we’re helping build the industry.”

Building the industry also includes educating the general public. Southern Cotton hosts hundreds of visitors each year to show them the tricks of the trade, as well as to inform them of the benefits of cotton farming.

“Every day we have visitors here on tour, and we’ve developed a portfolio to educate people on the efficiency and sustainability of not only cotton farming, but irrigated farming,” says Kate. “So we’re taking a bigger role in the region in educating people about agriculture because there’s a big gap in that.”

Southern Cotton also supports the local economy by partnering with regional suppliers and contractors at every opportunity. Kate says that helping your neighbours is a very common theme throughout the cotton industry, where you’ll often find competitors working together like a team and assisting one another unconditionally.

“The cotton industry is such an amazing, supportive industry, right from Cotton Australia, to the merchants, to the logistic freight suppliers, to the agronomists, to the local growing associations – everybody works really well together,” she says. “It’s not a competitive industry where you have an industry secret and you don’t tell people. Everybody shares information, shares documentation, shares best practices because they’re not competing against each other since the market is big enough, so everybody is supportive right through the whole process.”

Regional Champions

Since forming just four years ago, Southern Cotton has already managed to pick up more than ten industry accolades, each pertaining to its outstanding business practices. The company’s awards success recently reached new heights when they won their first national award: the highly-coveted Telstra Australian Regional Business Award.

Southern Cotton topped the other state winners representing their own regions at the 2015 National Telstra Business Awards after winning out the same category at the New South Wales Regional Business Awards. Judges cited the company’s surfeit of industry-leading systems, state-of-the-art technologies and innovative marketing strategies as the deciding factors in crowning Southern Cotton national champions.

Kate says she was “absolutely blown away” when she heard the good news about the award victory. In fact, she recalls her sheer excitement at just receiving the Business Health Check – a 70-page report documenting the business’s strengths and weaknesses at the beginning of the submission process –because it revealed that Southern Cotton was achieving a high level of productivity at every facet of the business, “which is no mean feat in a four-year-old company.”

It’s also not a bad result for a young company that was simply looking to benchmark its systems and practices against other established businesses across the country.

“It’s easy to assess how well a process is going in a factory, but we looked at it as a vehicle in which we could assess how the other parts of our business were going, such as our financial management, our marketing, how our computer systems stack up against other computer systems in other industries – all those other things in the business that aren’t so tangibly measured, it’s a really a good way to have a look at where your business is and what you need to do to improve.”

“But to be benchmarked against all those other businesses in Australia, and then to receive that validation from such a prestigious award body – it just blows you away because it validates that you’ve done a great job with your business,” says Kate. “It meant everything to us, and the smile on the directors’ faces just said it all.”

“You can’t underestimate the effect of that pride,” she adds. “It goes right down through the whole business.”

Southern Cotton now looks to repeat that success in a new calendar year. Kate says the company’s agenda for 2016 includes a strong emphasis on continuing to grow the cotton industry throughout the MIA – an upward trend that has already reached 46,000 hectares of land area dedicated to cotton growing in the region, up 10,000 hectares from the previous year.

“In the short and long-term, we’re very focused on supporting the growers,” she declares. “We have more than 20 new growers this year, so a lot of our energy and passion will be directed towards supporting those new growers to ensure they are successful as well. There are also two more cotton gins in the valley now, but there will be plenty of cotton for all three gins as long as we support our growers.”

In addition to supporting local growers, Southern Cotton’s future plans include the potential diversification into storing finished product and providing value-added services to their customers, whilst further fine-tuning their industry-leading best business practices and systems in the process.

“So there’s still more work we can do within our business to take it up another step, and absolutely every year we’re going to take it up another step,” Kate concludes.

Short URL: http://www.businessworld-australia.com.au/?p=4795

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