Exciting territory ahead for GPS firm

TracMap founder Colin Brown has found a business niche ignored by larger competitors. Photo by...
TracMap founder Colin Brown has found a business niche ignored by larger competitors. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Globally, the business niche Colin Brown has claimed is not large, but it is more than big enough for his clever little Mosgiel company.

TracMap's management director and founder describes his technology as a global positioning guidance and mapping system for use in challenging environments.

He said the secret to the company's rapid growth and ability to claim that ground as its own had been sticking to what the company and its staff were good at.

''It doesn't matter whether you operate a four-foot-wide mower on a park, a fertiliser truck carrying seven tonnes of fert around the side of a hill at 30kmh or crop dusting in a plane four foot above a crop at 120 knots, we provide productivity gains made easy for vehicles operating in challenging environments. That's our market.''

While staff numbers will have grown to 23 early next year, Mr Brown said success was due to the calibre of the people employed and to being small and flexible enough to move quickly to develop an opportunity.

TracMap has six products in the market, which are exported to eight countries. It will release new products next month and in March, taking its product list to eight.

While other, similar, GPS-type systems guided users around square, flat paddocks on the rangelands of Australia, Canada and the United States, they were not suited to hilly, uneven-shaped farms characteristic of New Zealand farms, TracMap's initial market.

''A whole lot of other people could have done the same thing, but because they never recognised the market opportunity or, in the case of the big guys, the market niche was too small for them, we were able to occupy that space.''

That was highlighted on a recent visit to an electronic fair in Germany where he saw 15 exhibitors all selling their own versions of in-car navigation systems.

''They were all trying to do a slight variation on an existing idea,'' he said.

TracMap started its own market category from which it has resisted the temptation to be distracted, even though its technology isn't confined to applying fertiliser or chemicals to farmland.

That pastoral agriculture niche was identified by Mr Brown in 2005 when, by chance, he found the Thomas Electronics company in South Dunedin was for sale.

He bought the company and then married his background as a farm consultant with the need for accurate and traceable placement of farm products with the skills of electronic engineers and software and hardware developers.

The technology has since grown to be used for fertiliser, chemical, dairy-farm-effluent and irrigation applications, with other versions for use by aircraft pilots, emergency services and utility companies.

The list is far from exhausted, as are global markets.

Mr Brown estimated the New Zealand pastoral market at 5000 to 6000 units, four times what he has sold so far, with the potential for another 4000 to 5000 irrigation and effluent-management units.

The US agriculture aviation market, which he is tackling through four distributors, has 6500 aircraft and he hopes to have 1500 units in these aircraft within three years.

Then there are the utility and emergency services markets, and opportunities in forestry - ensuring logging boundaries are not crossed - and in viticulture - that all the rows are picked.

Again, those market niches are considered too small for TracMap's larger competitors, allowing the Mosgiel company to keep under the radar and continue product-development work.

Mr Brown said the co-operation of local fertiliser spreaders, chemical applicators and aircraft operators was a trump card in establishing TracMap.

It meant being able to put units in the cabs of trucks and aircraft, exposing them to operators of mixed technology ability and to the knocks and rigour of everyday use.

In general, TracMap operates by using a simple but rugged version of GPS to accurately identify the exact area to which products such as fertiliser, chemical or pest poison are to be applied.

It does this by the operator driving or flying around the perimeter of a paddock to allow the TracMap system to calculate its area and shape.

Information on the client, the paddock or area, the type of product being applied and the application rate is also put into the computer in the vehicle's cab to ensure it is the correct area.

The computer then guides the driver or pilot to avoid overlapping and to accurately apply the product.

In doing so, it provides information about where and when the operator went, when and what product was applied, and wind speed and direction - an issue with potential spray drift.

Mr Brown said the accurate placement of products such as fertiliser and chemical had been calculated to boost productivity by 19.8% through increased effectiveness and reduced waste.

Beyond that initial application, TracMap technology can be used to ensure urban contractors carry out functions on areas that they are contracted to do, and don't send staff to the wrong places.

It is evident from the host of awards TracMap has won that its time has come, especially given the cost of fertiliser and chemicals and growing concern about their overuse and environmental impact on water.

This year, TracMap won the design section at the Westpac Otago Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence awards, repeating a victory in 2008 and adding to a cluster of technology awards it has already won.

Success is also evident in the rapid growth of the company which, early next year, will have 23 staff - seven software developers, three in technology and the workshop, and the rest in sales (seven), operations and administration.

Mr Brown said that in June 2006, they had two staff.

TracMap broke even financially in August 2009 and has stayed in the black since then, but they still reinvest 30% of their revenue in product and market development because, Mr Brown said, they can and they have to.

''It's an expensive place to play in terms of the technology. Unless you have scale, you can't afford to reinvest in new hardware or software development.''

In hand with that growth has been the need to look for a new business structure for the privately owned company.

Mr Brown and his interests own half the business and nine minority shareholders have the balance.

An independent chairman, Millers Flat farmer Pat Garden, has been appointed and Mr Brown said the company was likely to be split into three: pastoral agriculture, agriculture aviation and utility services, which will include emergency services.

Mr Brown said there were several reasons for TracMap's success: having a product that had integrity and was easy to use; being open to ideas from all quarters; being prepared to bring in partners with capital or expertise, even if it meant diluting his shareholding; and being based in Mosgiel.

This has given TracMap access to the UpStart business incubator.

The size of Dunedin and Mosgiel has been an attraction for staff not wanting to live in a large city, and he has had access to supportive local businesses.

''They've been prepared to give us a go because we are local.''

And because of that, a clever idea that was developed in Mosgiel is starting to be used all around the world.

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