Communication key in success of group

Nick Webster with an impressive pile of fodder beet which has been lifted. Photo by Sally Rae.
Nick Webster with an impressive pile of fodder beet which has been lifted. Photo by Sally Rae.
The importance of communication has been stressed by those involved with Mitchell and Webster Group - the supreme winner of this year's Otago Ballance farm environment awards.

The intensive cropping operation and wholesale business producing bird and small animal feed is based on the Mitchell family's historic Rosedale farm at Weston and covers 1375ha of arable land in North Otago.

A large crowd attended a field day hosted last week by Peter Mitchell and Jock and Nick Webster and their families.

Regional judging co-ordinator Judy Miller believed the ''real essence'' of the farm environment awards was the sharing of stories and ideas ''about who they are, where they come from, what drives and motivates them and the steps taken to become successful, sustainable farmers''.

Judging was based on sustainable profitability, environmental awareness, social and community responsibility and good business practice.

When it came to Mitchell and Webster Group, the judges commented on the ''exceptional'' management of a large-scale operation and described them as leaders in industry diversification through creation of the Topflite business.

There was remarkable in-business practice, clear communication and demarcation of roles and responsibilities and recognition of strengths; a long-term sustainability focus through research and crop trials, wise rotations and agri-chemical use and comprehensive monitoring.

It was a strong business partnership between two families and there was insistence on family time and strong community involvement.

The Mitchell family settled at Rosedale in 1871 and it became linked to the Webster family when Ainslie Webster - Jock's sister - married Ross Mitchell.

Jock Webster had worked for the Mitchells' ''from time to time'' in his school holidays. The farm was being run then by Ross Mitchell's father, known as J. H, who was committed to farming, the community and to family.

Those three things had been instilled into the Mitchell and Webster Group ''right from the very start'', Mr Webster said.

After completing a degree in agricultural science at Lincoln in 1970, Mr Webster got a job as a scientist at DSIR. After 13 months, he decided it was not for him. He had several job offers, including one from Ross Mitchell, who was farming with his brother Bruce.

''He thought if I came back home and worked with him, they might be able to help me into a farm. I always had a dream of being a farmer,'' Mr Webster said.

In 1976, discussions began about a three-way partnership involving the two Mitchell brothers and Mr Webster and, in 1977, he achieved his long-time dream of buying a farm at Totara.

In 1990, Ross and Ainslie's son Peter, an A-grade mechanic, started working for the partnership. In 1992, Bruce Mitchell decided to retire from it, their first experience of succession, Mr Webster said.

Peter Mitchell came into the partnership in 1996, the same year that Topflite was born. Previously, they had been selling all their bird seed to a wholesaler in Christchurch who was never good at paying them.

In hindsight, that wholesaler dealt them ''a very favourable card''. The company now sells about 1600 tonnes of birdseed mixes and associated products annually in Australasia. Mitchell and Webster grows 60% of the product sold.

In 2004, the three limited liability companies that now make up Mitchell and Webster Group were set up - Topflite Ltd, Mitchell and Webster Ltd and Rosedale Ventures Ltd.

In 2007, Jock and Helen Webster's eldest son, Nick, began working for the group and became a shareholder the following year.

Ross Mitchell has now retired and Nick's brother, Greg, began working for Topflite this year, based in Tauranga.

The three businesses were run and managed by Jock and Nick Webster and Peter Mitchell.

Helen Webster said she, along with Peter's wife, Sandra, and Nick's wife, Kate, as the wives and business partners, had input at governance level through shareholder meetings.

Those meetings were held about three times a year and it was ''where hopes, dreams, finances, roles and responsibilities and policies'' were discussed.

''Being in business with another family is like being in another marriage. We have all committed to sticking together...''

Communication was very important but sometimes families did not put aside the time to do it meaningfully, she said.

Outside of business, both families had their own discussions and the Webster family began having family meetings about 10 years ago. It met annually, always set an agenda, had an independent chairman and also had guest speakers.

At a personal level, the family was learning about one another's hopes and dreams, and problems could be shared.

It allowed Mr and Mrs Webster to plan in a way that hopefully allowed for everyone's personal growth. Knowing the hopes and dreams of all their children really helped them as they went back to the business board table, where planning was ''critical'', Mrs Webster said.

Mitchell and Webster produces feed wheat, barley, canary seed, sunflower, ryegrass; maize, grass and lucerne for silage, hybrid rape and fodder beet on 701ha which is owned and 674ha which is leased.

Peter Mitchell spoke of the importance of irrigation, which was provided through the North Otago Irrigation Company.

''North Otago has been traditionally a fairly dry area, so irrigation is really paying its way in terms of drought-proofing our production. That's not to say it's easy. It's still quite a challenge.''

Mitchell and Webster Group will represent Otago at the Sustainability Showcase in Hamilton on June 22.

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