CASE STUDY: Farmer co-operative expands with data visualisation

Silver Fern Farms looked for a solution to make its data more visually appealing. What they got has helped them not only achieve that, but also extend their supplier base and speed up decision making

A Kiwi firm more proud of its heritage is difficult to come across.

With a history that spans over 75 years, Silver Fern Farms is one of New Zealand's leading processors, marketers and exporters of premium quality lamb, beef, venison and associated products to more than 60 countries around the globe.

The farmer co-operative represents more than 16,000 sheep, cattle and deer farmer-shareholders throughout New Zealand, and has grown to become one of the country's largest primary sector exporters.

Collectively, Silver Fern Farms owns and operate 23 processing sites across the country and employ around 7000 staff during peak season.

Not many organisations can rival that scope, and the organisation depends on technology to help it manage and direct growth.

"The entire IT team would comprises around 30 people," said Aaron Hall, business analyst at Silver Fern Farms.

"We are predominantly a MS stack shop. We use all of the latest SQL server, Excel services and SharePoint. We are just looking to deploy the latest one of that. We really have only a couple of solutions outside of Microsoft."

The organisation does not yet have an ERP, but plans to deploy one soon.

"Every business needs an ERP. We cover all bases we just do it with a number of applications. That’s one of the reasons we need a data warehouse, so we can tie it all back to one source of the truth," says Hall.

According to Hall, all of the firm's data is stored in data warehouses in its data centre, and there are adequate provisions for disaster recovery.

Sorting the data gap

Four years ago, the organisation was working on its data warehouse and business intelligence strategy. It was around this time that it noticed a gap in Microsoft's business intelligence stack around representation of data.

Montage, the organisation's partner on the data warehouse project, brought Tableau to the table to fill the gap and enable attractive visualisations of data that could be presented easily to the leadership team and senior managers.

"We started off with a data warehouse project," says Hall. "We pulled all our sources together and needed some way of getting at [the data]. We created a cube to surface the data. At that time Microsoft did not give us a reasonable solution to surface the cube data – other than pivot tables. "

After being introduced to Tableau by Montage, the team "quickly fell in love" with it.

Montage handled the initial implementation of Tableau Desktop for five licences and Tableau Server within Silver Fern Farms. Now there are around 60 licences in use.

“Our Tableau Server now has 60 interactor licences that are available to all executives and senior managers at Silver Fern Farms,” says Stewart Cowan, enterprise systems manager at Silver Fern Farms.

“Visualisations are embedded within SharePoint pages in the company’s ‘HomeBlock’ intranet portal for easy access to Tableau visualisations within the wider context of collaboration and performance management.”

Benefits that accrue

Changes in the organisation have made Tableau even more important over the years, Hall says.

"We have around 100 field workers who go down and procure animals for us," he says. "We recently provided them with tablets, which are used for forecasting and booking. So if [a field worker] knows that he has 100 animals coming in next week, he would forecast that number. In the head office, the livestock controllers would then allocate them space. Once he gets a confirmation, the animals will get picked up and be brought to the plant.

"The tablets were introduced last November. Previously the workers were faxing in or calling in their numbers. Now we have a built a solution on top of our CRM to do the booking and forecasting for us. We have never had data like this before and Tableau has been really cool in surfacing that data. There are a lot of benefits to surfacing that data, forming it in the right place and getting our business users consuming it in the right way."

Tableau has also been instrumental in turning "big data dumps of thousands of rows" into trends that can be consumed visually.

"There is an absolute truck load of data and that is typically on the procurement side," Hall says. "Typically, heaps of our reporting was out of our procurement databases. Almost all of the reporting that we were doing was related to how we procure these animals and how we price-trend these animals.

"Since we have been using a tool that is a bit more visual we have been able to engage others users in the business like marketing and sales to surface data and consume data in a more user-friendly way rather than just have them look through thousands of rows of data."

Besides enabling more departments to tap into and use critical data, the solution has helped the co-operative identify farms in the country that could be added to the supplier base.

"We have been able to procure the FarmsOnline database. They have been able to give us that information, quarterly. We compare the FarmsOnline data to our database. We then feed who supplies us and who doesn't to Tableau, and plot the results on a map of NZ. We break it up into regions, put dots on the farms that are not part of us yet, and give it to the guys. And it is just so powerful for them," says Hall.

“Before using Tableau, our field teams were driving past farms for years not realising they were potential suppliers,” says Cowan.

“But now that we have the information visually represented on a map, it’s very clear to pinpoint new suppliers we can approach. And we can also see which farms supply to our competitors and more easily target them.”

“Since gaining access to this data through an intuitive visualisation, we have seen tangible gains in market share,” explains Cowan

Looking forward

Visualising procurement data worked so well that Silver Fern Farms has expanded its use of Tableau into other areas of the business.

“Now, we use it across a variety of departments from sales, finance right through to corporate,” says Cowan.

“It’s really the slice and dice feature that’s been most useful for analysts in our organisation.”

“Our analysts can quickly manipulate data in ways that are a lot more useful to them than working with pivot tables or Microsoft SQL Server Reporting Services reports,” says Hall.

“Tableau has proven to be really useful to create dashboards on the fly and show people particular visualisations on the spot.”

The team believes that it will soon have to purchase more Tableau licences demand for its features spread to its plant managers and staff, and Hall remains confident that it will certainly be a part of IT budgets going forward.

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