Microsoft Dynamics AX Helps Maintain a Fairer Deal for Farmers

“Our whole purpose is to create better value for farmers. We have to make sure that as a business, we create a competitive environment for our farmer shareholders and prevent other suppliers from profiteering at their expense,” says Keith Ockenden, commercial director of Mole Valley Farmers. With an annual turnover of £420 million and clocking up 160 million transactions a year, Mole Valley Farmers is far from the cottage industry its name suggests. The business has come a long way since a group of Devonshire farmers got together more than 50 years ago to create a buying group. It now has 55 agricultural and rural stores across the UK, 2,100 staff and carries out a range of activities aside from its retail arm including the manufacture of animal feeds, fertilisers and farm buildings. Yet its impressive growth has been a real challenge. Throughout, it has had to balance the need to create a viable business with a commitment to maintaining low profit margins and supporting UK agriculture. As Ockenden explains; “It’s been a time of great change in the farming industry with input prices rising because of consolidation and monopolisation of suppliers, and farm gate prices being driven down by supermarkets. Yet, over the past 15 years we’ve been through acquisitions, geographical growth and a subsequent increase in market share.” He says that the company’s growth has brought practical problems of its own: “Our expansion means we have acquired a number of legacy IT systems, legacy cultures and a number of different brands. Our IT systems were all bespoke, so that created a problem when we acquired other systems. It was all a bit ‘Heath Robinson’ behind the scenes as we tried to link them all together – all rather clumsy.” Basically, Mole Valley Farmers suffered from a classic lack of joined up information; in fact, the company had more silos than the farms it served. It owns several different brands, each with its own customer-facing front, but behind the scenes it needed one integrated back office and a single view of both its customers and its stock profile. In short it needed one fully-integrated system.

Taking control

The company looked at Oracle, SAP and Microsoft Dynamics AX, choosing the latter, “because of its usability and the fact that it’s a Windows-based system” which they felt gave it a language common across the business world. “We believed that taking Microsoft Dynamics AX to our business front end would give us so much more capability because of its user-friendliness,” says Ockenden. The team also liked Microsoft Dynamics AX’s data-handling capabilities.  “We considered the huge amount of data we were generating and the need for robust data management. Microsoft Dynamics AX gave us a clearer opportunity than its competitors to slice and dice data and to tailor our view of our central data system,” he adds.  HSO, a Microsoft Dynamics AX specialist, was chosen as the official implementation partner. However, it’s clear that for Mole Valley Farmers, the project involved more than just an IT implementation. The team are quick to talk about change management and the need to alter mind-sets. Jack Cordery is Mole Valley Farmers’ IT and Supply Chain Director: “This project is not just about business growth, it’s about supporting staff and their future roles. It gives us a good opportunity to engage with the staff and to really challenge what we do, why we do it and how we do it and suddenly we have some really innovative ideas coming forward,” he says. There’s also much discussion around data. According to Alan Parsons, programme manager: “The key is the data being put into the system.  From our legacies we’ve got over 160 million transactions which we’ve centralised into a single pot. AX allows us to get into that information and look at our history of our customers, so we can understand the services they may wish to buy in the future.” For Ian Rolinson, sales manager, it’s all about the customer experience and having a real-time view of stock levels. “The new system will be a hundred per cent improvement,” he says. All customer touch points are now integrated into one. “Let’s take a farmer, he has a nutritionist talking to him about feed and nutrition, a forage specialist talking about grass growth, a vet talking about animal welfare and health and a generalist talking about housing, fencing and equipment. At the moment we invoice that customer in four different entities. Microsoft Dynamics AX will give us the opportunity to simplify the whole process of that customer relationship with us by providing one invoice, one touch point and being able to ring one telephone number anywhere in the business for our operators,” he explains. “If a customer comes in and a product they want is not in stock, the system will automatically determine the best route to get that product to the customer as efficiently as possible – and will, for example, get it to the customer’s door at 10 o’clock the following morning.” The company also plans to introduce tablets on the shop floor to enable staff to engage with customers and match their needs more effectively, while at the same time reducing paperwork. Throughout the project HSO has acted as a sounding board for Mole Valley Farmers’ ideas. “The HSO team has huge product knowledge. We’ve come up with our own plans, but they have helped by coming back with additional information that we may not have been aware of. This has speeded up the process,” says Parsons. “They are a great bunch of people and they’ve actually understood our business and allowed us to progress quicker.”

One touchpoint

So how far has the project progressed? “We’ve done the groundwork and are in the middle of implementation. We currently have what we classify as the key pillars of our business live, including head office, purchase ledger, sales ledger, credit control, finance, market and customer service. We have moved three stores live into the AX environment, our first manufacturing division and our first service centre division. We’ve got another 45 stores to go and another ten divisions to move into the AX fold. Additional services will include the use of SharePoint, Power BI and Power View Layers with SharePoint,” says Parsons. To sum up, Microsoft Dynamics will help Mole Valley Farmers to standardise many of its processes – with one touch point to update customer records, stock records, product information, HR information and to look at management accounts. Information will be accessed quicker, freeing up time to be more proactive. This will all be backed by a management dashboard showing real-time information about the day-to-day business as a whole. “This project is giving us the ability to step well ahead of our competitors and create a huge gap between us and them. It will also ensure we are best-in-class in everything we do,” says Ockenden, “It means more transactions, more business in a working day and the cost efficiencies will enable us to retain and hold our gross margins at the low level they already are,” he concludes.