By Linda White
Special to the Toronto Sun
Growth is the key to success for this year's winners of the Young Entrepreneur Award. Seven years ago, sisters Hannah and Alison McIver set out to help farmers increase crop yields. Along the way, their dreams took root and they continue to reap the rewards.
Sisters Alison (left) and Hannah McIver set out to help farmers increase crop yields.
Their company, Agribiotics Inc., manufactures and markets inoculants, a biological technology based on bacteria used to improve crop yields in the agricultural and horticultural markets.
The Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) presented the Young Entrepreneur Award for Ontario to the sisters at a ceremony in London last night. The awards are presented annually during Small Business Week. This year's theme: You're the power behind the Canadian economy, let's share the energy!
The pair grew up on a farm in England. Alison, 34, studied biochemistry at the University of Oxford and worked as a financial analyst in the pharmaceutical and automotive industries. Hannah, 31, worked at a small food company before studying biomedicine as a mature student at the University of Guelph.
"Having been brought up on a farm, we have the work ethics of a small family company," Hannah says. "We saw an opportunity to develop our father's technical experience and develop quality products in a family atmosphere."
The Cambridge-based company produces its own products and manufactures biologicals for other companies. It has grown from a small-scale operation with just a handful of employees to a medium-sized company that employs 35 full-time employees, including research and development staff.
Financial planning was key to successfully launching the company. "A clear financial business plan is something critical to a small business," Hannah says. "It was critical in helping us understand how and when we would be successful."
Sisters Alison (left) and Hannah McIver started their business, Agribiotics Inc., seven years ago..
That financial planning was especially important because Agribiotics is a seasonal business, notes Alison. "We get paid in March and May but have to have money for the remaining 10 months. We had to know how to manage cash flow."
Financial planning includes taking advantage of government tax credits available for research and development. "It was absolutely critical with providing us with the financial resources to start our business," Hannah says.
Educating clients about applying live bacterial products with seed treatments has been an important component of Agribiotics' success.
"Our technology requires education," Hannah says.
"A company can have a good product ... but if you don't have people buying into that, you're not going to sell," she says. "We've worked one-on-one with the customer in the field and the response has been enormous."
Agribiotics has grown 40 to 50% each year over the past eight years. "That's fairly aggressive growth and takes careful management," Alison says. "One of the challenges we agonize about is when to bring on more people and move to a larger building. You believe in yourself ... but you have to back it up."
SMALL BUSINESS WEEK|
Small Business Week is an annual event organized by the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) and endorsed by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Small Business Week, held Oct. 17 through 23. The theme is "You're the power behind the Canadian economy, let's share the energy!"
The BDC is a financial institution wholly owned by the Government of Canada. Since 1988, it has presented Young Entrepreneur Awards to an outstanding entrepreneur from each province and territory. This year's awards were presented last night in London.
Visit www.bdc.ca to find out more.
Last year, the partners turned their attention to distribution strategies and introduced their own brands south of the border. Though it carried some risks, they saw it as an important step forward.
Working with family has its ups and downs. "It's tough from the standpoint of your focus. You're 100% focused on the business," says Hannah. "Even at Christmas dinner, the conversation tends to focus on business.
"The up side is that because you are family members and are focused on the same goal, you're moving in the same direction ... Individually, we wouldn't have achieved what we have today," Hannah says.
The partners recognize the value of committed employees who believe in the company. They remain motivated. "We knew deep down we would be successful, but it's hard work,"Alison says. "Once you start investing in a company, you can't afford to fail."
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