Leading growth

Growing a business by growing its people is a winning formula for the Fortuna Group. The Southland dairy farm group employs 100 staff and proudly invests thousands of dollars into every staff member every year. The end result is strong staff retention with turnover at less than 10 percent per annum.

General Manager, Matthew Richards says they recognise people are their most valuable resource. “The Fortuna Group is committed to our employees’ development, health, safety, success and future,” he says. “From the boardroom to the milking shed, we help people of all experience levels, from kick starting your career in the industry to maximising your dairy expertise.”

The Fortuna Group began in 2012, evolving from the Dodunski Group. Five dairy farms and 3,000 cows has expanded into 16 dairy farms and 10,000 cows spread over 3,518 hectares with an additional 1,500 hectares of support land. The group produces just over 4.6 million kilograms of milksolids every year.

Matthew says Fortuna Group started with massive growth and with that came growing pains.

“People were quickly identified as our biggest challenge and we decided the best way to success was to develop from within the group because those people already understood our culture,” he says. “We wanted to promote career path opportunities for people who were passionate about the dairy industry.”

The Farm Manager Development Programme was launched around 2014/2015, where half a dozen of the best 2ICs who wanted to become managers were identified and upskilled in what it takes to be a manager and lead a team.

“From the outset, Fortuna Group had a growth strategy and we had to grow our people as well,” Matthew says. “It was something we learned the hard way and at the beginning we didn’t always get it right. Aligning to anyone’s culture takes time and now 3 and a half years into the development programme it is working well – and we now have another group of guys ready for the next step.”

Matthew says thousands of dollars are invested into the development of people. Everything is measured and monitored with key performance indicators and support data.

“What we invest in staff we get back tenfold – all the farms are high performing, most in the top 25 percent and we don’t hide that fact,” Matthew says. “We want to be the best pasturebased dairy farming group in New Zealand and if we keep developing as we are we will get there. If you have the best people on the best farms the profit just falls out of that.”

Looking further afield

It was a shortage of staff and a limited number of people in Southland who wanted to be Farm Managers that prompted the Fortuna Group to begin an overseas recruitment programme.

Currently, of the group’s 16 Farm Managers, 11 are Filipino. Matthew says they try to hire New Zealand workers and under immigration laws always go to the New Zealand market first to try to attract New Zealand staff.

If that doesn’t work, they recruit from overseas and now have a mixed-culture staff of New Zealanders, Filipinos, Indians, Bangladesh and Nepalese. Filling vacancies now involves a lot of self-recruitment from existing staff.

Farm Manager, Dante Calamayan is a perfect example of how the Fortuna system works.

“Dante came from the Philippines 12 years ago. He got off the plane and could speak no English, just thumbs up for yes and down for no. He had no dairy experience and is now a Farm Manager and one of our highest performing guys,” Matthew says. “He has two Kiwi-born sons and is a New Zealand resident and is now going for his New Zealand citizenship.”

The group believes that from the board to farm staff, people are the lifeblood of their organisation. They want their people to be the best they can be and to help operate the farms to the highest level possible. To ensure this, the group works hard to develop a culture of excellence, promote career path opportunities and provide positive working environments. The Fortuna Group’s goal is for its staff to become millionaires.

They offer a pathway that can see a Dairy Assistant moving through the ranks to Assistant Herd Manager, Herd Manager and Farm Manager. Each role has different responsibilities and staff are supported in their development. Matthew says people run the business and they want to develop that.

“We pride ourselves on being different to the rest,” he says. “Replacing a staff member costs, so we would rather spend that money on helping staff be the best they can be – which is ultimately very good custodians of the land.

The biggest challenge is that people are all different, with different personalities and strengths and weaknesses. It’s about identifying that and working with them as individuals to an enable them to be managers and leaders.”

Hours of training is invested using different tools, from outsourced mentoring to team building and discussions around the company visions, to monthly catch ups with the Farm Supervisor.

“In return, we are met with positive, eager staff members who have a genuine desire to succeed,” Matthew says. “Training our managers is always a process and we recognise that – guys don’t turn up to work to fail. All our Farm Managers and their teams are fully supported through effective, ever-evolving systems and by our management team. Farm Managers help establish the budget, so they have an ownership and understanding of the business side of the farm.”

Managers share in profit of the business with production incentives, as well as a sharing when the farm working expenses are down and the cost of production is below budget.

“We don’t hide anything from the managers and all staff are welcome to look at the financial reports,” Matthew says. “Managers need to understand the financial operation of the business. It provides better business and performance, so why wouldn’t we open up the books.”

The Fortuna Group employee investment scheme is an investment stepping stone for staff wanting to pursue farm ownership. Participants need board approval, to be recognised as high performing, believe in the culture of the company and be financially viable. The system allows staff to buy shares in the company by leveraging off their Fortuna Group employment agreement, where they might borrow money to buy the shares at a low bank interest rate and receive significantly higher returns. There are also regular development programmes, mentoring and performance reviews.

“It’s an open line of communication and it takes time to build those relationships,” Matthew says. The group also hosts an annual dinner, which is a chance to bring all the employees together and celebrate success.

Matthew says if a staff member wants to progress and the Fortuna Group has no positions for them, they encourage them to move on.

“Staff do get poached and if someone is progressive and we can’t promote them like they want then we accept that’s life and keep the relationship strong,” he says. “Getting angry because someone leaves when we want them to stay doesn’t fit our culture. Now we have discovered that more than 50 percent of the time people who leave come back. We are a corporation but we try not to behave like one.”