About Peaks & Valleys

The Peaks & Valleys podcast is a series that looks at the unique challenges of running a seasonal business. Although interview guests run agribusinesses, the discussions are applicable to any seasonal business. Each episode ends with tips and best practices related to the given topic.

About the Episode

“Running a seasonal business is not for the faint of heart,” says Radius President, Bobbi Faulkner, who is featured in the first episode. During the interview, she likens the cadence of running a seasonal business to taking a trip on an airplane. The episode wraps up with her tips and best practices. Radius specializes in creates and manages supply networks of seasonal live goods for large retailers.

For more information on the podcast or to suggest a speaker or topic, contact seasonal@marketmakerag.com

Subscribe Today

Transcript:

Did you know that within the world of seasonal business February is considered the slowest month of the year. I’m Lisa Courtney Lloyd and you’re listening to the Peaks & Valleys podcast, where we talk about the unique challenges of running a seasonal business. Although our interview guests run businesses, these discussions will be applicable to any seasonal business. Our intent is to briefly discuss the issue, then give you a couple of tips and best practices to consider. Today’s guest is Bobbi Faulkner, president of Radius, the leader in creating and managing supply networks for large retailers radius specializes in seasonal live goods for the home garden and landscape markets.

Lisa:    Hello Bobbi.

Bobbi: Hi Lisa.  How are you?

Lisa:     I’m fine thanks. Welcome to the first episode of the Peaks & Valleys podcast.

Bobbi:  Thank you for having me. It’s exciting to be your first inaugural speaker.

Lisa:     And I’m thrilled that you’re here today with us. You and I go back many years, kids grew up in the same neighborhood together, and I know that your career hasn’t always been in seasonal businesses. And I believe that gives you an interesting perspective because you recognize the differences from say a company that has a more steady cadence and one that has peaks and valleys. So I’d like to begin our conversation by playing back a statement that you said in a previous conversation: “Running a seasonal business is not for the faint of heart.” Can you give us a bit of insight into what was behind that statement?

Bobbi:    Perfect timing for you to be asking me that question. It’s not for the faint of heart and it’s definitely an acquired taste and you have to almost go through the cycle a couple of times to really kind of appreciate the depth of that statement. So, it’s bit of a roller coaster. This would be my eighth season in a seasonal type business. It’s not for the faint of heart and I guess the best analogy that I think I’ve even shared with you is that it’s like taking a trip on an airplane. There’s two distinct parts of taking a trip on an airplane. There’s all the pre-flight aspects: the planning and getting yourself there, the moment of collective breathtaking when you pull away from the gate; and then there’s the flight itself.

Bobbi:    In season is pulling away from the gate: take off, mid flight cruising altitude, and then touching down hopefully where you intended…at goal. So it was really those two elements of it. So, I guess the non for the faint of heart part would probably be the flight itself. There’s the takeoff (as you know I’m not a fan of flying also by the way at all, but I like to travel so there you go. It’s an acquired taste, right?) So you have your takeoff, which would be start-up, what we call start-up in our business. Then you get to that mid-flight or cruising altitude, you know, seatbelt sign comes off and you get to walk around the cabin and then you have to start winding down the season and get to the other end, to your destination. In terms of takeoff, I guess one of the things that is the most challenging is you’re at the end of the runway and then the engines start up and you’re pinned to the back of your seat, right? So the key to a successful start-up is that everything has to be in place. Everything’s tucked away, luggage, compartments are locked down, you’ve got your seatbelt on because really you can’t make changes. So that’s one of the really key and most important elements to start up is that we’re really ready to go. That ends up being actually an off-season exercise, but it’s really critical for a successful, quote unquote takeoff.

Lisa:     I think you’ve said before that because it’s seasonal, you never quite know if it’s going to begin a month in advance or a little bit later, because it’s weather dependent. So is it true that sometimes you will give your company almost an artificial deadline so that you’re ready at the earliest possible time that the season can begin?

Bobbi:  One hundred percent. Yes, I always pretend that spring is starting for us March 1.  In theory, you know, we probably have until April 1, but it’s really, really important that because everything always takes longer than you expect, especially if you’re implementing new systems or trying to communicate a process, and because we serve our customers nationally, season starts for us out west the middle of March, which is great, because it’s almost like a soft launch for us where we can actually start to test out the things that we think are awesome but they’re not quite. So I think one of the key things is yes, everything has to be in place. I do give an artificial deadline to all of us, and everybody knows that now. It’s nothing past March 1.

Bobbi:    From that point on when sales do start — because we serve national retailers across the country, we turn on our, let’s say our direct delivery listings — as sales start to come in one of the key things that’s important for us is to pay very close attention to any patterns or anything that is starting to look like it might be a bit of a something. Because when that volume hits, when the tap really turns on, it’s going to be an iceberg. So you have to really pay attention in those early days to (instead of high-fiving like, oh, we got this great new system and process) what’s actually going off the rails. What do we need to be paying attention to, that we need to address before the volume hits.

Bobbi: It’s a bit of a challenging time because not only are we quote unquote in start-up, but so are our suppliers. Being in a seasonal ag business, a lot of time they’ve lost staff over the year. They’re dealing with, you know, even over the last few years, any COVID protocols that they’ve had. It’s a challenging time with people, processes and systems across the board. That’s why you really want to give yourself that window to be organized because when sales do hit, our window is small. It’s a small window to make our year. So we can’t be dealing with things that need to be really kind of in place. And during that whole time of take off or start-up it’s my job to really make sure that I’m going around and checking in on everybody at all times. Because it is intense, and if we have new people, they need to understand this is not forever. It feels like seven days a week right now, but it’s not; that it won’t be that way forever. We will get to cruising altitude and things will settle down.

Lisa:     Within the organizational structure, your takeoff happens at slightly different intervals, depending on whether you’re in sales or operation or finance?

Bobbi: I think the takeoff is the same. I think … I’m almost going to say that the tsunami that’s coming hits people at different times. It’s really operational at the beginning, because typically in the off-season or pre-flight we’ve been implementing new systems and processes, so operations is really on first and making sure that they’re really locked down in anything that’s going on. And then, and then yes, it kind of hits it. Sales is kind of that whole time, but then finance seems to get knocked over a bit by the volume that starts to come up because of the volume of deliveries that we end up doing in a short period of time across the country.

Lisa     Right. So as the president, you have to be aware of that. And as you said, you check in with employees one-on-one to make sure that they’re feeling in control, not overwhelmed.

Bobbi    One hundred percent. Because losing resources mid season is not okay. It’s the last thing you want to have happen and a lot of times you can get ahead of it. And I listen, I have learned to listen for really key words from people, like “I’m so busy”. You will almost see it in meetings where at one point, somebody who’s generally super helpful is suddenly, kind of testy, and it’s just not their nature. So I try to watch for those clues. It’s never the person that was intentionally misbehaving, but sometimes you just have no margin. That’s a resource issue. As the leadership team, those are the things you’ve got to listen to because it’s far easier to get us a short-term temporary staff or to help the team get through the bottleneck, than to have somebody throw in the towel. ‘cause I can’t do this’.

Especially this year, we also have COVID happening. All of my team have kids at home, there’s no school. So you add that element, people who have younger children, that’s a really important factor that we’ve all had to start to be sensitive to.

Lisa: Yeah. So true. So true.

Bobbi: So that’s our start-up window. And then we do get to that mid-flight period, which we’re hopefully going into shortly and I keep reminding everybody July 1, but you do get to that point where the drink cart starts coming, so you’re going to actually get your book out. And that’s great. And I think for me in that mid-flight moment the goal is to have enough resources. Are we managing our resources properly because the goal is to get us to where we need to be without an emergency landing? So that’s the in-season window or cadence that we come up with and some of the things that we pay attention to.

Lisa:     And then is there a breath of relief? And then I understand you gear up again in the off-season.

Bobbi: In the off-season. No one’s sitting on a beach. We do. Yeah. It does seem to calm itself down, let’s say September, October, although we run some fall, smaller programs just from a cashflow standpoint because that’s obviously another challenge in our business.

But these are the things that are really critical. It is a really critical time. Everyone’s tired, but you’ve got to come into that end of season window and you’ve really got to do a wrap up. We have temporary staff that leave. So it’s really important to get all the feedback from them in whatever domain they were working in. What are the things that were challenging to the customers, challenging to you, a tolerance that you really wouldn’t have to want to deal with next year.  Be able to get all this feedback so that we can actually have an end of season, download as a group. What were the good, bad and ugly parts of this season and workflow, processes, people… are we resourced properly? All these things we have to be really willing to look honestly in the mirror, because this is going to inform our priorities for next year and for what we’re going to work on in that window of time.

Lisa:     Well Bobbi.  You’ve been very generous with your time, because I know you are in busy season.  I’m just wondering to end this for everyone, do you have a couple of tips that you would leave with our listeners?

Bobbi:   yeah, so I would say in the off-season/pre- journey, have a willingness to look in the mirror, to be honest, look in the mirror with your team. Be very reasonable, which is one of my biggest challenges in terms of what we can truly accomplish in a small window of time, instead of trying to bite off more than we can chew. Being able to distill down what’s going to have the biggest impact on our business, within that accomplishment. Be very disciplined about your timing of implementing anything new and getting it done. And then I guess, you know, probably my anticipation anxiety and being super paranoid about what can go wrong and do we have a response plan to address?

Bobbi: So that’s kind of my off-season strategy for coping and the things that I talk to the team about and continue to instill. In-season a couple of tips, I always say, really watch for patterns or issues in the early days because they could be the iceberg. Really watch the wave from a resourcing standpoint, think of a relay race… the baton is going to get handed off. And even though the first people are still doing a light jog, you have another group that’s sprinting and you’ve got to really make sure that you’re addressing bottlenecks and resourcing issues. So check in with your people at all times. Watch for burnout, watch for signs of folks kind of being at the end of their rope. And then I also say when stuff’s really crazy, just write it down. If there are things we can’t address because we’re in mid season, you know what, write it down because when we get to that download period, you’re going to forget because it’s no longer a crisis. But it’s something that we need to know and we can address it in that off-season time. So I guess those are my two buckets of, of tips that I govern myself by.

Lisa    Thank you.

You’ve been listening to Peaks & Valleys the podcast on seasonal business. Peaks & Valleys is presented by Market Maker Agriculture, a long-term hold private equity company that invests in agribusinesses across North America that have seasonal cashflows.

For more information about Market Maker or suggestions for a topic or guest, contact seasonal (at) marketmakerag.com.