Building an empire in the dirt

Service, innovation and reliability have helped Dobmac prosper over more than three decades supplying the agricultural market. Brent Balinski spoke to the farm machinery company’s Business Manager, Gary Dewhurst-Phillips.

“Philip is able to look at a problem and say ‘Probably if we came at it like that…’ and he’d fart around for days – months even,” explained Gary Dewhurst-Phillips, the good-humoured Business Manager at Dobmac Agricultural Machinery, of the company's broccoli harvester.

“The harvester was developed using two bicycle frames we brought from the Ulverstone tip, a couple of boards between them, knives underneath it to see what kind of effect you’d have to get to have the broccoli cut properly compared to doing by hand. And there’s video footage of these guys running around the paddock with bicycles – it’s a wonder they didn’t get arrested.”

The “Philip” in Dewhurst-Phillips’s anecdote is Philip Dobson, founder of Dobmac. Dobson has since retired from the company, which is now run by his son Mark, though Dobson Senior remains an influential consultant in the root crop sector.

This is the universe in which the family-owned business specialises. Basically “potatoes, onions, carrots – stuff that grows in the dirt,” Dewhurst-Phillips humbly added.

The top-picking, fully-mechanised harvester design has an international patent, was the focus of $2 million spent in R&D, and is an ongoing project.

It is a world-first, the company’s brochures proudly note, also the only such machine in the world to have been successful in the task so far, according to Dewhurst-Phillips.

It all started with potatoes, though, the vegetable that has thrived in the the heavy soils of Tasmania’s north-west – where Dobmac is based – for two centuries.

Dobson Senior, a former farmer of potatoes for Edgell, built his first machine in 1983. This was an automated potato planter. A boilermaker by training, Dobson lost the use of a leg after a farming accident. He took to modifying farm machinery for others in his shed before eventually building his own.

His business outgrew its premises twice before moving to Ulverstone, where it is currently based, in 1989.

It designs and manufactures machinery including the above, as well as onion lifters, seed cutters, windrowers, onion lifters and other products. It also imports and sells machinery from other makers, as well as buying and selling used equipment, as ways of dealing with currency fluctuations. This intensified following the GFC.

“When it was over was when it sunk us, because we didn’t know that the farmers would start going back to the new stuff so quickly, and where the dollar was it allowed us to import machinery,” explained Dewhurst-Phillips.

“So we shrunk our manufacturing down, because we were working with second-hand stuff.”

Revenues have improved since, and last year’s figures will have returned to pre-GFC levels of around $7 million.

Another strategy to deal with international conditions is trading currency. Everybody in the small, 17-person business keep an eye on the Australian dollar, as they do with everything else relevant to Dobmac, and the company trades about half a million dollars in currency each month.

“If one of us drop off the perch overnight, somebody picks it up and runs with it. There’s no one person that’s totally in control,” said Dewhurst-Phillips.

“We live in each other’s pockets; we live in each other’s lives at this place. If there’s a bit of a squiggle on the wall: one of the kids has been in for a play. It’s great fun.”

Dobmac’s root crop industry-oriented machinery is sold all over the world, and Australian/New Zealand clients include the likes of McCain, Simplot and Harvest Moon. Its famous potato planter managed to break into the tough US market last year.

Locally, their machinery is a “weapon of choice” for farms.

“I reckon every Tasmanian potato farmer either owns or has a contact with the place they serve for a Dobmac planter,” said Dewhurst-Phillips.

“Across Victoria, Western Australia, NSW, New Zealand, Scotland, USA. They're the most expensive potato planter on the planet, but we still sell them. They're very reliable: That's our real claim to fame, that's what Philip started doing, making high-quality things that wouldn't break.”

Reliability of service is also greatly important to Dobmac’s competitiveness, which means having somebody there to answer international queries from customers around the clock, and to be able to travel for repair work quick smart.

The reliability of service and of the machinery have been there from the beginning, insisted Dewhurst-Phillips. He cited the 1983 potato planter, one of which returned to Ulverstone after many years in the field, and which was traded back in five years ago.

“And it still functions,” Dewhurst-Phillips said proudly.

“We've put it aside to keep for the museum that we'll build later [laughs].”


Images: supplied