Down Home Software Solutions

April 18, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Too sick one winter in 1979 to trim the apple trees on his family farm, Bob Brown Jr. instead used his Radio Shack Model 1 home computer and a friend’s junior college BASIC textbook to write a program to manage the operations of his family’s farming operations in Conklin.

Within a year, he was selling that earliest version of the RFBII Produce Industry program to neighboring farms. When RFBII Custom Solutions Inc. officially launched in 1984, Brown’s side venture began growing faster than his apple trees.

His package became a staple in Michigan farms’ newly formed accounting departments, when regulatory changes in the early 1990s forced farmers to withhold income taxes for the first time. Even before that, agriculture was experiencing the same shift to the automated world seen in other industries.

With his insider experience and programming skill, Brown was poised to capitalize on that shift. His firm created solutions for companies further along the supply chain — sales agencies, distributors and brokers.

When Brown finally sold the farming operation in 2002, RFBII had more than 200 clients ranging from $100 million global operations to 30-hand farms.

“For a long time it was just me coding, making the things we needed,” Brown said. “Then we started selling it to other people and it developed into a package.”

As the applications evolved from BASIC to Windows and later .Net, Brown formed strategic partnerships with vendors like Famous Solutions to serve the new platforms. With these products on the shelf, Brown saw less need for his skills as a programmer. For a short time, the firm served only consultant and maintenance roles.

“We soon found we could never really get the software to work the way we wanted to, or if there were a couple things that did work, they didn’t work together,” Brown said.

Responding to that need, RFBII brought on more programming assets and focused its service toward custom solutions, integration and maintenance.

The firm was founded and named for customization, a necessity for agriculture software.

Metrics like accounting, order entry and accounts receivable are relatively uniform throughout the industry, Brown said, but beyond that, his clients present diverse and often unique technology needs.

“You can have an apple farmer, greenhouse, poultry or dairy farm — they each have individual needs,” Brown said. “Poultry farms worry about things like feed conversions, mortality rates and egg production. A fruit farm is concerned with labor and quality, the logistics of bringing in harvest. There the schedule is all bunched up; poultry runs the same every day.”

Fruit farms may have different crops, each with their own growing and harvest periods. Complicating matters further, most agriculture operations have more than one specialty. A poultry farmer might also expect significant revenue from eggs. That company might have several sites devoted to that purpose, but it may also raise other livestock or grow produce.

The lines are then blurred in the supply chain. Some growers pack on site and may also manage the sales and distribution of their product. A larger number of companies focus solely on packing, shipping or marketing.

“There are all different combinations of that. We have to bring together all these different aspects,” Brown said.

RFBII continues to expand through the agriculture market. It has reached to both extremes of the supply chain, serving fertilizer and seed companies and now wholesalers. It has developed service programs for recently automated produce and sorting machines.

Today, it targets clients in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic. Many times it finds itself on customer sites across the nation and globe.

“This is home,” Brown said. “We’re based here. We’re looking to grow locally and diversify. We want to come at new industries the same way we always have. Our company is about filling needs. We’re not going to come in with a big bag of tricks.

“If you’ve got something that works great, we don’t want to replace that, but we know there are gaps in these things and we want to help fill those gaps.”

This year, RFBII brought in Bob Belmonte as vice president of business development to assist in that transition.

“We’re going to continue to cultivate where we’ve come from and grow nationally and internationally,” said Belmonte, who spent the previous 12 years developing technology for the manufacturing field. “But the technology applies to any of a few thousand other industries in western Michigan.”

Belmonte noted that a $100 million produce customer has structural needs equal to a billion-dollar manufacturing company.

“If I’m calling on a Steelcase, they have 20 to 30 plants,” he said. “Some of our customers have hundreds of growers.”

On the logistics side, agriculture has been practicing just-in-time concepts for centuries.

“If you’re a sales agency and you’ve got 10 customers that want you to ship that product fresh year round, you’ve got different people growing, packing, shipping and sourcing all over the globe,” he said.

“Then you have to have accountability on everything in case there is a recall. It’s a lot more baggage than you’d think if you were just shipping onions.”

Belmonte believes the firm could also attract clients in other industries and professions, including legal and health care.    

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