The Seaweed Solution


The story of Seasol began on a lonely, windswept beach off the Tasmanian coast, where the Roaring Forties force huge strands of kelp out of the Southern Ocean and onto the King Island shore. In 1974, an innovative chemist named Ralph Bayer noticed cattle happily grazing on the castaway kelp and wondered if plants might also profit from the high level of nutrients and alginic acids locked in the seaweed. He took his question into the lab and through a careful series of experiments, developed a formula through which the kelp’s natural benefits are transferred to plant life. Mr Bayer discovered that, when processed properly, the cold-water kelp contains natural growth stimulants that interact with a plant’s hormones, creating a fertilizer-like effect. Scientific trials revealed that the kelp-derived formula had an amazing effect on a plant’s overall health, and greatly increased the root growth and blooms.

Mr Bayer and his business partners were unable to get their innovative product off the ground, however, and that might have been the end of the story had a tenacious entrepreneur named Eric Hanes not stepped in. When Mr Hanes caught wind of the idea in 1983, he knew he had stumbled on something big. He immediately bought the fledging business and, along with a close-knit and dedicated team, worked relentlessly to promote his seaweed solution. Today, growers around the country recognise Seasol’s unique advantages, and the all-natural formula is the top selling liquid garden treatment in all of Australia.

The key advantage of Seasol is that it contains no chemicals, yet is completely effective. “We were green a long time before it became fashionable,” says Seasol General Manager Graham Smith. The organic product provides a welcome alternative to the toxic fertilisers saturating the market and poisoning the planet. In the early years of the business, however, the product was slow to catch on. “Nobody wanted it,” recalls Mr Smith. “Nobody wanted to do anything with it.”

Undeterred, the team decided to cut out the distributor in 1998 and go direct. Lisa Boyd, Mr Hanes’ daughter and the company’s Managing Director, was instrumental in getting Seasol on the shelf. “I just couldn’t believe how passionate she was about it,” remembers Mr Smith. Ms Boyd, a homeopathic doctor and self-proclaimed hippie, was determined to give consumers a safe, organic product as an alternative to the hazardous fertilisers traditionally applied to plants. “She wanted to change the way we farmed,” Mr Smith explains. “Her whole aim was to stop people using chemicals.” Armed with an effective product and sheer determination, Ms Boyd managed to get Seasol into Bunnings. She then spent countless hours training the store’s sales force on how to best use and promote the product. The plan worked and Seasol become a retail staple, familiar to a majority of gardeners.

Seasol also offers a green solution for commercial agriculture. Mr Smith reports tremendous success with a variety of produce, including wine grapes, table grapes, and potatoes. The company has an active R&D department and runs numerous trials, many of which currently involve almonds and bananas. Researchers have even begun using helicopters to spray Seasol over banana plantations in an effort to reduce the amount of toxic chemicals traditionally released over the growing fields.

Seasol boosts the effects of fertiliser, so when used together, growers can cut back on the amount of fertiliser used, reducing the amount of nitrates and phosphates leached into the environment. The company also produces Power Feed, a fertiliser designed to be used in conjunction with Seasol. The liquid product does contain some nitrogen and phosphorous, but its base is derived from fish, making it greener than the traditional fertiliser. And, when applied with Seasol, only a small amount of Power Feed is needed.

Because Seasol is a liquid, it is quickly absorbed by both roots and leaves, and begins benefiting the plant almost immediately. “When you use Seasol on a plant you end up with bigger, stronger, better, plants,” Mr Smith explains. Seasol is particularly good at establishing plants, he says, and it also has “an amazing effect” on plants that are sick or under stress. Frost, for example, causes a plant an enormous amount of stress. “It does a heck of a lot of damage, particularly to vines,” Mr Smith says. Seasol actually works as an antifreeze, helping to protect plants from frost damage, an attribute which was proven by an independent trial run by the University of Tasmania, which found that Seasol freezes at -6.2 degrees Celsius, as opposed to the 0 degrees Celsius freezing point of water. This effect makes Seasol invaluable to plants at risk from plunging temperatures. “That is why so many of our wine grape growers use it,” reports Mr Smith. “Wineries here can really suffer badly from frost.”

The company has put a lot into advertising in order to get the word out about the benefits of Seasol. Aussie icon Dame Edna has even become the company’s spokesperson, and sales have shot up in response. The relationship has been a natural fit, Mr Smith says. “Barry [Humphries] loved the idea that we are still a family owned company… and that we still manufacture in Australia and will never go offshore.”

Seasol’s marketing campaign paid off, and the company enjoyed record profits in 2009 and 2010. “The beauty of that is that we were able to share it around with everyone,” Mr Smith says. The team believes that everyone who contributed to the success should be rewarded, all the way down to the labourers on the factory floor. Many of the bottlers working on the line received between $2,500 and $5,000 apiece that year. “We don’t like calling it a bonus,” Mr Smith explains. “We just call it profit share. If we can get the profit up than we share it.”

Employees also enjoy a fun-loving work culture in addition to financial rewards. The company throws parties, puts on talent quests, and even hosts its own over-the-top version of Australian Idol. “Everyone gets involved,” Mr Smith says. Ironically, Mr Smith came up with the well-known Seasol jingle while brainstorming an act for “Seasol Idol.” While preparing for his performance, he noticed the phrase “Don’t forget the Seasol” on the side of a box, and realised he had his hook. “I played it for Lisa [Boyd] and she said, ‘we’ve just got our new advertising campaign. And what’s more, you’re going to sing it.’” Mr Smith’s catchy tune has filled the airways ever since.

The team believes that they have a responsibility beyond the Seasol family, and support a host of local and international charities. The company organises and runs several fundraisers each year and its generous contributions to East West Overseas Aid Foundation (EWOAF) help maintain an orphanage and medical centre in southern India. The company’s community spirit was particularly evident during the aftermath of the Black Saturday bush fires. “I was actually right in the heart of it,” Mr Smith reports. “It missed us by about a kilometre and a half.” He felt compelled to help homeowners who had not been as fortunate and organised a huge donation of Seasol to area relief centres and charity plant markets. “A lot of plants had really taken a hit,” Mr Smith recalls. He knew there was little he could do in the face of such massive suffering, but reasoned “if you can fix your plants, than at least it won’t be quite as bad.” Despondent fire victims responded with unexpected enthusiasm. “The people were just so grateful,” Mr Smith says. “Some of them were in tears.”

Sales have recently hit a minor slowdown and the company is not currently seeing the record profits of a couple years ago. Ironically, the sluggish economy has not been the primary challenge. “Retail is soft right now in Australia, but ours is not a big dollar item,” Mr Smith explains. “You can get a bottle of Seasol for as little as $6.00.” Instead, the wet weather is knocking sales down by as much as 10 per cent. “I think we’re drought proof, and I think we’re GFC proof, but we’re not water proof,” Mr Smith jokes. Frequent rains create lush and green gardens, “so the consumer doesn’t think anything needs to be done.” Mr Smith argues that well-watered plants still need Seasol’s special nutrients and alginic acid, but admits that it’s a tough sell when plants appear to be thriving.

The team isn’t letting a few rainy days get them down, however. Sales are still increasing rapidly in the commercial sector and the team is thrilled to see their vision of environmentally friendly farming coming to fruition. “We are getting to where Lisa [Boyd] wanted to be all those years ago,” Mr Smith says. After 30 years of effort, the company is witnessing a major shift in attitudes surrounding the use of chemical fertilisers. The world is becoming greener, Mr Smith says. “[Growers aren’t] just chucking super phosphate all over the place and destroying the land. People are actually starting to say ‘hang on, we’ve got to start working with the soil, and building the soil.’” And, as more and more growers go green, they are choosing Seasol’s seaweed solution.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 19, 2018, 5:29 PM AEDT