Firm finds cunning niches

BROAD STROKES: Metalform manufactures a wide range of products.
BROAD STROKES: Metalform manufactures a wide range of products.

From a mechanism that cleans up geese poop, to small parts for a Fisher & Paykel baby incubator - the range of machinery designed and manufactured by Dannevirke company Metalform is about as broad as it gets.

But the products have one thing in common: they provide solutions to problems deemed too small for the big international manufacturing giants to produce.

Solving Canada's geese waste issue might not be big business for an agricultural giant like John Deere, but for family-owned Metalform, its Tow and Collect product has been a winner.

Tow and Collect is being used in North American towns to clean up after Canadian geese, which leave a large volume of mess on golf courses and parks during their migration.

The machinery, originally designed for horses, collects manure while being towed behind a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

"This is not something we would ever have known about but some people in Canada looked us up on the internet and came to us asking for a solution," Tim Henman, Metalform's marketing manager, said.

"Our product is pretty niche and there isn't anyone doing anything similar on the market to this. Perhaps geese are too small a market for a company like John Deere? But we don't mind," Henman laughed.

Last year Metalform had its highest turnover since the company was founded in 1961, and cleaning up geese droppings is just one of the ways it's capitalising on niche export markets.

In 2013, 15 per cent of the company's business came from its ezi rider wheelchairs, designed after a disabled friend of company director Campbell Easton approached him asking if Metalform could design an adjustable height wheelchair.

The chairs are produced to 75 per cent completion in New Zealand before being exported to the US, where Metalform's distribution partner, Permobil, customises them for each user.

The Dannevirke company also produces custom-manufactured parts for firms such as Fisher & Paykel Healthcare and medical bed makers Howard Wright, but Henman said they have become wary of what projects to take on.

"Our diversity is our strength and our biggest weakness," Henman said.

"Ten years ago we were everything to everyone and now we are narrowing down our perspective, to focus on creating our own products and only working with companies that have potential for growth."

Metalform experienced a 30 per cent increase in turnover in 2013, and Henman said that its Tow and Farm range - which includes Tow and Collect - is driving the growth in overseas markets.

Henman visited the US last week to research the market for the company's latest invention, Tow and Fert, a fine particle distribution machine that promises to revolutionise the way farmers apply fertiliser to pasture.

The company's R&D team began developing concepts for Tow and Fert eight years ago based on university research outlining the benefits and efficiency of using fine particle fertilisers. But it would be several years before the company began seriously developing the project.

"We did some market research in New Zealand and found at first that everyone thought [fine particle fertiliser] was for hippies, so we shelved the idea for a little while," Henman said.

"Five years ago, we did the same research project again and found that there was a lot more knowledge of the product so we started designing a solution for distributing them."

Research suggests small particles in powdered form fertilisers are absorbed by a plant faster meaning less product is needed, saving money and halving the nitrogen used.

However fine particle fertilisers are problematic to apply, as the powder forms a cloud of dust if dispersed through the air and easily solidifies in water.

Launched in 2010, Metalform's Tow and Fert machine is designed to agitate and circulates the fertiliser throughout the machine, allowing even distribution and avoiding solidification.

The company holds several international patents for its technology which it believes is a world first, and is exporting the product to Australia, the United Kingdom, and Europe.

Last week, Henman met fertiliser groups in the US to scope out the potential, and to get a better understanding of fertiliser practices in North America.

"Globally we feel the potential for this product is huge."

The company has sold around 150 of its Tow and Fert products - which range in price from $14,000 to $90,000 - in New Zealand, advertising through farming publications and at Fieldays. But Henman said word of mouth is its best marketing technique.

"We've got a map around New Zealand of where we sell our products and it all tends to be in clusters, so what happens is someone purchases it, and the neighbours look over their fence and look at the response they are getting," he said.

Farm and Tow range accounts for nearly half of the company's turnover and Henman said Metalform is forecasting a further 18 per cent increase this year.

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