Tech and our cheese business

March 14, 2018


Simon Berry, CEO at Whitestone Cheese in beautiful Oamaru
Thoughts from New Zealand’s Finest Cheesemaker.


When I think back to our offices as recently as 2003 it was like a scene from Back to the Future.

In those days we still placed and received orders by fax and all invoices were entered manually. We had a multiple landline phone system and the phone probably rang every seven or eight minutes. There was one email address for the entire organization.

As for the daily trip to the bank, it was like a workout! Who needed gyms when you had bags of coins to dispose of? I remember there being a lot of cash. As office administrator, my job each morning included counting up the till and balancing the books from the night before. The whole process took a good hour and a half.

The post office was another trip. Often our PO Box would be bursting at the seams. My father Bob always said, ‘Opening the mail is an important task because you know exactly what’s going on in your business.’ And he’s bang on. Doing so is your main form of communication. It’s just that these days the process is all digital. Today, our supplier’s invoices fly through a magical fiber optic cable. I can deal with queries remotely, and despite having just had two weeks off with my family I arrived back to 21 emails. Back in the day there was so much backlog mail that needed opening, it took a month to get back to where I was before I left for a break.

Embracing technology has made a huge difference to our business. Our office is probably 90% paperless. PDFs and accounting systems can be processed immediately. A digital timeclock payroll system for staff means zero paper timesheets and our merchandisers can be anywhere in the country, filling out their timesheets online. All of our staff have swipe cards, it’s semi- automatic.

System wise our big leap was the jump into barcode scanning, which took time in terms of teaming up with a software company that recognized our innovative nature. We needed to push the boundaries. Sometimes it didn’t work. Our first prototype for scanning invoices was clunky, mainly because we used broadband instead of ultrafast to a remote warehouse. Now our barcode scanning system is via four wireless handhelds, which record batch, best by date and product description for every sale.

We also have an electronic data interchange (EDI) meaning we import supermarket store orders directly into our system. When our dispatch staff scan stock, they’ve got to match the order that’s been digitally uploaded into their handheld scanner. If they pick up the wrong carton or product, system won’t let them scan it. Therefore, in terms of dispatching it’s pretty much a full proof system.

Our milk pasteurizer provides remote access with an internal camera system. With 16 cameras and 24 hour monitoring, our key staff can log in remotely and see what’s happening onsite. We can also log in off-site to log sales and financials, all we need is a Windows-based connection.

All of our senior staff operate with smartphones, meaning anyone who is in the field can email and photograph. Our landline phone system runs through the ultra-fast internet with one external fiber optic connection. If someone leaves a voicemail at my desk phone, it is sent to my mobile as an email audio attachment.

I’m contactable 24-7, yet in control and only need to turn my phone off when on holiday.

The other beauty of tech is you don’t necessarily need to physically meet with other CEOs, or attend every single networking group to keep up to speed. Networking can easily be done in a digital format. That information is at your fingertips.

Any business owner knows tech presents its own challenges. There are risks, not to mention costs when it comes to managing servers and keeping hardware and security up to date. We’ve tried to minimize that risk by running an in-house server, which is backed up internally on a stand-alone hard drive. If the internet goes down our operation is still all go. Sure, this can be expensive, but compared to an abacus and an invoice book, the pros outweigh the cons.

We’ve tried very hard to develop a culture that change is a given. As we’ve grown, our staff have come to realize we are an evolving company. We focus on improvements, and even though there might be resistance at the start, our team realize it will make their lives easier.

What about the future of tech? Could we, for example, think like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and use drones to deliver our product? I believe cheese is like fruit and veg. Despite Whitestone having a great online shop, our customers inevitably like to pick up the product before they buy it.

It’s no different to buying oranges or avocados at the store. We like to touch and feel and decide. Ultimately, as consumers we like to see what’s in front of us and choose favorites for themselves, especially when it has living cultures inside.

The traditional hands-on cheese monger will always deliver consumers the best cheese, it takes care and attention to ripen cheeses to perfection.