Land O’ Lakes is known for its iconic logo and its delicious dairy products, and for good reason: the company sells a million pounds of butter a day in the months of November and December.
But the company also owns Purina Nutrition, selling four million tons of animal feed a year, and WinField Solutions, which is the largest distributor of corn, wheat, soybeans and alfalfa in the United States.
Land O’ Lakes, which collects more than $14 billion in revenue annually, is also the only company that tests every seed hybrid in 200 different farm test plots located around the country, to understand how each variety works in different soil types and different weather.
Those tests generate a lot of data. WinField is also able to collect data from every single farmer in the U.S. about what they’ve planted and their crop yields; farmers disclose that information in order to qualify for federal farm subsidies.
With all that data openly available, and coupled with WinField’s own sales data and its other data sources, Land O’ Lakes saw an opportunity to create a software product that will help growers buy the best seeds, and help WinField and their farm cooperative partners sell them.
Land O’ Lakes Senior Vice President and CIO Barry Libenson said that project, now called Emerald Equinox, has been one of the biggest successes of his career. He joined the company in 2009, when the project was only conceptual.
Mike Vande Logt, Winfield Solutions executive vice president and chief operating officer, pitched Libenson the idea, and with Karen Oerter, the director of market and customer insights, decided to build its analytics system on an Oracle’s Endeca Information Discovery platform. Libenson said implementing its system using Endeca cut two years and $3 million off the project.
WinField’s implementation won Gartner’s BI and Analytics Excellence Award at the analyst firm’s Business Intelligence Summit in February. At the event, Oerter discussed how the analytics system led to an increase in seed sales in part by accelerating sales representatives’ views into their customers’ activities.
In this edited interview, Libenson describes the process that led to the Emerald Equinox system that runs on Oracle Endeca Information Discovery.
Data Informed: What does the Emerald Equinox software product do?
Barry Libenson: The real crux of what it does is it allows you to know, for a particular field, or in a particular location, what was planted, and what probably could have been planted in order to produce better results.
At the end of the day, that translates directly to dollars for the grower. They plant a certain hybrid of corn, and we show them that if they planted another hybrid, the results would have been an additional 20 bushels per acre. That tells them that if you use the right insights and right information you can get better yields for a particular piece of land. That’s what this is all about, maximizing the growing capacity of the channel, and using technology to best understand how to do that.
From the day we released this thing, the response from the business was overwhelmingly positive. We’re on the second generation of the tool, but what’s really cool about it is I could send you a copy and you could sit down and use it in the first five minutes. An hour after you started using it, you’d be more into the features and capability, but you’d already have been productive without any training at all. The interface is just so straightforward and like things you’ve seen before.
You’ve said that Mike Vande Logt, WinField’s COO, had a vision for this project that made you excited to join Land O’ Lakes. How did you help turn that vision into a reality?
Libenson: Any CIO’s dream is to have a business partner that really embraces technology and wants to do really cool stuff with you. Someone who has a vision, but doesn’t come to you and say, “We want you to use this product to do this.” They come to you with a problem and they want to work together to figure out how to solve it.
In 2009, Mike Vande Logt, told me, “We have all this information, and it’s very valuable, but it’s difficult to present it in a way that’s meaningful. If we could put it in the hands of the growers and cooperatives, as well as our own sales organization in an easy to use way, we can really move the needle for the business as well as help the growers.”
We worked together to come up with this vision for what the platform would be, and then we created the project budget and the timetable to build it out.
What were some of the factors in figuring out your timetable and budget?
Libenson: A lot of the data that we use in this product is unstructured information that we pull from all the different sources. It really is a classic big data problem, based on all the sources and what we’re doing with all the information.
Originally we had planned to the project over three years, at a cost of $7 million. That was based on the complexity of importing and normalizing all the different data sources and then getting the presentation layer built out in a way that would be easy for everybody to use.
How did you decide on the Oracle Endeca Platform?
Libenson: It was late 2010 was when we first met with the Endeca team. Our project was just a vision. It didn’t have concrete definition of what it was going to be, or what the capabilities were. We said, “We have this vision for this product, and we have all this information, and we want to see this prototype.”
They said, “Give us a bunch of data, we’ll put together a prototype and show you the possibilities.”
It was four weeks later when they came back with something. We called a big meeting and had all these people in a room. I’ve got to be honest, our expectations were really low. I’ve been in this game before, just like everybody has, and what you expect is either something underwhelming or nothing all that spectacular.
They showed us their prototype, and I was super impressed. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. But I’m not an expert [on the business process of selling seeds], and I didn’t know how applicable it was going to be toward the problem Karen Oerter [WinField’s director of market and customer insights] was trying to solve. She was really the biggest stakeholder in this.
We asked the team to leave the room so we could talk amongst ourselves, so I looked at Karen and said, “Okay, what do you want to do. Is this on the mark? I think it looks really cool.”
She says, “Cool? This is exactly what we’re looking for. This isn’t a prototype, this is the end solution. All we have to do is tweak it in a few places. This is the basis for exactly what we want to deliver the market. This is going to shave two years off our timetable.” She was really jazzed, and that was when we knew were really on to something.
As a result of using the platform we did, we were able to reduce that down to a year, and do it for closer to $4 million.
What was the production schedule after that?
Libenson: We engaged with folks from Oracle Endeca to do the development work and they did a fantastic job. We released the first version of version of the product in mid-2011, and it was met with really great accolades.
The challenge of the early releases was validating the data and refining the accuracy of the platform. We’ve invested a lot of time and effort into that over the last year, because a lot of the data is unstructured and coming from all over the place.
You want to make sure that you have a reasonable sample size and you’re accurate in the results you’re producing, and we’ve gotten that to a really great point. The product is incredibly sexy to demo, and it’s fun to use. I wish all my projects inside the organization had gone as well.
I’m really passionate about it because I’m really proud about it, but it is really cool. I’ve seen a lot of BI projects and dashboards and things like that, this is really just one of the coolest examples of using technology to solve a problem. That’s what makes it so interesting and why it resonates with people.