BBI is a design/manufacturer of granular application solutions primarily serving the agricultural and poultry industries. David Soyka reports on how this recently renamed Georgia company builds on a heritage of manufacturing and product innovation to help end-users improve productivity and sustainability.
Shakespeare wrote that a rose by any other name smells as sweet. Barron and Brothers, International is now BBI, but the Habersham County, Ga. manufacturer continues to lead its industry with unique technology that makes the application of organic and granular materials more cost-effective, less labor-intensive and more sustainable. That’s a lot to spread around to improve any company’s bottom-line.
“It’s sort of like why Federal Express decided to become FedEx,” says BBI president and CEO Richard Hagler in explaining the shortened corporate moniker. “Barron and Brothers is a bit of a mouthful, and some people were calling as Barrons, and others the Brothers, so we thought that BBI would simplify matters. The streamlined name is also a little more in line with that of other high-tech companies.”
BBI makes farm equipment, specifically organic and granular spreaders, that might not seem like a high-tech venture to the uninitiated. But farming today is big business, utilizing sophisticated hardware and software to improve yield and productivity. BBI equipment is not only on the cutting edge of technology, it is on the cutting edge of production practices that might be the model for the future success of American manufacturing.
The company’s product line includes both pull and truck or chassis mounted, mechanical and hydraulic powered spreaders. While its primary markets are agricultural and poultry to disperse fertilizer, BBI also makes spreaders for use in the construction and landscaping industries.
“Controlling the spread pattern is absolutely critical for a number of reasons,” Hagler points out. “You want to be sure that the right amount of material is applied everywhere you want it applied without overlapping to achieve optimum results. Not just in terms of covering everything, but how you cover it. For example, our spreaders are 20 to 40 percent wider than most other manufacturer models. That means a tractor can spread more material over more territory in a single pass, with fewer turns and faster completion. That reduces your labor time and costs, as well as your fuel and maintenance expenses.”
But there is more involved than just width to ensure better, more cost-efficient spreading performance. “We have a patent pending technology called Binary Manifold Hydraulics. It’s a unique way to connect our spreaders to a tractor that saves a considerable amount of set up time. Typically, it takes an average of six hours to connect all the valves and electronics between the spreader and the tractor. The Binary Manifold that is standard on all our spreaders shortens that period to 45 minutes.”
Hagler notes, “We aim to be the Microsoft of our industry, meaning that we strive for standardization among modular components. Whatever electronics the farmer has on a tractor, whatever the manufacturer of the tractor, our controls are going to be compatible. All BBI products adhere to ISO 11783, also called ISOBUS, which is a protocol that specifies a serial data network communications control for all agricultural equipment. Because our products are ISO 11783 compatible, our spreaders work with any tractor, regardless of manufacturer.”
Lee Kilpatrick, director of sales and marketing, adds. “We want to be in a position as a manufacturer where we control our technology, and not have it dictated by others. By adhering to what in the software industry is called ‘open source’ standards, we provide our customers with more options, which also results in lower product costs.”
This is just one example of how advancements in technology help farmers get the most out of every acre, every minute and every dollar they spend. “Variable rate application technology on both tractor pull type fertilizer spreaders and truck mount fertilizer spreaders is today a widely accepted tool for the farmer,” Hagler says. “If you need to 150 pounds per area in one location, and 220 pounds somewhere else, it’s easy to set a consistent and accurate spread pattern for one area, and then quickly recalibrate for another. You apply exactly what you need – no more, no less – where you need it. Coupled with GPS (global positioning system), this ensures an even, straight-line application of material that eliminates waste and ensures proper spread rate that will increase yields.”
He adds that, “We’re the first spreader manufacturer in this country to offer GPS and variable rate application on all the product we sell.” To this end, BBI has partnered with TeeJet Technologies, a manufacturer of agricultural controls applications, to provide the electronics that make it easy to start, to control, to map and document all spreading activities.”
BBI spreaders are sold by dealers throughout North America and also distributes in South America; the company also does some additional international business, most recently in Turkey in China. It maintains a 50,000- square-foot manufacturing facility and employs a little less than 50 people.
“Dating back to the 1900s, manufacturing in this country used to follow the General Motors model,” Hagler says. “The centralized ‘we make everything here’ approach eventually gave way to the idea of we can make commodity parts cheaper overseas so let’s outsource as much manufacturing as we can. We’re starting to see the problems with that tactic now. Due to the government’s one child per family law, China’s labor force hasn’t grown sufficiently. Now they’re running out of employees, which is affecting their productivity. So, what we’re starting to see now is that ship dates are slipping from four weeks to 2 ½ months. That’s unacceptable and is an opportunity for domestic manufacturers to gain back business they’ve lost to outsourcing.”
However, he adds, “The key for success, though, is flexibility. What someone wants today is not necessarily what someone is going to want tomorrow. The reason there are empty buildings where there once a lot of once prosperous manufacturers is they overbuilt and couldn’t make adjustments quickly enough. That’s why BBI uses a modular manufacturing approach. Our expertise is engineering innovation. We design a product that solves a customer problem or issue. Then we get components we need from other vendor partners, and then we assemble the product. This eliminates issues of excessive inventory and excess capacity, while we remain nimble through our partner relationships to get exactly what we need to build a spreader solution when we need to do it.”
Particularly during current economic conditions, customers are particularly concerned about anything that can help them reduce their bottom-line and improve productivity. “There was a huge run up in farm equipment that peaked in around 2008,” Hagler notes. “The reason for that was corn was ranging about five to ten dollars a bushel because gas was creeping over four dollars a gallon and ethanol was the big new idea. Everyone was trying to ride that wave. At the same time, and for the same reasons, poultry got caught as prices for feedstock rose. So while our agriculture market had money to spend, poultry was looking to cut costs wherever they could.
“Now that the price of corn has come down, the spending in agriculture that we see today isn’t necessarily depressed, but it is soft. Again, poultry is in a kind of reverse situation as it is very concerned about reducing costs and increasing ROI, which creates a perfect opportunity for our products.”
BBI is also diversifying not only to provide spreading solutions to non-farming markets, but they also recently opened a sister fabricating business of aluminum components for the satellite industry. “It goes back to the problems companies are having with offshore manufacturing,” Hagler explains. “We saw a need that wasn’t being fulfilled by any other domestic manufacturer, we had the capabilities, and we moved to fill the gap. So far it’s been going good. Again, it’s an example of how you need to be flexible to be successful in today’s economy and market conditions.”
Which isn’t to say that BBI will ever risk spreading itself too thin. Rather, just like the products it sells, BBI is spreading itself exactly right.