Powerplants Australia case study

From the office above his new factory in the Melbourne suburb of Hallam, Carl van Loon, CEO of Powerplants Australia, monitors production on the floor.  Below, greenhouse computerised climate controllers move through the new stations with clean efficiency.

"Before the program," Carl says, "one of the things that I loved about visiting other lean factories was the sense of calm, even in massive, complex companies. We weren’t used to calm, we were used to bustling around and putting out fires. But now, we’re calm and productive. It’s great."

“If you think you can’t afford to be away from your business for this amount of time, you’re exactly the person who needs to be doing this program. For our business, looking at the before and after shots, the difference is incredible.”

Carl van Loon
CEO | Powerplants Australia

In the beginning...

Over the past 18 years, Carl has grown Powerplants from a business that started with only himself, a ute and a fax machine, into a successful company that now employs 30 people. Carl’s expertise and hard work shaped the company into an industry leader specialising in horticultural technical systems, greenhouse equipment and greenhouse supplies.

Clients’ plants flourished and so did Powerplants’ reputation for honest, trustworthy advice, winning the business several Australian Achiever Awards for Excellence in Customer Service. As their reputation grew, demand increased – and so did the stress.

The challenge

"We were all busy and we thought we were working our best," Carl says, "but I can see now that behind the scenes it was chaos. It was 12 years of continuous stress. Good things happened as well, but the pain level never reduced."

"It was hard for Carl," says General Manager Simon Gomme, who joined Powerplants in 2011 as Carl’s business partner. "He was the person everyone asked for, he was doing everything. You can’t grow a business that way."

The solution

In September 2011, Carl enrolled in Leadership 21, through Melbourne Business School-Mt Eliza Executive Education. Designed in partnership with federal agency Enterprise Connect, the program develops small and medium-sized business owner/managers with an emphasis on elements that will make their businesses more successful.

"The program was really about giving Carl the tools that he could take back to the company immediately," says Simon. "After each workshop, he would come back reinvigorated. He kept this enthusiasm up over the whole time, and beyond. He’d say, 'We can do this. This is what we’re going to do, and this is how we’re going to do it.'"

The change

The program conducted a series of workshops over the course of 9 months, supporting Carl and his peers as they improved their businesses. Working with other business owners and a business coach, Carl realised the challenges he faced at Powerplants were not uncommon.

"Networking with peers who are totally impartial has been great," he says. "You could really talk about the difficulties and you knew the advice was real; there was no agenda. It’s been invaluable."

Carl developed a business plan and examined the business’s processes and procedures to identify areas for improvement.

"Something we really couldn’t go back to is the old procedures," he says. "We were fire-fighters, putting out fires everywhere. Things would go wrong and we were trying to fix that all the time; it never stopped. Now, we’re managers. Every time we have a fire we stop it happening again."

The impact

Over the course of the program, Carl and Simon implemented changes borne out of Leadership 21 and started moving their business toward key steps in their new business plan. "The program really helped bring together everything I’d learnt in different places into a step-by-step process. We had real frameworks and made real changes," says Carl.

One of those changes has been the move to the new factory. Implementing stronger procedures, together with leaner operations, Carl and Simon have improved productivity, health and safety, and have room for additional expansion.

"Looking at the before and after shots, the difference is incredible," says Carl. Powerplants is on track for 20 percent growth from last financial year.

Eight months after Carl completed Leadership 21, Simon says, "I told Carl he’s not allowed to take his laptop home anymore on weekends. For almost two months now he hasn’t, and nothing’s suffering because of it."

Carl agrees. "I don’t know what to do on weekends. I need a bit of help with that."