Updated: Apr 26, 2022
Phyllis Day Chief’s biotech business took off last year after she added a new product. Here’s how she managed the sudden growth.
Phyllis Day Chief should know all about growth. After all, her small biotechnology company, Advanced Water Technologies (AWT), is specialized in growing a roster of natural bacteria that are blended and used for lake restoration and wastewater treatment. Yet, when her company, based in Raymond, Alberta, just south of Lethbridge, added a new bio product to its roster, the speed at which sales took off still surprised her.
“We thought we’d just experiment with a few farmers we knew,” she says. “They loved it, and word quickly spread. The phone hasn’t stopped ringing off the hook. It’s gone crazy.”
Day Chief’s new bacteria product was specially made for farmers who could add it to their soil to make crops healthier in a natural way. Using this new blend of bacteria, farmers benefit from a boost in crop yields over the short term, all the while advancing sustainable farming practices over the long term.
Established in 2001, her company had been trucking along with a steady $300,000 in annual sales for more than a decade. But with the new product line, sales suddenly shot up to $500,000 in the first seven months of 2017. The new product was applied on 14,000 acres of farmers’ fields that summer.
Day Chief had to move the ballooning business out of her home office into a 150-square-metre building on the company’s property. AWT also built another, larger building on its property to accommodate inventory.
Need to be better organized
AWT’s rapid growth led to some growing pains. “We learned really quickly we have to be better organized,” Day Chief says. “We can’t just coast along. If we have a sales growth target, what is our strategy to get there? We didn’t have that.”
Gone are the days when Day Chief could manage everything in the business. Apart from herself, the staff now includes her son and daughter, plus another employee. (Her son Joshua Day Chief and daughter Ashley Wevers, both of whom are of First Nations descent, now also own 60% of the company.)
Together, they have created processes and systematized their work to manage the company’s growth. For example, the team is implementing weekly schedules, staff meetings, an inventory control system and job descriptions.
Laying the foundation for sustainable growth
Day Chief is also researching customer relationship management (CRM) systems to better track clients. And the AWT management team is working with BDC consultants to develop a strategic plan and marketing plan.
They also developed a clear, written mission statement to serve as a framework for future growth. “Now every decision we make has to fit under that umbrella,” says Day Chief.
This work has laid a solid foundation for more rapid expansion. AWT is expanding its bacteria culturing facility and creating new facilities at the farms of several of its clients in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The expansions will allow AWT to increase production and be closer to markets in both provinces.
Almost walked away
It’s heady stuff for an entrepreneur who built AWT in her spare time while holding down a full-time job teaching technical writing at a local college. (Day Chief has a doctorate in adult education.)
She retired from that job last year and now devotes all her time to her thriving company. “The joke in my family is I’m supposed to be retired right now,” says Day Chief, who is 64.
Her journey is all the more remarkable because Day Chief almost walked away from the business several times.
Her business partner passed away only a short time after they launched AWT. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to carry on by herself, but in the end decided to soldier on. Later, she almost called it quits again when several hires didn’t work out.
Day Chief also faced challenges as a woman entrepreneur. When pitching her products, some potential clients seemed resistant to dealing with her as a female businessperson.
“As a woman, you need to ensure your knowledge base is superior. You have to know your business inside out and backwards,” she says.
Believe in your product
In spite of these challenges, Day Chief kept on going thanks to a passionate belief in the work she is doing.
“I believe our bio products are going to change the world,” Day Chief says. “People are wreaking havoc with the environment, and our bio products can help reverse that. No one else was offering it. I’m just very persistent. I believed in the business and never wavered on it. Thank goodness I didn’t walk away.”
Her advice to other entrepreneurs: “Be enthusiastic about your product. You’ll have good days and bad days, but believing in your product will help carry you through.”
Read the full BDC article here.