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the challenge

It wasn't just their bank account that got a boost last year when the owners of Sandberg Labs in Lethbridge, Alta., got a cash infusion.

"It was really the lift we needed," says Angela Quinton who, with her husband Justin, bought the soil- and feed-testing company about two years ago. "Before that, it felt like we'd been beaten up by the weather. This brought the enthusiasm back."

The $100,000 award also helped propel them toward their goals of nearly doubling annual revenue to $1-million by 2015, and to make Sandberg Labs the biggest and most accessible agricultural testing facility for farmers in Western Canada.

Winning the Challenge Contest, sponsored by The Globe and Mail and Telus Corp. , gave the Quintons the opportunity to follow the expert advice provided, update their processes and buy new equipment. At the top of the list was a muffle oven, which costs around $13,000.

"It allowed us to get rid of the old manual method for testing organic matter in soil," Ms. Quinton explains. It meant Sandberg Labs could eliminate the chemicals required for manual testing and the resulting messy residue.

Best of all, says Ms. Quinton, "It increased our capacity for organic matter by four times.

"Before, if we had a big run, say 90 samples, we didn't have enough equipment to do all 90 at the same time. We could only do 36 at one time. So we'd have to wash all the flasks and start from scratch. It could take all day to do 90. Now, in a couple of hours, we can do 200 samples."

The purchase of a fibre digester – a $20,000 automated machine used for testing feed – has increased the lab's capacity 14-fold, said Ms. Quinton, allowing it to run 144 tests a day instead of 10.

"There was a huge need for this," she says. "Before, most of the testing went east or to the United States. Now that we're able to handle more volume and do a faster turnaround for farmers, more of the work is coming to us."

Another bonus that came with the pricey piece of equipment was better use of personnel.

With the old, manual method of testing feed, "it had to be smartest chemist to figure out what was going on," explains Mr. Quinton. "The most expensive person was tied up all day for 10 samples. Now the system is so automated that any technician can run it, while the chemist still does quality control."

The Quintons didn't doubt they were making the right decision by investing most of their prize money in new equipment and streamlined processes, but Doug Patton, small business area manager for the Vancouver suburban district at the Bank of Montreal, had suggested the Quintons also consider paying down debt.

Ms. Quinton admits they've been spending rather than saving.

"That's always the argument," she points out. "Should we take the money and buy equipment that helps us grow, or should we use it to pay down debt? Obviously we're still making our monthly payments but we haven't put any extra money into debt."

Not all the changes required huge outlays of funds.

Using principles of lean manufacturing to improve flow, Mr. Quinton arranged to move all the grinding operations, which had been spread throughout the building, into the back, along with the ovens. The move led to a travel-time reduction of 87 per cent, he said.

And the company is weeks away from completing IT upgrades and configuring servers with a Laboratory Information Management (LIM) system, which will handle each sample from the time it's received right through invoicing.

"Sometimes we were using three or four different systems for the same sample," Mr. Quinton says. "There was a lot of duplicate data, which made it prone to error. We were catching those but it caused delays. Now with the receiving person entering all the data once, we'll be able to do bigger volumes with accuracy." The new software also registers acceptable limits on results and automatically flags any out of range.

It will also allow the lab to e-mail results directly to the customer.

"The program we're using now is so old," Ms. Quinton said, "we have to print out the results and then fax or scan them. It's a waste of time and paper."

With all these changes achieved or under way, how close are the Quintons to their goal?

They've already doubled soil testing capacity. While the previous owners could handle 200 samples a day manually by "pushing it," Mr. Quinton says, "we're now doing 300 to 400 samples and we haven't topped out."

As for doubling revenue to reach $1-million by 2015, Ms. Quinton says, "Our October and November numbers increased over the previous year. If we could do that every month, we could easily double by 2015. We're definitely on track to do that."

The couple sees almost unlimited opportunities ahead.

"Last year, we didn't realize exactly how little we were scratching the surface of this and the potential that is out there, how much stuff was going south of the border," Ms. Quinton explains. "This is could be a whole lot bigger than we realized."

They're closing on a large Alberta lab that's been sending samples to the United States.

"We'll capture the market that other lab has and transition to using our facilities so we can offer a faster turnaround time," says Mr. Quinton – and, not incidentally, keep the business in Western Canada.

The company also followed advice from contest judges when it hired marketing consultant Lynda Kavanagh, who's working on a new website.

"We aren't at the redesign stage yet because we're still working on the SEO and navigation," says Ms. Kavanagh, whose company, Wow Communications Corp., is based in Lethbridge, with offices in Calgary and Paris.

Ms. Kavanagh wants to emphasize a narrative approach on the website, telling the Quintons' story. "There's such a trust factor that customers need in the work these people do."

"And here are these ethical, honest people running a family business, so what we want to come across is: 'We care about whether you're happy and we're going to bend over backward to make sure you are.' "

Alberta agronomist Russ Stewart's Promax Agronomy Services has been one of the lab's biggest customers for more than a decade. "Angela and Justin have a desire to be better tomorrow than they were yesterday," he says. "They don't hesitate to ask for feedback: 'How we can we serve you better? What do you want to see happen?'

"They're "down-to-earth people."

An increase in capacity means the Quintons have not only increased their revenue, they haven't had to turn away any business. With some exceptions.

"We got a call today for blood work," Mr. Quinton said in an interview. "When they see the name 'Sandberg Labs' they don't really know what we do."

As part of that process there are plans to change the company's name to better reflect what it does.

What will it be? Down To Earth Labs.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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