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Ruralco's COVID-19 response

Words by Sarah Green, GM People & Capabilities.

As organisations around the country rapidly responded to Jacinda Arden’s call to arms and New Zealand’s swift move into lockdown what made Ruralco stand out? Our rapid response to the crisis and our swift transition to a future of work that we had planned for 12,24 possibly even 36 months ahead demonstrated to us that our teams had the resilience, the grit the determination and the deeply imbedded culture to succeed. We have always had great pride in our collaborative culture, our flexible working practices and our ability to act quickly to embed change, but it has never been tested more than over the last few months as we pulled together to support NZ agriculture and be there to serve our farmers as an essential service.


Maslow'sHierarchyHow did we do it? 

Some of us respond best to a formal plan, my mind whizzes and buzzes like scribbles on a page, a mind map of ideas, actions to take and key considerations. Our crisis response team made up of our Executive and key managers worked together to adapt and implement Ruralco’s business continuity response in a scenario that most of us could never have imagined.  

At the heart of our response was our people, this was intrinsic to our leadership team. The immediate focus was not on revenue or policies and processes it was on making our staff feel safe. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1943) represents just this.

As an employer one of the primary influences we can have on our employees is over their “safety”. When, as humans, our physiological needs are met, our safety dominates our behaviour and in a time of crisis this will come to the fore. Ruralco was able to move quickly to address this as our Compliance Manager, Peter Jacob explains.

“A small band of staff got together and purchased hand sanitizer, cleaner and wipes for distribution to all staff, offices and vehicles. Other PPE we had on hand included masks and gloves, we put staff distancing protocols in place across the business and supported vulnerable staff to work from home. Other staff that were not retail focused were supported by IT and all set up to work from home within a 24-48hr window.

Within two days all our farm supplies stores and inwards good area transitioned from normal practise to operating under strict protocols. Barriers were erected at the entrance of each store restricting access and providing a slick contactless service. Staff from across the business stepped in to ensure the stores were secured as a priority.”




With the practicalities being taken care of by Pete, the executive team turned our attention to robust, timely and most importantly authentic communications. We acted immediately to issue company policy, following the rule “remove the rumours, act swiftly” to ensure staff have all the information they need. It was/is our responsibility to educate our staff on the key requirements of COVID-19, to ensure everyone was aware of the requirements and to be an organisation supporting the government during this time. While our policies and communications were set out formally to ensure legislation and employment standards were met and understood, they were communicated directly from our CEO in his usual authentically real and heart felt way.

All the way through this pandemic Rob as a CEO has shared his story, his wish to be on the frontline, his struggles as he works from his dining room table with his parrot squawking in the background.

In addition to our staff, we also needed to ensure our members and suppliers were fully informed of how COVID-19 would affect their interactions with us. Izania Downie, GM Marketing, Digital & Communications outlines her approach and response to COVID-19 “I’m a big fan of keeping it simple, only say what you need to and provide links to further information. At a time when inboxes were flooded with updates from every company who ever got hold of your email address. It is important that we respect the mindspace we take up with our contacts. We created a comprehensive website landing page holding all relevant information. After our initial email communication to members and suppliers, we only sent further updates when we had something different & useful to communicate. We created signage for our stores to protect our staff and ensure customers knew what to do when they arrived onsite. We used Facebook for updates as many of our members interact with us on the platform. We were unable to print our specials collateral, including The Kit Winter Clothing and our monthly In Season farm supplies specials, so we had to transform these into fully online offerings using email, social media and our website. Thankfully, we already have a fully operational online store with over 10,000 products available to purchase for delivery or pick up.

Our online store has been a great tool to assist us in providing a contactless service. As more people adapt to online shopping we will continue to move with the times and stay ahead of technology so we can support our members now and into the future.”

Cultural Change

And there it was within 48 hours, Ruralco, as we knew it had changed beyond comprehension. An agricultural cooperative steeped in history and traditional working practices now had most of their workforce working from home, reps were off the road, stores were empty of customers. As the only entity of our kind with a fully operational online platform in the country, to say our teams were busy was an understatement. But how did we hold it all together?

We kept it simple with some key initiatives and a focus on our already imbedded internal training platform. We also encouraged managers to take the lead with their teams – they know best what their teams need.

A “High Trust” culture has been imperative, giving staff the boundaries from which to operate but allowing the flexibility for them to work autonomously in order to be able to balance their new norm.


Our Wellbeing Committee were itching to get stuck in and help, and once the initial hours had passed and essential policies and communications were in place, we met to discuss plans for what then was an unknown experience for an unknown duration. Having a committee that comprises of representatives from all areas of the business, we quickly established that our business had been split into two camps, homeworkers and those on the ‘front line’ – how would we look after the wellbeing of both and bring the two together so that our culture evolved and wasn’t lost.

Our focus was on education and empathy. We knew that in these uncertain times what staff needed was the comfort of boundaries but a relaxed tolerant and empathetic response from colleagues and managers.

Flexibility - Everyone quickly understood that 8am - 5pm was out the door, that we had to be patient with others needs during this time, work together as a team and support each other to ensure all key obligations were met.  For our frontline stores, once the initial rush had subsided our Retail Manager, Grant Cullimore shortened opening hours and decided to close on Saturdays to ensure staff had the time to rest and be with their loved ones.

Education – Our training partners RedSeed supported us very early on with the release of a COVID-19 course to build understanding, this was shortly followed by a Mental Health and Wellbeing resource, these tools were released to our staff and their families. As the weeks progressed, we have supported all new policy changes and level transitions with internally developed courses rolled out to the entire workforce.


Our Employers Assistance Programme was reinforced to staff, we encouraged staff to reach out to one another with a simple “How are you?” and for managers to check in daily with their teams – not to check on tasks but to genuinely enquire how they and their families are.


We kept it simple, some teams did quizzes, some just had simple Facebook chat groups but we ensured that we made an opportunity for a central catch up once a week for “afterwork drinks” if people wanted to join but certainly not an obligation.


We wondered how to address the void between homeworkers and frontline staff, and we conjured up our “A Day in the Life” initiative, this has been my favourite thing to do. Sharing stories and photos from individuals within the business and their new normal.


We needed to understand, to know what was happening within our teams the use of quantitative data through surveys still had a place but did not give us the whole story. Qualitative information was required, and this needed to come from our managers or from the staff themselves.

So, What does the future look like?

As this Real Farmer issue goes to print, we will be a few months post that initial crisis point and hopefully working towards imbedding the most successful working practices from our new normal into everyday working life.

Nick Petrie in his white paper “The Cultural Bungy Cord” warns us of the need to grow and develop our company cultures in line with any strategic change, never has this been more pertinent. We have seen great stride in moving our organisation to different working practices and efficiencies.

2020 has seen the emergence of a new Ruralco, a refined version of the already strong collaborative organisation that our members are proud of. A company with further digital reach, seamless processes and a swift and nimble approach to change. We will assess what has worked well, refine our flexible working policies, bring more training in house, and digitise more of our traditional campaigns to name just a few. COVID-19 has realised many of our long-term strategic objectives so as a leadership team, we can definitely see the silver lining to this 2020 crisis.

About the Author


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