Short-line proposal wins business plan competition

Manitoba college students took the top prize for their proposal focusing on producer car shipping

It is possible to convert cocktail napkin notes into a successful enterprise, but thoroughly researched business plans published on actual paper are usually a better idea.

Matt Tolton, an agribusiness student at Assiniboine Community College in Brandon, is a believer in the methodical, professional approach.

For several months Tolton and fellow students William Turner, Erin Chambers and Meagan Enns developed a comprehensive business plan for a short-line railway in southern Manitoba on a Canadian Pacific Railway line between Nesbitt and Rathwell.

The students’ efforts paid off in February, when they were declared winners of the college’s business plan competition.

“We wanted (it) to be good enough so that we could drop it on an investor’s desk and say, ‘this is what we want to do,’ ” Tolton said.

Redfern Farm Services, an agricultural retailer, provided prize money for the top four teams in the contest.

Tolton and members of his group spoke with dozens of business and municipal leaders in southern Manitoba to gather information for their proposal.

“The focus of the business would be producer car shipping. The producers would come to us, we would order the cars … they would have to find their own buyer and destination,” Tolton said.

“The incentive for them to ship (with the short line) is that they’ll save a $1,000 a car in elevator fees shipping (with) producer cars … (and) we calculated shipping from every town within 75 to 100 miles of the line, and on average it works out about $4 a tone cheaper to ship with us.”

Terry Powell, an instructor in the college’s School of Business, Agriculture and Environment, said the business plans may be theoretical, but they’re grounded in reality.

The students have to reach out to Manitoba’s agricultural community and find at least three mentors to guide them through the project.

“We’ve had a number of students follow through on these business plans,” Powell told a young farmers’ conference held in Brandon last month. “So it doesn’t take long to go from the hypothetical to the real.”

Tolton said the project was an eye opener into the complexity of running an agricultural business.

“They found out, guess what, it’s a capital intensive business and it’s a really low margin business.”

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