Commerce Grad Pushes Powerful Pink Potash

By Paul Martin

HONG KONG - So you're having a sleepless night. You turn on the tube for a little company but every channel is showing the same thing - an infomercial. It's enough to make you scream.

These insidious infomercials that seem to have taken over the late night airwaves may actually have their roots in a television series sparked by Howard Cummer (B. Comm '65), a College of Commerce grad, who grew up on a farm near Gravelbourg in southern Saskatchewan.

Cummer is Canada's chief potash salesperson in the People's Republic of China. After graduation he headed into the Canadian foreign service and occupied postings in places such as Los Angeles before joining Canpotex, the offshore marketing agency which represents all Saskatchewan potash mines. This story begins in 1986 when the industry, suffering from a glut of inventory and poor sales prospects, instructed its marketing agency to seek out some new buyers. The obvious choice was China where farmers were using virtually no potash in their fertilizer mix.

Cummer, working alongside the Potash and Phosphate Institute of Canada, began developing a strategy. The first step, they decided, would involve educating Chinese farmers about the merits of potash before they could begin a full-fledged marketing campaign.

The early stages of the program involved field trials in the sourthern provinces of China followed by a small amount of advertising. The ad campaign was small because China's mass media was, at the time, characterized in polite company as being less than mature.

Nonetheless the campaign, which centred on the pink hue of Saskatchewan's potash since pink is a lucky color in China, began to bear fruit. Chinese farmers liked what they sawwhen they used the powerful pink potash and started asking the central buying agency to increase their purchases. This trend towards increased demand caught the eye of China's national television network.

Before long they were in Cummer's office asking to joint venture a 10-part series on balanced fertilization, the terminology the potash industry now utilizes to describe their education/advertising program.

The series, which amounted to ten infomercials on the merits of incorporating potash into farming practises, aired on national television. At the time the programs hit the air, China's TV audience was faced with a fairly limited selection. Basically the fertilizer shows had no competition in their time slot.

As a result, Chinese television officials estimate that roughly half a billion people viewed the programs. That translates into two-thirds of the total farming population of 800 million.

Considering that last year's Super Bowl attracted 375 million viewers, the success of Cummer's potash shows in China is breath-taking.

Results

It also became abundantly clear the Chinese farmers weren't viewing the show merely for entertainment.

Orders for potash continued their steady climb as demand spread north and west from Guangdong province where the marketing campaign first started. This translated into stronger prices which, in turn, helped ease the oversupply situation at the mines back in Saskatchewan and reduced the need for management to impose temporary shutdowns and layoffs. Everything was moving well until 1989 when tanks rolled in the centre of Beijing, crushing pro-democracy protests. Chilled relations between the West and China in the wake of Tian'anmen Square sharply cut potash sales for two years.

Cummer and his team pressed their campaign harder in the early 1990s in a bid to recapture the gains achieved before the set backs flowing from Tian'anmen. Field trials were expanded north of the Yangtze River and with that expansion came stronger demand from Chinese farmers. A key step in solidifying the relationship between Saskatchewan's potash industry was Cummer's decision to relocate from Saskatoon to Hong Kong, the economic hub of east Asia and a gateway for China. It put him closer to the action and cut the tiring routine of a 14-hour one-way flight each second week.

Being on the ground of the Middle Kingdom also has paid handsome dividends for the potash industry.

By 1994, sales of potash to China were setting new records at 1.6 million tonnes and prices went up in response to the increased demand. 1995 produced even stronger figures as Chinese buyers committed to 1.5 million tonnes in only the first half of the year.

The story of Saskatchewan potash in China may be one of the most powerful marketing stories ever generated in this province. One of the key ingredients in that story is Howard Cummer who parlayed his youth on the farm and a degree in commerce into one of the most important contributors to Saskatchewan's economy.