February 3, 2017
Once in a great while we get notes from readers looking for help with difficult family business problems. That was certainly the case when we received the following letter from a farm wife, who asked us to publish her letter anonymously:
“I am the wife of a crop and cattle farmer who is in partnership with two brothers. My 38-year-old son has worked with his dad and uncles for six-plus years now and can’t seem to advance.
“My intentions are not to put the farm family down; I am just disappointed and need to know if I can do or say something to get their attention. I think you can gather that the wives seem to not be included in plans here. I am little informed. I’ve been in the family for 40 years, and never caused a riff. But I need to know the future for my son. He has no say whatsoever; he is a hired hand. He had hope, but is now depressed and ready to go somewhere else. He loves farming, but feels it’s hopeless.
“It’s sad to me that my own husband, my son’s dad, will not talk about this. He becomes hostile, like I’m taking something from him. We all have a good surface relationship but avoid speaking about future plans for our children. My husband is not willing to talk at all; he just becomes quiet. If I talk to my son alone or ride with him in the semi, my husband tends to be more hostile toward my son. I have decided my son needs action, and I am determined to get him support. What is my position as the wife and mother of the generation to help carry on the operation? There are cousins and siblings to consider, too.”
We asked business management experts to weigh in on this sensitive topic. Here’s advice from Dick Wittman, Idaho rancher and farm business consultant. Look for two more responses in part one of this two-part series.
“My first response is, if your son was interested in investing in or advancing in a business other than the family farm, who should be making the request — your son, or you, his mother, on your son’s behalf? The answer to this question exposes the culture of the family-run business. Is this a family farm business expected to run professionally, adhering to proven management practices followed by other successful businesses? Or is it a lifestyle family farm, whose core purpose is to serve family goals and values?
I suggest your family members address the following questions.
-Have the three brothers had any communication or made plans concerning their succession plan?
-What skill sets and strengths does your son bring to the table, and how do they complement skills and experience of dad and uncles?
-Has your son had any performance feedback to indicate where his strengths lie, areas of improvement needed and what he needs to advance in the business?
There are multiple dynamics at play here with potential sensitivity and pushback from many fronts: dad/husband and two uncles, spouses, nieces, nephews, etc. Are there other cousins who are interested in similar opportunities? Have the three brothers had a conversation about their views on family employment policy? If not, they certainly should, as your son may not be the only one to confront this challenge.
The ground rules concerning who will be considered to advance in the family business should be clearly defined by the controlling owners.
Spouses may have been silent partners to date. But if they are on the dotted line signing loan documents and land purchase agreements, and have a vested interest in the business success or failure, their views should be welcomed in shaping the farm business’s family employment policy.
Will the “principle of merit” be the dictating criterion, where consideration for employment or advancement is based on skills, experience, buy-in to business core values and willingness to be accountable? Or will the “principle of entitlement” rule — if you’re family, you’re owed a job?
Decisions on who should carry on the family farm business legacy become increasingly complex as Stage 1 businesses (owner-operated) shift to Stage 2 (sibling partnerships) and eventually Stage 3 (cousin collaborations). You are on the precipice of transitioning from Stage 2 to Stage 3, a transition stage where 90% of family businesses fail to survive. Those who do survive have consistently done so only by adhering to professional governance structures, policies and practices. Start talking!”
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