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Putting Business First

Jolene Brown 05/23/2011 @ 12:28pm

Jolene Brown knows her way around the kitchen. But these talents extend beyond the family-style dinners she prepares in the kitchen on her West Branch, Iowa, farm. Brown also is at home at hundreds of kitchen tables across the U.S. and in Canada, where she often dishes out truths
to farm families that are hard to swallow.

"No, I haven't heard it all, but I have listened to, studied, and learned a lot about working in a family business," she says. "One thing I have learned is there is a major difference in the relationships and results of a Family-First Business and a Business-First Family."

This difference revolves around how decisions are made. "Basing decisions on emotions or what family members want is what you'll see in a Family-First Business," she says. "Sometimes those decisions work out well for everyone, but that's more a matter of good luck. The majority of times, it leads to problems, first within the family, then in the business."

Brown says the hallmarks of a Business-First Family are making decisions grounded upon a mutual mission, written goals, legal documents, and quality communication.

"A successful Business-First Family doesn't sacrifice family for business, but it honors the family and has the family's best interest at heart. That's why they do the business correctly," she says.

Communication is a major fault line triggering seismic tremors in a family business. In fact, Brown has developed her own top 10 checklist, which she titles, The Top 10 Stupid Things Families Do To Break Up Their Business.

"Many of these mistakes could be avoided with better communication," she says. "Mind reading is not an acceptable form of communication."

Number one on Brown's list is when families assume that genetics is all that's required to create a good working relationship or team. "Just because you were born into the same family doesn't mean that you should be working together as a team," she points out.

In fact, she also tells families that being born into a family isn't enough to guarantee a role in the family business. She recommends a probationary period of at least one year.

"Hire family members carefully, because it's darn hard to fire them," Brown says. "A family business is not a place to rehabilitate a family member."

Written job descriptions and standards of job performance are critical to a family business. "Job descriptions tell you what to do and who is to do it," she says. "Standards of the job tell you how
well something needs to be done. If you don't write these things down, how do you know when the work is done and it is done right?" She lists seven key tools of a successful Business-First Family:

  • Business Plan
  • Goals
  • Job Descriptions
  • Compensation Package
  • Code of Conduct
  • Buy/Sell Agreement
  • Meeting Procedures


"You must have the proper business tools and use them while times are good," she says. "Then you'll already have them in place when times get tough."

Brown has developed a series of questions to ask before bringing in a family member:

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