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How to work with a workaholic

Can a partner convince his workaholic co-owner to respect the need for management and planning?


My stepbrother, Dirk, and I took over our third-generation specialty produce operation five years ago. It’s become a very successful retail marketing system that is showing exciting potential for growth.

Dirk grew up on this farm. I came to it from the city at age 13 when my mother married Dirk’s dad, Jake, but I took to farming right away. We worked shoulder to shoulder. After I graduated from Purdue, I gradually took over the accounting, marketing, and administration. After we bought Jake out, I developed the new website and greenhouse business model that is driving our growth, now passing $2 million in revenue.

Dirk and Jake (who still works on the farm) are really excellent farmers, but they only respect one thing: work. They never stop. They don’t understand that employees want to spend time with their families. They even resent time I spend in the office!

Our risk level is rising, but Dirk won’t discuss financial issues or take time to plan. Jake thinks the same way and encourages him. I’m at a total loss. How do I bring them to the business table?


K.P. and Dirk have, together, built a successful business and a valuable asset base. The upside is positive cash flow and an appealing career/lifestyle. The downside is that as the operation gets bigger and more complex, so do the decisions and management needs.

Dirk’s position is wrong. The reasoning is not difficult: The more complex the business becomes, the more these risk-taking investors require careful accounting, budgeting, and planning. They also need good people to take on some of the farm labor (work) with defined hours, wages, and responsibilities, while the partners spend more time nurturing and protecting their investment.

Certainly, work is fundamental to survival, and it’s clear all of them are very committed to it. However, they’re beyond survival mode now and have a going business plus significant wealth to preserve and to grow together.

We all know farmers who use work as an excuse to escape the unpleasant responsibilities of business ownership and even family life. (An Australian rancher once told me he saw long hours in the field as “recreational plowing.”) That’s a lifestyle choice and may be OK for someone playing with his own assets, but it poisons a partnership.

K.P. may or may not be absolutely right as to the management and planning needs of their business. One fact is unassailable: By becoming a partner with K.P., Dirk gave up his right to absolute power over the business and its assets.

They have a moral and legal obligation to make decisions together – very difficult without information and impossible unless they talk.

Submitting to formal communication is definitely the most hated and difficult management challenge farmers have to face, but the health and future of the farm simply can’t be decided over a beer at 11 p.m. with everybody dropped in their tracks.

K.P. and Dirk can start small with short monthly meetings: a quick review of financial condition, discussion of key operating issues, clarification of key responsibilities. A couple hours at first can do it and shouldn’t overwhelm or bore anybody.

The choice isn’t whether to meet. The real choice is either to meet or to split up the partnership while there is still something to save.

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