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Walk the Walk, Talk the Talk

Family can be a powerful foundation of a business. But more is needed if you plan to pass on the family operation beyond the second generation.

Five generations of Humms have farmed near Breckenridge, Michigan. Ted and Sandy semi-retired in 2004. That same year, sons Kent and Olan and their wives formed an LLC partnership combining equipment and their parents’ land.
Their parents’ equipment was placed into a 10-year purchase plan, and the LLC made the final payment this year. Now Ted and Sandy are in the process of completing a plan for a formal transition of the farm business.
“Keeping the farm sustainable to carry on a strong family tradition for future generations is our main objective and challenge, along with continued expansion,” Olan said earlier this year when I interviewed him. It seemed apparent that they were headed in the right direction.
But the Humms knew that they didn’t have all of the answers. In early August, the three couples plus 3-month-old Maezee piled into a van and drove 580 miles to the Generating Success Conference in West Des Moines, Iowa.
I was happy to see them and impressed by their commitment to maintain the momentum of their long-range plan. The Humms were joined by farm families from 12 other states in search of ways to strengthen their business skills, grow their leadership, and become more productive and profitable.
At the conclusion of the conference, Olan told me, “We decided we’re doing some things right, but we need more written down. And we need to communicate more with family members.”
The Humms are not alone in this realization.
A survey of Generating Success Conference participants revealed these top two challenges:
• Making a plan for transition of farm asset ownership from one generation to the next.
• Maintaining good communication among family members.
Looking at these challenges, it’s clear that women are likely to play a key role.
Women seem hardwired to communicate, and these challenges require discussion and good listening skills. In fact, conference keynote speaker Jolene Brown argued that there’s a direct link between communication and productivity and profitability. “What if we created a contract for communications
as part of our job description?” she asked. “What if we were held accountable for fulfilling the contract terms?”
The conventional wisdom is that boys and men don’t talk about their problems because they’re embarrassed or don’t want to appear weak. But new research may shed light on this gender difference.
A University of Missouri study suggests that boys or men “just don’t see talking about problems to be a particularly useful activity,” says Amanda Rose, associate professor and researcher.
“Women may really push their partners to share pent-up worries and concerns because they hold expectations that talking makes people feel better,” Rose says. “Their partners may be more likely
to think talking about problems will make problems feel bigger and that engaging in different activities will take their minds off the problem. Men may not be coming from the same place as their partners.”
Or, as a conference participant suggested, the problem may relate to poor timing. “My wife starts to talk to me when I come in the house at 9 p.m., and I’m too tired to listen,” he said.
The conference survey revealed two secondary concerns tied to communication:
• Making an estate plan that treats on and off-farm heirs equitably.
• Handling work-related conflicts between family members.
I have satacross the kitchen table from many families struggling with questions of fair vs. equal from the perspective of their on-farm and off-farm children.
Women often are caught in the middle of work-related conflicts. That doesn’t mean they must feel compelled to arbitrate or mediate every issue that arises.
In her book, Sometimes You Need More Than a 2x4, Brown says when a woman’s sincere effort to resolve work-related conflicts fails, she needs to tell those involved to work it out themselves – then quickly walk away.
Don Jonovic reinforced this core issue of communication. “Families raise their children in a shared culture,” he said. “When kids marry, it becomes more complicated, more difficult to celebrate Christmas and vacations. If you’re in business together, you need to maintain a family culture. It won’t be kum ba yah all the time, but you need to get away together sometimes. Do things to keep the family unified. This includes off-farm children and their spouses.”
Jonovic added, “I’m not expecting that you’ll change everything when you return home. But if you leave and don’t do anything, at least I want you to feel guilty about it.”
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