How two families tackle business decisions

originally printed in AgriSuccess, January, 2010. If you’re interested in reprinting this, please contact me at allison@finnamore.ca

How do you make important decisions on your farm? Is there a lack of consultation or, on the other hand, is there so much talking it causes paralysis by analysis?

In the run of a day, there are dozens of decisions to make. From simple, straightforward choices to those that require planning and reflection, nearly every step during the day needs some background preparation before moving ahead.

Now, mix in a team of knowledgeable co-workers who also happen to be related to you – suddenly, even the simple decisions could become much more complicated. Many family farms in Canada seem to have found their stride working together, including Four E Farms in Leamington, Ont., and Steppler Farms near Miami, Man.

At Four E Farms, father Peter Epp and sons Ken, Ron and Ed produce 2,200 acres of corn, beans and wheat, and 240 acres of processing tomatoes. During their years in business together, family members each found a niche in the farm operation. In some instances, their roles evolved over time, while in other cases, the sons were guided by their father.

“Dad recognized some of our strengths and tried to guide some of us to certain areas, Ken recalls. “’Why don’t you do this?’ he would ask. If it worked out and we enjoyed it, then we stayed.”

And if it didn’t, the role changed. Finding each person’s place at Four E Farms took about 10 years, Ken says. Now, day-to-day operational decisions fall to the shareholder who handles that part of the farm.

At Steppler Farms, parents Dan and Pat are in partnership with their sons Ian, Geoff, Adam and Andre. The charolais, grain and honey producers formalized their partnership in 2008. Prior to that, each son was farming on his own, with everyone helping the other out. But they faced an annual mountain of accounting paperwork. When Dan and Pat started succession planning a few years ago, incorporation became part of their plan. The family has now pooled its resources and divided the workload, so decision-making is clear-cut and well-defined.

Since the sons farmed prior to incorporation, they knew their areas of specialty. Dan is chairperson and takes on the role of mediator and advisor. Dividing up the managerial roles between his sons provides each with autonomy.

“As operational bosses, each son makes and enacts day-to-day decisions and has the authority to make essential minor purchases like repairs, medications and so on,” Pat explains. Major expenditures and budget decisions are made by all five, with input from everyone.

Both the Epps and the Stepplers agree that decisionmaking in a family farm business relies on one very important factor: communication.

At Four E Farms, the Epp brothers and their father meet every morning to discuss farm plans for the day ahead.

“Sometimes, not everyone agrees, but you build a consensus,” Ken explains, noting that no matter what decisions the family farm faces, the family maintains a common philosophy. “We work for the good of the company and not the individual.”

The Stepplers, while firm believers in communication, were skeptical when it came to the idea of setting up formal meetings with those who are so close.

“At first the idea of family meetings seemed awkward,” Pat says. “Before incorporation, we talked or planned somewhat individually with no formal structure. Now, we conduct each meeting in a semi-formal manner.”

Dan and Pat set the agenda, including issues brought forward by the sons and matters they want discussed. With each decision, everyone has the opportunity for input.

“Dan actually goes around the table to make sure that each person states his opinion,” Pat explains. Meetings are monthly during the winter, but that changes with
the seasons.

“We hold weekly meetings to plan the work that is ahead of us for that week, as well as long-range decisions on things that have to be fixed or purchased,” Pat says. “Each morning, the four boys meet for about 20 minutes to plan out that day’s work so that when the workers arrive at 8 a.m., the day’s schedule is in place. Over the noon meal, any changes to this schedule are then made.”

Both families also agree that keeping an open mind when working with family helps facilitate decision-making.

“Choose your attitude,” Pat advises. “Recognize when to shrug your shoulders, when to press a point,” she says, adding this advice also applies to older generations, reluctant to release control.

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