In the keynote speech at the Washington State Horticulture Association’s (WSHA) 108th annual meeting this week in Yakima, Jolene Brown told a spellbound audience about her experiences in advising farm families trying — and often failing — at their businesses. Delivering the association’s famed Batjer Lecture, Brown bluntly told the audience: “There’s nothing better — or worse — than working with family members.”
The speech was designed to reflect the theme of the meeting chosen by outgoing WSHA president David Douglas: “Succession Planning: Preparing the Industry for the Next Generation.” Brown’s speech was as hard-hitting as its title: “Stop the Fighting on the Way to the Funeral Home!”
Brown, who has a family farm herself with her husband in Iowa, said she has heard a lot of horror stories from families in her years of consulting. Some are from the older generation, who wait all their lives for their kids to join them in the business — then find out they can’t get along. Others came from the younger generation, such as the young man who told her he couldn’t wait for his wife’s father to die. “And he meant it,” added Brown.
The key to being successful is to stop being a family-first business. Putting family first may sound nice, and 90% of family farms fall into that category, said Brown, but they only succeed on luck. Instead, Brown said she wanted those in the audience to become part of a business-first family. “If you don’t get the business right,” she said, “you will have neither family nor business.”
Brown then went over “The Top 10 Mistakes in Family Business.”
1) Assuming all genetic relationships equal good working relationships.
2) Believing the business can financially support any and all family members who want to work together.
3) Assuming others will/should/must change, and not me.
4) Presuming a conversation is a contract.
5) Believing mind reading is an acceptable form of communication.
6) Failing to build communication skills and meeting tools when the times are good so they’ll be in place to use when the times get tough.
7) Ignoring the in-laws, off-site family, and employees.
8) Forgetting to use common courtesy.
9) Having no legal and discussed estate plan, management and ownership transfer plan, or buy/sell agreement.
10) Neglecting vital facts of fair and equal, believing money solves relationship problems, and failing to celebrate.