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Woodbury:Farm Family Business 10/12 06:20

   Ships in the Night

   Silence on long-term plans and succession issues undermine a family's union. 
Here's how to launch a conversation.

By Lance Woodbury
DTN Farm Business Adviser

   Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,

   Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;

   So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,

   Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence. 

   --"Tales of a Wayside Inn," Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

   Longfellow wrote these lines in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, that 
one time in American history where two regions of a great nation were like 
"ships that pass in the night." Though not lived out on that same scale, our 
family businesses also present many instances of such passing "in the night." 
Take the following conversation that occurred between a father and college-age 
son as they talked casually while checking crops.

   "Why haven't you asked these questions about career opportunities, 
compensation, and responsibilities in the family business before now?" Dad 
asked. "I thought you would ask if you were interested."

   "But Dad, you never mentioned any of these issues or opportunities before. I 
thought you would tell me if you wanted me to know," said the son.

   Sound familiar? When it comes to family businesses, management succession 
and estate planning, the conversational dance that occurs between generations 
can be downright frustrating. What topics are appropriate? What assumptions 
might be perceived in the questions? And when is the right time to ask... or to 
tell? Consider these strategies to generate the right discussions in your 
family and business.


   The father and son were, luckily, together in the truck for the discussion 
about the family business; they had some dedicated time to explore questions 
and answers. In most families, however, you can't leave such a conversation to 
chance. As families become larger, as spouses join, and as group meeting 
occasions become harder to find, it's important to schedule time for talks 
about transitions. By not scheduling it, you run the risk of catching someone 
off guard or at the wrong time, or they may not be prepared for the discussion. 


   Discussions about management succession and ownership transitions are often 
uncomfortable for both generations. The younger doesn't want to appear greedy, 
and the older may be concerned the children are just offering parents what they 
want to hear. In order to help facilitate the discussion, I use the following 
five questions: What do you want to see happen with the business/assets in the 
future? What role do you want to play over the next five years? For you, what 
does a successful transition look like? What are the differences in 
expectations and inheritance between those who returned and those who did not? 
How should we communicate about these issues going forward?


   If you have worked closely with your advisers over the years -- your CPA, 
attorney or financial adviser -- they probably know you're searching for 
answers. It's important for your advisers to hear the family's goals so they 
can design the right solutions, since many different strategies exist, all with 
different benefits and consequences. Their presence can help keep the dialogue 
calm and professional. They can ask difficult or sensitive questions that may 
be hard for a family member to voice. They can also propose ideas based on what 
they see working in other family businesses. It will be well worth the expense.

   These conversations, though sometimes risky, are essential. Without them, 
people make assumptions about the future, which often lead to greater conflict. 
When it comes to ownership and management succession, don't let your family 
"'pass in the night." 

   EDITOR'S NOTE: Lance Woodbury writes family business columns for both DTN 
and our sister publication, "The Progressive Farmer." He is a Garden City, 
Kansas, author, consultant and professional mediator with more than 20 years of 
experience specializing in agriculture and closely-held businesses. Hear him in 
person Dec. 6 at the DTN University course in Chicago 
Subscribers also can access his archived columns under News search. Email ideas 
for this column to



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