Woodbury:Farm Family Business 11/04 06:30
The Power of a Bad Example
Don't let your successors inherit your relationship liabilities.
By Lance Woodbury
DTN Farm Business Adviser
I often dedicate this column to strategies leading to a healthy family
company or successful business transition. But we all know people who are
floundering and make regretful decisions in passing on their enterprises. In
the spirit of learning from these damaging situations, consider how you can
avoid passing the following three things to the next generation.
1. Don't pass on unresolved conflicts.
Conflict is a natural part of our lives and, in some cases, can be healthy.
It can create opportunities for change, lead to new initiatives or help
redefine personal or work boundaries. When not resolved or openly discussed,
however, conflict can destroy a closely held company. The personal stress,
emotional drain, avoidance efforts and toll on relationships can be
When family members of one generation do not attempt to reconcile their
differences, it sets up the next generation for conflict. I've watched
offspring assume the position of their parents when dealing with their aunts
and uncles, and I've seen cousins slip into conflict because their parents
couldn't get along. I've even seen potential next-generation participants not
return because of feuds. If the next generation is working in the business or
contemplating a return, make sure your current working family relationships are
in good stead.
2. Don't be closed-minded.
A new generation of family members entering the business brings ideas and a
fresh perspective. They often have the energy to research and implement new
strategies. But again and again, I've seen young people frustrated because a
senior member says, "We've always done it this way."
If businesses fail to adapt to new markets, a changing workforce or certain
business practices, they may cease to exist. The family's unique legacy is then
in danger of becoming mostly a memory. Don't let how a task has been done in
the past or the fact that you've never done it stand in the way of exploring
how something could be accomplished in the future. If a similar or better
result is achieved, and the core values of the family are intact, then give the
next generation some leeway in how it might accomplish the goal.
3. Don't ignore the uncertainty in your midst.
A business-owning father in his late 70s once told me he didn't need to
establish a buy/sell agreement between his adult offspring, who were also
partners in the company. He said they were perfectly capable of negotiating
buyouts between each other after he was gone.
While he might have been technically correct, I told him some of the family
members wanted to exit, and they might not tell him now because of their
respect for what he had built. Thus, there was a lot of uncertainty -- and a
fair amount of stress -- about how things would work out. Would those who stay
in the business have to sell assets to generate cash and buy the others out?
What terms might they expect? What if several partners wanted out at once?
Without a good plan for the future, family members were guessing or assuming
what might happen. Running the business is already challenging without
factoring in the stress of not knowing how owners will deal with each other in
When you transition a business or pass assets to the next generation, you
also pass values, attitudes and expectations, some of which are liabilities.
Improve your chances of success by avoiding the examples discussed here. Try to
resolve festering conflicts. Show your openness to new ideas. And don't use the
uncertainty we all face in life as an excuse for avoiding crucial transition
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
experience specializing in agriculture and closely-held businesses. Hear him in
person Dec. 6 at the DTN University course in Chicago www.dtnagsummit.com Email
ideas for this column to Lance@agprogress.com
Copyright 2015 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.
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