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Family Business Matters       01/27 05:00

   The Communications Champion You Need in Your Family Farm or Ranch Operation

   Improving the "family" part of business requires a leader who facilitates 

Lance Woodbury
DTN Farm Business Adviser

   A new year often brings hope for a better year. In a family farm or ranch, a 
better year is not limited to economic improvement but includes hope for better 
family communication.

   The challenge, however, is that better family interaction doesn't happen 
without intentionality and focus. Just like you take concrete steps to improve 
yield or reduce expenses, you must encourage plans and embrace discussions that 
reduce uncertainty and create clarity. Someone -- whether it be you, a sibling, 
a parent or a spouse -- has to champion the goal of improving the "family" part 
of a family business, and his or her work begins by getting people to talk.


   In a family-owned business, there are two overlapping categories of 
interaction. One category is operations, where people are focused on the 
specific tasks they perform every day. Topics in this area of discussion might 
include how we are attracting, compensating and retaining staff for the farm or 

   It can include talks about planting or harvesting logistics, grazing plans 
or calving schedules, or equipment, barn or bin maintenance. You might discuss 
inputs, vendors, equipment needs or marketing decisions. The topics here are 
the basic ingredients of what makes the business perform each and every day.

   This is where the day-to-day operating decisions come into focus, and if the 
conversations are not happening, there can be confusion and inefficiency in the 
operation. As a business grows, and more people are involved, it becomes 
necessary to have meetings to discuss the management plan for the day or week 
to determine who will do what.

   Few people may truly enjoy having or running these meetings, but the 
consequences of not having management and operational discussions are often 
very painful in the short run and create a culture of chaos and reaction in the 


   The other category for discussion in the family business is ownership. This 
includes talks about debt levels, land or equipment purchases, and the 
financial return on your investment. You might discuss your entity's bylaws or 
operating agreements. This category involves discussions about who the future 
partners (owners) of the business will be, how people enter and exit ownership, 
and what the estate plan looks like.

   Often, younger family members become frustrated because the senior 
generation will not talk about ownership and its many facets.

   In fact, in the ownership arena, silence breeds uncertainty, and uncertainty 
leads to family-business tension and conflict. If you don't discuss significant 
capital decisions, partnership ground rules and anticipated transfers of land 
or other assets, people are left to assume what will happen. Those assumptions, 
in turn, form the basis of (often difficult) actions by your family members and 
their spouses. The consequences of not talking about ownership issues results 
in long-term relationship strain in the family business.


   As the consequences of poor communication become clear, one strategy is to 
ask or encourage a family member to assume the role of communications champion. 
Someone becomes a "facilitator" of important family-business discussions. The 
word "facilitate" means to "make an action or process easier," and in this 
case, we are trying to "make easier" the conversations about operations and 

   The facilitator role can be filled by different people; that person doesn't 
need to be the operational leader or have all the answers. He or she just needs 
to be granted the authority to encourage discussions. The role can be filled by 
members of either the senior or junior generations, and can even be rotated 
among family members. Consider appointing a communications champion this year 
to achieve your goal of making the family business better.


   Write Lance Woodbury at Family Business Matters, 2204 Lakeshore Dr., Suite 
415, Birmingham, AL 35209, or email

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