By Greg Wolf
Very soon, perhaps even before readers start into this column, my wife and I will welcome a new baby into our home. He or she will join four sisters and a brother, and a couple parents that are not quite as young and spry as when our firstborn arrived, but still just as eager. This experience brings a number of meditations my way, and while I won’t share them all here, I’ll share a few of them. Especially I’m thinking about some parallels between babies and family businesses, those in agriculture included.
First, I’m thinking about how much preparation is required for a new baby, on a number of different levels. In business too, and especially with a business start-up, good preparation is paramount. It seems a bit like a contradiction, because no business ever follows a script. In our family business, we developed a business plan prior to opening. It was hard work, and contained marketing plans, production intentions and financial projections. In a few ways we have paralleled those plans; in others the reality has diverged widely. But there has been tremendous value in having worked through the elements of a business plan. And I envision the process beginning again in the near future, as we approach the one-year anniversary of our business. Actually, older multi-generational businesses perhaps have even more to gain from a business planning process than we do. Some of the benefits include a more comprehensive consideration of potential business needs, previews of different scenarios and outcomes, a forum for communication among family members, a means of communicating business strategies to the outside (i.e., outside investors, lenders and distant family members), and a framework for re-planning as it becomes apparent that a business is on a different trajectory.
Another parallel I’m thinking about is the all-in commitment required to have a new baby, and to manage a family business. There is simply no one to “hand off” the ultimate responsibility involved. Both are confining callings, and I’m feeling both, but confining in a way that is proper and right and also more than amply rewarded, though usually not easily or instantaneously. With our small family business we have been making a number of sacrifices that have been more difficult than we had planned on. One has been giving up our freedom, especially on Saturdays, to do other things. We have enjoyed family outings through the years and church-related travel, and having a family business has put a crimp on both. I know that growing up on a farm did the same at times—it confined us at times when we would have enjoyed more freedom. It has been helpful to remember the benefits of working together in a family business and focusing on the positive gains, rather than the sacrifices involved. I had a dear friend tell me recently that the goal of a parent is to always be able to point children beyond the inevitable “no” that they will sometimes hear, to the better things that parents have in mind for them. Sometimes parents say no because a certain activity is dangerous. But often it is not so much dangerous as simply inferior to something better that a parent desires for a child. I think there is a parallel with family businesses—they do require all-in commitment and that involves sacrifice at times, and sacrifices are typically not fun, but the benefits of working together harmoniously in a successful and rewarding endeavor are worth far more than the sacrifice made. And of course, isn’t that what every family in business is after?
I’m not quite sure how to introduce the next meditation but I’ve been thinking of a paradox involving new babies. On the one hand, welcoming a new baby is an intensely private experience, for a couple and for a family. And yet, at the same time, the entire community is extremely interested in a new baby, and a new baby quickly is woven into the fabric of that community—including extended family, community connections, and church relationships. It is a beautiful thing, but still I think it is somewhat of a paradox. In our case, in less than a year we’ve developed some very close relationships with the customers of our store that have already touched us in a way we’ll never forget in a lifetime. And many of them, it seems, are awaiting the arrival of this new baby about as eagerly as we are. It has been an adjustment as waiting for this child to arrive has felt more “public” in that regard than that of some of our other children. On the other hand, it has made us feel very blessed to have so many people care.
A family business—even in agriculture—is the same in that it is woven to some degree into the fabric of it’s community, and that includes consumers—whether or not a farmer or rancher knows them by name. Some of the challenges that exist in the agriculture community—such as food safety scares and animal welfare controversies—could be aided by closer connections between producers and consumers. Without threatening the concept of private enterprise—or even the privacy of family—there is still a way to remember that we are part of a bigger community as well, and to welcome and cultivate opportunities to share ourselves more closely with others.
Editor’s note: Greg Wolf is a consultant with Kennedy and Coe, LLC (www.kcoe.com) and works to help clients of the firm navigate toward better returns in all areas of their businesses. He is based in the firm’s Pratt, Kan., office and can be reached at 620-672-7476.