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How to help founders let go

The transfer is inevitable so it can either be done in planned stages over time or by death

What should I do with the next 25 years?

At 61, my life expectancy is 86. The math says I have a quarter of a century left to create legacy, help others transition, and mentor the next generation. I am also now a grandmother who delights in reading Penny Grace stories, rocking her to sleep, and sharing her giggles. Life is precious.

Recently I was coaching and speaking to cranberry growers, many whom are in their 70s and 80s and still attending the AGM of their industry. I was also party to the succeeding generation’s angst about founders who are not willing to let go of the reins of power.

This begs a question: “When is Dad or Mom going to let go of ownership?” Maybe we need to ask a different question: “What does a good day look like to you on the farm as you continue to age?” The transfer of labour, management and ownership can happen in stages over time, but it will happen, either intentionally with good planning and agreements or by death.

There are several reasons why the aging father founder or mother is hanging on:

  • They don’t realize 10 years have passed by, they are busy with farm operations and they are too busy to plan. OK, announce each member of the farm team’s age, and set a date for a discovery meeting to talk about transition. Use an outside facilitator if you think it would help to keep discussions safe and respectful.
  • They have bought into the myth that if you stop farming or retire, then you will die soon after. Hogwash. Your intent is to keep the aging founder engaged and “in the loop” with the happenings of the farm business. You also want to have your name on some equity so that you can leverage your growth vision.
  • They are paralyzed with fear about inheritance fights. They don’t want you to know that their current will divides the farmland base into three equal parts with all their heirs, including the non-business heirs. Yikes! It is 2018, it is time to be aware and clear about the contents of the business founder’s will. Who are the executors? Who has power of attorney? What is the consequence of the trusts that are set up? There are many questions to get expectations sorted out on the table because your farm business cannot afford surprises. As a farm family coach I hear often that parents don’t want their children to fight. That is not the problem. The issue is the mindset that conflict is bad. Conflict is a normal part of life and is not bad. What is bad is unresolved conflict or the avoidance of finding workable solutions for all parties involved. Read my blog about Finding Fairness in Transition.
  • They are unsure of where their income is going to come from because they’ve sunk every dollar back into the farm. This lack of a personal wealth bubble has the parents feeling strapped. Tell them it is high time to seek out an ag smart financial planner (fee for service who won’t pressure them to buy investments). Folks sleep better at night when they know that they won’t outlive their resources. My financial planner who is a member of the Canadian Association of Farm Advisors was able to run my numbers and assure me that I am good with funds until I am 102. You can also start tracking your family living expenses and cash flow to understand what the realistic expectation is for future living costs.
  • They don’t want to move from the main yard. OK, you can take ownership and give them a life estate to stay longer, or better yet, you can source other options that will be activated if and when the elder folks need assisted living. I suspect the reluctance to move is more about who is going to deal with Mom’s great collection of stuff or Dad’s history of being on that property for over six decades. Folks can let go of many things when they feel that what they are moving towards is more beneficial or exciting for them. Are you going to help volunteer to downsize? Many of the farm folks who have changed living sites tell me that they wish they would have done it much earlier!
  • They have not accomplished all the legacy pieces that they expected to be in place by this time of their life. I met a grandfather who was busy making sure that his grandson would have a piece of his original farmland. This legacy building was very important to his plan, although his other planners may not have agreed with his decisions. Ask the elder couple what they wish to be remembered for, what possessions are important for them to pass on with stories attached, and what is their most important value for the family to continue expressing. Letting go of money and land is not the only part of legacy building.

So how can we be more intentional about the years ahead?

Recognize what age tasks are important for you in your current decade. For those 60 plus it is about starting over and creating legacy. Seventy-year-olds still have a lot to contribute to management and will be good mentors if their opinion is respected. The 80-year-old crowd takes great pride in ownership, and their letting go will happen when they don’t fear failure of the next generation, and they feel that their legacy plans will be honoured.

Realize that there are no guarantees. Farmers embrace avoidance behaviour and hate to make mistakes. Older farmers have seen train wrecks in succession explosions and are fearful of making the wrong decisions for transfer of assets. Build a good team of trusted advisers and work out your plan. Having no plan is a disaster.

Each day we live is a gift. Those of us who have lost loved ones to accidents learned this early in life. Be more present to what is happening today, and don’t dwell on “woulda, coulda, shoulda” attitudes about what happened in the past. Use your warm hands to bless your family with gifts of love, attention, affection and affirmation.

Love does not read minds. I cannot guess what you need to do to create more certainty for your family business legacy, but you know. Get it done.

About the author

Contributor

Elaine Froese is a certified farm family coach and farm partner. Seek her out at www. elainefroese.com or call 1-866-848-8311. Buy her books for your mom. Share your stories of how these phrases have impacted you. Elaine wants to hear from you on Facebook at “farm family coach” or Twitter @elainefroese.

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