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Succession Setbacks

July 5, 2011
By: Jeanne Bernick, Top Producer Editor
Chet Esther is not one for excuses, but he readily admits that one area of weakness for his farm is staying focused, particularly when it comes to succession planning. He even has it listed as an area for improvement on his office whiteboard.  

How to regroup when life gets in the way of succession planning.

Life happens. It especially happens on a farm where three busy families live, work and play.

"Last summer felt like one step forward, two steps back," says Chet Esther of Beardstown, Ill. He is referring to the events that piled up during the summer months to sidetrack the family from reaching its succession planning goals.

The Esthers had agreed to come up with several critical improvements to their business structure in the first six months of 2010. Responsibilities were assigned and agreed upon, yet deadlines were missed.

Ordinarily Chet is a man of action, not procrastination. He doesn’t like excuses, but … life happens.

In the Esthers’ case, it all started with a wet spring. When they weren’t cutting ditches to drain water, they were working to deliver more nitrogen to their corn. They sprayed, dribbled and knifed in the vital ingredients whenever conditions allowed, and these rescue operations were distracting.

At the same time, Illinois’ stormy weather messed with their efforts to build a new house for son Chad and his wife, Tanya. There were board meetings to attend. Chet and son Ryan took time for a much needed week of vacation fishing in Canada. Before the Esthers knew it, harvest was upon them.

In the middle of all the chaos, the Esthers missed a very important date—their self-appointed deadline for drawing up a buy-sell agreement between EFFCO (Chet and Ryan’s current farm business) and Esther Farms (Ryan and Chad’s newly formed business).

This agreement is critical to a smooth succession because it ensures that the operation remains in the family and is protected from death, disability, divorce and dissolution, says Kevin Spafford, Farm Journal succession planning expert. Spafford and the Legacy Project planning team met with the Esthers in the early summer months of 2010 to evaluate their succession progress and to set goals.

"Assigning deadlines during family meetings is the only way succession planning really gets accomplished," Spafford says. He recommends assigning due dates and making one person responsible for each goal, whether it is business planning or simply setting up the next family meeting.

Chet was responsible for making sure the buy-sell agreement between he and Ryan was drawn up. "I’m not one for excuses," Chet says, "but a lot of things happened and it just didn’t get done."

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Refocusing after Setbacks

When a family gets waylaid in the succession process, Farm Journal succession planning expert Kevin Spafford suggests these tips to get back on track:
  1. Review your to-do items and discuss what can be done right away.
  2. Establish brand new due dates for your to-do items.
  3. Take immediate action—make the call, schedule the appointment, etc.
  4. Don’t allow yourself to get overwhelmed and stressed.
  5. Move the subsequent dates forward.

How to refocus. The "life happens" part of succession planning is something the Legacy Project team fully anticipates.

"Setbacks like this are common, especially with farmers who are typically more focused on farming than drawing up documents," says Josh Sylvester, part of the Legacy Project team helping the Esthers. "It is certainly not the end of the world to miss a deadline. A large part of our job as facilitators is to keep the process moving."

When a family does get waylaid in the succession process, Spafford suggests they get back on track by reviewing their to-do items and establishing new due dates. Family members should take immediate actions, such as completing the forms that are due and scheduling appointments. It’s also important to move the subsequent dates forward.

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FEATURED IN: Legacy Project - Legacy Project 2011 Report

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