Maryland farm family finds their bearings after tragedy and continue their legacy
On a beautiful fall day in the rural outskirts of Westminster, Md., the brilliant sky, billowy clouds, golden corn and green pastures create a sense of timelessness and continuity. It’s the backdrop that sets the stage for a family meeting.
It’s 8:30 a.m. and the Dell family begins arriving at the home of Greg and Della Dell. Their two sons, Gary and Doug, grew up in the farmhouse, where photographs of children and grandchildren blanket the walls and refrigerator like a patchwork quilt.
Around the table are Greg and Della; Gary and his wife, Crystal; Doug and his wife, Lindsay; and Legacy Project adviser Carolyn Rodenberg.
Family members are a little nervous, wondering how the upcoming meeting will unfold. And always, on everyone’s minds is Tommy, Greg and Della’s third son, who died in a farm accident in September 2010.
The Dells started working with Farm Journal in 2009, as a Legacy Project case study. They’ve shared farm records, family dynamics and personal experiences as the Legacy Project helped them start a succession plan.
With Tommy’s death, those plans were thwarted while the Dells coped with the emotional strain of losing a loved one and a major business partner. Before additional succession planning could occur, it was necessary to resolve interpersonal conflicts, clarify roles and settle some land ownership issues with Tommy’s widow.
Carolyn, a masterful communicator and facilitator, started her work with the Dells two years ago by helping reconcile family and business conflicts that had arisen since Tommy’s death. For several years, his widow continued to do the bookkeeping for the operation but as she moved on with her life and remarried, it had become emotionally difficult for all concerned.
Della had retired from her job with the state and was ready to take over the bookkeeping, which had been the plan all along. The change, however, required sensitive family conversations on how and when this should be accomplished. Keeping the family together was more important than solving business problems. Della has now been doing the books for a year. It has turned out to be a good move for their business, in addition to allowing her to be more integrally involved.
Carolyn started the meeting by getting right to the point. She asked each to rate how they felt about the farm business and how they felt about the family on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being “as good as it can possibly be.”
She was delighted when the scores came back between 7 and 9, when just three months earlier, the numbers hit at the opposite end of the spectrum. The Dells had made genuine progress: They now hold meetings once a month and communication among family members was greatly improved.
At the previous meeting, Carolyn had talked with the Dells about each family member’s tasks and responsibilities. Based on their input and feedback, she outlined the objectives, primary responsibilities, knowledge and skills required, physical demands and work environment for each primary management position and to whom each position reports. The process helped them clarify their roles and how they impact the business.
They also set goals and deadlines. For example, Gary’s son, Greg, is the assistant crop manager (see below). He needs to acquire his commercial driver’s license. Putting these requirements in writing helps hold people accountable and creates added incentive to meet established goals.
Gary and Doug began talking about if the changes needed for the operation could be made in their existing company, or whether they should create a limited liability corporation. Carolyn provided a questionnaire to help them talk through what they wanted the company to be, who could contribute capital, how allocations would be determined, and how transfers of company interests would be made, among other questions (see below). The outline is an important first step for all family farms, especially those bringing multiple generations into the operation.
Is the Dell’s succession plan perfectly in place? No. Are they making progress? Absolutely.
During the meeting, the family developed a plan to bring Gary and Doug into the corporation run by their father, Greg. They discussed how responsibilities would be divided and “gifting” shares to their children and other relatives.
There was an air of optimism in the room that fall morning that hadn’t been evident when the meeting began. They realize the sum is greater than each individual entity, and if the farm business isn’t successful, their respective families can’t be successful, either.
The loss of Tommy is never far from their thoughts, but they know they can’t change reality and they want the farm to be sustainable and profitable for generations to come. Perhaps that’s the glimmer of hope to come out of losing a son and brother—the tragedy helped unite the Dell family.
Welcoming the Next Generation: Gregory Dell
Gary and Crystal Dell are thrilled their son Gregory, 21, is part of the operation. But as he grows in his duties, they emphasize with added responsibilities come added expectations.
For example, at their recent family meeting, they determined he’ll need to obtain his commercial driver’s license within six months. If he doesn’t have it by a certain date, his pay will be docked. Understanding expectations can ease uncertainty, and an employment policy allows managers to base decisions on a written policy rather than on emotions.
Get Started By Answering These Questions About Your Farm
With the Dells on the right path in terms of family and business relationships, Carolyn started leading them through restructuring the business for the future. She developed a questionnaire (below) to help them address the fundamental structure of the company. Since working with the Legacy Project, the Dells have started holding weekly meetings to deal with short-term issues, and they’ve also separated family get-togethers from business meetings.
“They’re headed in the right direction,” says Rodenberg, who has a long history helping family farming businesses prepare for the future. “They have learned to sit around the table and have honest and open conversations about difficult issues without letting their emotions control the conversation.”
Membership and Capital: who are the owners, what are the ownership percentages, how can members be admitted, who can contribute capital or borrow from the company
Allocations and Distributions: how allocations are made, whether the consent of all members is required for distributions, how value is determined
Management: powers and duties, compensation for services
Independent Investments: can members buy ag property within 100 miles of the company’s holdings, or does the company have first right of refusal; if a member inherits ag property within
100-mile radius of the company’s holdings, must the member offer to the company first right to lease it?
Transfer of Company Interests: can members distribute, transfer or assign any portion of their interest to other parties; what happens in the event of death, disability or divorce; if the company fails to exercise or declines company purchase option, do members or other parties then have an option to buy same; if units are sold, at what value will this occur (i.e., at discount or appraisal value)?