Millennial manager empowers team, grows Illinois hog operation
Every day, 33-year-old Clare Schilling arrives at one of her family’s two hog production sites. She showers before heading into a barn and then walks through each state-of-the-art facility. She surveys the animals to ensure her breed-to-wean operation is running smoothly on the flat expanse of southwest Illinois just 40 minutes from St. Louis.
“My dad told me one time, ‘You can make money if you just go stand in the hog barn,’” Clare says. “It’s not just employees knowing you’re there. It’s the little things you see with a fresh pair of eyes.”
Clare greets each employee in Spanish and makes sure they have what they need for the day. Between the two operations, she manages 29 Hispanic employees. Although her Spanish is far from perfect, Schilling says, she has become “barn-fluent” after two years of night classes and immersion in the language for the past decade.
“I say the same things every day, since we do the same things every day,” Clare says. “I am constantly learning new words, and these guys are so patient with me. I know I probably speak at a first-grade level. But they appreciate I learned their language and give me the respect of a manager.”
Clare and her brother, Drew, 29, are the next-generation leaders of their family’s hog and row-crop operation in New Athens, Ill. Their enthusiasm, work ethic, financial focus and innovative approach have amplified the operation’s strengths and developed it into a professional business poised for growth.
In 2016, the operation’s 8,000 sows produced more than 190,000 piglets. The majority are contracted through Land O’Lakes, and the remaining 25% are trucked down the road to her cousins for finishing.
All breeding is done according to buyers’ sire requests using artificial insemination. The piglets are shipped out at three weeks old. Clare and Drew’s farm also includes 3,500 acres of corn and soybeans. All corn remains on-farm for feed, and hog manure is used for nutrient applications in the field.
One-Sow Start. The operation began with a single hog. Clare and Drew’s grandpa, Ludger Schilling, Sr., received a pregnant sow as a wedding gift from his godfather in 1952. He and his wife, Jane, gradually added hogs and acres.
In the mid-1970s, Clare and Drew’s dad and uncle joined the farm and continued its growth. By 2006, the farm included 6,500 acres and a 1,200-head farrow-to-finish operation. Their dad and uncle each have four children, so when the next generation began choosing careers, the families split the operation, enabling each to specialize in a different segment of hog production.
The cousins transitioned into finishing, while Clare and Drew’s family jumped into the breed-to-wean segment. Plans for the farm called CD Bell, an acronym for each of their first names—Clare; Drew; their mom, Beth; their sister Emilie; their dad, Ludger; and their sister Lindsey—started in 2006 and became fully stocked in 2007 with 2,500 sows.
Clare hadn’t planned to become a farmer. She earned a consumer and textile marketing degree from the University of Illinois. Drew earned a degree in agricultural engineering. But during her junior year, her parents talked about selling the hogs.
“That just hit me and tugged at my heart,” she says. “I decided I would take over.”
Hard work didn’t scare Clare. She had watched her grandma drive tractors, move sows and wean pigs. “She was a go-getter,” says Clare, smiling. “She was all business.”
Even though she had the support of her family and dad, who continued to manage the grain operation, Clare’s new role proved to be a baptism by fire. As soon as the sows were in the barns, she took control.
“I was overwhelmed, to say the least,” she says. “It’s a 24/7 weight.”
Strength In Family. Clare worked with her older sister, Lindsey, to learn the production side and developed a core team of advisers. Her veterinarian, Aaron Lower, as well as her nutritionist and Land O’Lakes representative all are quick to provide her with the latest production information and market outlook. She developed extensive biosecurity protocols to combat lethal viruses such as porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) and porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), which can shatter profits for pork producers.
“Disease makes me very nervous,” Clare says. “There’s no safety net.”
Drew joined the farm full time in 2010. He oversees the grain operation; serves as manager of major projects, such as facility upgrades and expansions; and leads a team of four full-time and two part-time employees. Their sister Emilie, who is a veterinarian, has joined the team and manages records and office work that their mom used to do. With increasing regulations, her skill set is essential. She files weekly health papers and manages medicine needs for the farm, in addition to working in the hog barns. Their oldest sister Lindsey is based in Chicago, where she works as a property manager.
A clear division of responsibilities has helped Clare and Drew succeed as a sister-and-brother management team. They also focus on maximizing each other’s strengths.
“We have very different personalities,” Clare says. “I am very high-strung most of the time, and he’s very laid back and calm. He brings me back to reality a lot. I think we balance each other very well.”
Drew adds: “We still bang heads occasionally. But you have to separate work from family, as hard as that is to do. You have to turn off those problems you have with each other at work during family time.”
Now that Clare and Drew have several years of experience, their parents have moved into advisory roles. They have a second home in Arizona, and this year marked their first winter away from the farm.
From the beginning, their dad took a transparent approach when speaking with them about the operation. That has been key in making the management transition successful, says Justin Knobloch, the family’s lender and a regional manager for Farm Credit Illinois.
“A lot of times, you see that dad runs everything,” he says. “With the Schillings, Ludger was willing to share everything and have Clare and Drew in on all the discussions. Because he is so in tune with the markets and believes in good financial information, his kids are both very analytical and understand the financial piece.”
Future Growth. When CD Bell Farms launched in 2007, the business plan called for sow numbers to double every five years. In 2012, the team expanded its original site to 5,000 sows. In 2015, the team built a second facility near Sparta, Ill., about 20 minutes away. This spring, they will complete a new feed mill
so they can control that segment of their operation.
The second location, named Sis-Bro (for sister and brother, because they are commonly mistaken to be a couple), is owned by Clare and Drew and stems from their family’s succession plan. They built the facility to accommodate double the number of sows within five years. It’s tough to find new tracts of land for a hog operation, so the siblings are open to growth through acquisition of existing hog farms.
The steady expansion has allowed the Schillings to increase efficiencies, become more competitive and attract better customers and suppliers. It also has forced Clare to delegate.
“When we were at 2,500 sows and going to 5,000, my vet said I would have a really hard time with the transition because you become a lot more hands-off and more employee-based,” she says. “He was right.”
Although she is most at home in the hog buildings, Clare strives to empower her team so she can spend time thinking strategically about the business. Because the farm is so close to St. Louis, the business faces stiff competition for good employees. To retain their team, they have made a commitment to flexibility, clean facilities and a family-friendly environment. Many of their employees are husband-and-wife teams.
The Schillings try to balance work and family. Clare and her husband, Kyle Row, have two children, Elin, 4, and Christian, 2. Row works for Energizer in St. Louis. Drew and his wife, Emily, also have two children, Genevieve, 2, and John, 2 months.
Clare and Drew cherish the opportunity to learn from their father and raise their children with a strong connection to agriculture. “This was an opportunity he created and entrusted to give us,” Clare says. “We’ll always be forever grateful.”
How to Wear the Right Hat
Communication in a family business is tough. The leaders at CD Bell Farms have turned their different personality types into strengths, and they aim to leave work at work when the day is over. This is key for family business success, says Rena Striegel, business coach and consultant with Transition Point Business Advisors in West Des Moines, Iowa.
“You need to remember which hat you are wearing,” Striegel says. “You have a family hat, staff hat and owner hat. When we deal with situations wearing the wrong hat, we will immediately create conflict.”
To improve productivity in your operation and reduce stress, Striegel suggests setting several ground rules.
Be Professional. Farm leaders communicate all of the time, but it tends to be sparse and unofficial. Key stakeholders often are not included. “When we have informal communication, we tend to leave out a lot of information,” Striegel says. Plan instead to hold regular family and operational meetings to create a communication structure.
Praise Often. Leaders in family operations are good at catching all of the wrong behaviors taking place from day to day, Striegel says. But it’s also important to catch team members doing the right things and to let them know are you aware of them. The more you tell someone they are doing things correctly, the more productive they will be.
Dive Deep. Personality differences, performance issues or unclear expectations can all cause conflict within a family business. Spend time with your employees to understand their personality types, and pinpoint where disconnect starts to occur. “Understanding is power,” she says. “If you don’t really understand what is causing it, it is hard to fix.”