‘I want you all to make a decision. You have to decide: Do you want to be a family-first business, or a business-first family?” says family business consultant and farmer Jolene Brown.

Brown has consulted with more than 400 farm and ranch families, helping them create, protect, fix and/or transition their family businesses. She provides insight into the most common mistakes families make, and solid suggestions for improvement and success.

“Ninety percent of people are a family-first business,” she says. This concept is characterized by such comments as:

  • I think there’s a will, but I’m not sure.
  • The kids all got along fine until they got married.
  • We just operate based on tradition and assumption.
  • We were lucky — and in the right place at the right time.

“We need more than luck when it comes to family business assets. If you want to be a family-first business, that’s OK, but the business better be a hobby,” she says. However, for those looking to build a legacy that will support more than one family along the way, she highly encourages choosing to be a business-first family.

What is ‘business-first’?

Brown says a business-first family doesn’t demean the family, or mean that the business is more important than the family. Rather it indicates that members honor the family so much, that they work to get the business right.

“Just because you were born together doesn’t mean you should work together. Acceptance in a family is unconditional. Acceptance in a business is conditional and not a birthright,” Brown says.

She notes that if a person is angry, addicted, arrogant, lazy, or can’t seem to hold a job anywhere else, he or she shouldn’t be hired into the family business, either.

“Another important question that must be answered by the senior generation is, ‘Do they really want the business to continue?’ If they do, then they’ve just agreed to replace themselves.”

She advises that everyone in the operation should start in the business as labor, and from there move into management and then leadership. Then, at the pinnacle of the process, the leader becomes labor once again.

“This does not mean the next generation wants to turn you out to pasture. This means you have trained them so well that you now trust them to lead, and you give them your support. You’ll always be the mentor and wise master with experience to share.”


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However, she warns against starting this process with the mindset of needing cheap labor, or with the dream of bringing the kids back home. Rather, she explains, at the time the kids are added to the operation, a concrete plan resulting from discussion of compensation that is fair to everyone, current and future personal and business goals, and future transitions and expectations, should be discussed and

Brown further notes that money certainly does matter. In addition to ensuring the business is financially viable and providing fair compensation to those joining the business, it’s also critical for the senior generation to solidify their financial security.

“You have to take care of yourself. Your kids don’t have to start where you are today — after all, you didn’t. But neither can they start where you started,” Brown says.

At the time of a person’s retirement, she says financial advisers suggest a minimum of 50% of income be derived from sources other than the family business. “If you don’t have that in place, you’ll micromanage the next generation to death because they’re dinking with your security. And if they screw up, you won’t have anything to live on. You want the next generation to take risks on money they can afford to lose,” she notes.