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Putting the success into farm succession

Hilton Ventures has grown by leaps and bounds but the greatest accomplishment is bringing in the next generation

By virtually any measure, the Hilton family is successful.

Over the past three decades, the family has expanded its Strathmore-area operation from just over 2,800 acres to around 13,000, diversified crop production, and started a successful malting and brewing company that complements the core farm business. As well, family members have taken leadership roles in farm groups and are strong advocates in areas such as soil conservation and farm management.

But they would tell you what gives them the most pride is their farm succession plan — the one that brought young people back home. It has anchored their business and brought a fifth generation of partners and managers to the core group.

“We realized if we didn’t figure out a way to bring in new talent, it would go elsewhere,” said Spencer Hilton. “This generation does not have the philosophy of ‘Come back and we’ll figure it out.’ We need to figure out what is good for young people, and shorten the timeline to integrate them.”

The family’s approach to succession offers a business and ideological framework that others can follow.

Spencer and wife Lynne became full partners with his parents several decades ago, with Sterling (who is 15 years younger than Spencer) and his wife Lianna joining in the late ’90s. Most recently Spencer and Lynne’s son Dane joined the partnership and their younger son Reid is working towards partnership as well.

The Hiltons will be the first to tell you that they have had good fortune in this journey, that some things just fell into place. But while you have to be lucky to be good, you have to be good to be lucky.

Looking back, the family identifies six key factors that drove this journey and resulting success.

A living plan

“The first thing we did was to get some good outside help,” said Spencer. “We soon realized this is a living document, that looking forward generationally really never stops. You need something that you can say to young people, ‘If you choose this path we’ll be ready.’”

Dane is quick to add, “At the same time it’s important to note that just because you are a Hilton you don’t get to come back automatically. It’s a big business but you have to bring some skills to become a shareholder. You have to bring value, make a more efficient and better company.

“And not everybody wants to be a machine operator. That thinking is part of our next generation of family opportunity.”

Reid finds this invigorating.

“It’s good to see we are more than going back and forth in the field, that there are new opportunities and we are not afraid to branch out,” he said. “I hope that in 10 or 20 years, the older generation will look back and say these young people have done a good job, that this can be a seven- or eight-generation farm.”

Reid and Spencer Hilton sample craft beer made from their barley at the brewhouse of Origin Malting and Brewing in Strathmore.
photo: Terry Hockaday

Clear management structure

The second thing was to establish clear management roles and responsibilities — and not to restrict someone’s role because of their gender.

“We recognized the role of women and involved them,” said Spencer. “Lynne and Lianna are a key part of our management team with equal say. Agriculture has been tough on gender discrimination, but that is changing and we were glad to be part of it.”

Roles revolve around both individual skills and training. Spencer and Lynne both have agronomy training. Sterling trained in the financial field; accounting, planning and farm management. Dane worked in the oilpatch, gaining experience in managing crews and heavy machinery. Lianna works in the medical field. Reid is a pilot.

“We have more departments, more structure now rather than one overall manager,” said Dane. “We have our areas of specialty like any larger business would have, and get feedback on what other people are feeling, what direction we want to go in a specific area.”

Focus on communication

Communication is a huge hurdle for a multi-family business, and so the family takes a structured approach.

“It takes a lot of discipline to have communications as family business partners,” said Dane. “When we go through a busy time, we know we don’t have as much as we should.

“Having a farm office really helps and setting hours (when) we are expected to show up. An office is better for business, dealing with suppliers or an employee discussion.

“We have daily morning meetings that run anywhere from 10 minutes to two hours. Then we have a more formal monthly meeting to update the entire team. Part of our role as managers is to keep people informed. A secretary is assigned to take meeting notes and action items reviewed next meeting.”

Smartphones also help.

“We have a community calendar where we all connect, and we have pre-set groups for texting, so if we have information that everyone needs to know that’s one group,” said Spencer. “Then we also have daily actions; Sterling, Dane, and I connect for that.”

“We’ve taken some outside training on all of this because it is easy to overdo it,” added Sterling.

Capturing opportunity

A big part of business success is handling change.

“We have had a mindset of being prepared to capture and make good use of marketing opportunities and that has been a big part of our success,” said Sterling. “When the Canadian Wheat Board was dismantled, we were so fortunate to have had a good reputation in the malt barley sector.”

Rahr Malting introduced the Hiltons to Tony and Carissa McGee, owners of Lagunitas Brewing of Petumla, California (which became one of the largest U.S. craft brewers and is now owned by Heineken).

“Tony’s vision was linking their beer drinkers to selected farms in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and we became part of the group to supply that need,” said Sterling. “That was one of the first deals right after the board and we captured it well. It has been an ongoing success story and has inspired our value-added opportunity known as Origin Malting and Brewing. We have a similar kind of contract with Rogers Foods in Nelson, B.C. for our wheat.”

Relationships with landlords

Hilton land management has always been a source of pride, but today is a big part of the farm brand and a major reason they are able to expand.

It’s a world of more rented acres, said Sterling.

“In the old ag world, you expanded when you could buy more land. Today people are less willing to sell because they see farmland as a good investment. If you are going to expand now, it is through rented acres.”

“In 1989, we only had 100 acres rented,” noted Spencer. “Now we are closer to half. We went from farming within a seven-mile radius to farming 13,000 acres across almost 100 miles. The rewarding thing is that most of the farm rental opportunities came to us because of (our) farming reputation.”

The family treats rented land the same as its own acres, added Dane.

“We do proper rotations, use good agronomic practices,” he said. “We have added technology and precision to get to a size without massively increasing our labour force.”

Carbon sequestration is important, too.

“Today we know we are sequestering about 1,300 tonnes of carbon every year and we use that information as part of the story and branding for our farm and Origin Malting and Brewing,” said Spencer.

Open up the farm

One of the biggest impacts the Hilton farm has had is by opening up their farm to others.

“Never before has our farm had the opportunity to be so close to the end-user, and that’s fantastic,” said Spencer. “However, never before has the population been so far removed from the family farm.

“One of the biggest threats is misinformation. We are losing tools such as seed treatments which we do not have alternatives for. As farmers we know all the crop protection products we use are fully registered and regulated through Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency, one of the most stringent agencies of its kind in the world.

“We have a good story to tell, but we maybe are not telling it as well as we need to.”

One major benefit of having young people coming back to the farm is they share values with other young people who aren’t farmers, said Lynne.

“We are all consumers, and young farmers can assure the public and young people out there that the food they are buying is of excellent homegrown value,” she said.

Connections are important so that people know what happens and the decisions made to get food to the grocery store, added Reid. The farm hosts numerous tours, some from local groups, provincial initiatives, and recently from Australia.

“A lot more is done through Origin Malting and Brewing as it gains exposure,” said Reid. “More urban people are interested and the buy-local movement brought that focus. We want to make it more tangible to people.”

One innovative promotional tool is drone footage that Spencer and Lynne’s daughter Meleah, Reid, and Spencer shoot. The videos show the farming operation in different seasons and is used often. It runs in the Origin brewhouse lounge; is used on social media and at farm-sponsored meetings and presentations; and is a backup if weather prevents actual field tours.

“We can bring the farm to people now much easier than in the past because this footage looks so real,” said Reid. “I can see that being much more important in the years ahead.”

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