From the hip A visiting Australian has some good ideas on balancing business and family life
Robin Schaefer knows all about collaborative farming. He owns a grain farm in south Australia with a non-family partner and is studying business management systems and weather forecasting worldwide. Working together, he and his business partner have found the optimal levels of operation and how to keep on the same page.
When Robin talks about collaborative farming he is both direct and sincere. His easygoing style is a guise for the brilliant mind and extreme focus that makes him a great farmer as the owner of Bulla Burra and director of Collaborative Farming Australia. In a recent visit to Alberta, the 2012 Australian Nuffield Scholar, who is also studying climate, laid out the framework for great working relationships.
As in all relationships there must be trust, but in business even trust cannot get you through a crisis if the partners do not have a common end point. A win-win attitude to get to the same goal keeps the business on track even when markets or harvest is falling off the rails. Robin emphasizes repeatedly that the end point must be clear, in the mission and vision statement, and repeated often. That way all the parties involved, from management to staff, know exactly what they are working toward.
Crisis evaluation and putting pressure on a finely tuned system gets the partners thinking in terms of “what if” and allows for a risk management plan. What if the crop fails? What if the engine blows? What if the one partner walks? The technical disasters such as a seized engine can be easy to fix, but the personal and management issues could be crippling to a company.
I asked Robin what the structure was to ensure that partners stayed, or felt safe to leave if they needed to. He said that “we build in non-disturbance exit plans that are fair at the beginning of the partnership. That way if a partner needs to leave they can do so without disrupting the farming operation or hurting family members.”
By doing a risk analysis and having an investment interest in the farm, the terms of exit are easier to discuss before a departure. The partners and their families are protected. Just as machinery needs daily inspection and servicing, so does a collaborative farming agreement.
This is not only to provide mutual support to each other in reaching a common goal but to ensure the checks and balances implemented at the beginning of the working relationship are indeed fully functional and useful for the company. Robin explained that regular board and management meetings are a must, even with just two partners, and that their wisest investment was the employing of a neutral, professional chairman for those meetings. This allows for open discussion in a process that is guided toward a mutual outcome.
Every person has strengths and weaknesses and Robin recommends that partners identify this early and give each other full responsibility in their strong areas. If there is an area that needs addressing and neither partner is proficient, then expertise or employees are brought in with those skills. Collectively you then have a team that can cover all the basics of production and marketing.
Working with the community in the same manner also allows for a more dependable working model. For example, Bulla Burra contracts all grain hauling from the field and ensures timely service by paying for the haul in advance of harvest. This ensures Bulla Burra has grain hauling at a critical time of the year.
Bigger not always better
When it comes to optimization, Robin is passionate and experienced. He uses the example at Bulla Burra when they decided to go from 20,000 to 23,000 acres in the name of efficiency. What he found instead was that efficiency dropped because of the need for one-third of a tractor and combine and a part-time non-engaged helper. The optimal efficiency in terms of human resource and equipment was back at 20,000 acres and so the farm returned to that level. At that point, the current two combines, tractors and staff are at optimal use. He reminds us that it may be misleading to get bigger for the sake of size without measuring optimal performance and production.
Another area that he says might mislead you is the idea of diversification. With perfect weather year round Robin decided that a variety of fruits and fresh flowers may be a nice addition to income and further utilize manpower. When the Australian dollar skyrocketed input costs followed and export interest wavered.
Robin said it was an expensive exercise and showed diversification away from what you are really good at may or may not work. More importantly he said he was working all the time with little time for family. The balance for Robin is between an optimized business that encourages personal and professional growth and great family time.
He talked about the importance of “head space.” “You need to have downtime to clear your head for innovative thinking and to address the needs of your family.”
For continuous learning Bulla Burra finds that often comes from outside of agriculture. Just the process of being open to new information is growth in itself.
The fact that Robin is away this year for 16 weeks on two world tours speaks volumes to the balance he has achieved in family and collaborative business. Both his family and his business partners are supportive of his studies and anxious to learn from the information and experiences he brings home to the fields and kitchen tables of Bulla Burra.