Our Journey as Producers of Fleckvieh Simmental Cattle.

Circle of Awesome

young cows on grass

Circle of Awesome

One of the greatest perks of my day job as an Agricultural Finance Specialist is the opportunity to work with some really dynamic farm families over the years. I don’t think I have met a customer that I haven’t learned from! However, that being said, there are always those clients that you just ‘click’ with, and over time you develop a strong, trusting relationship. As a relationship grows, it changes from being simply fulfilling financial transactions (how much, how long, how cheap), to becoming a key advisor who is sought out for advice and counsel well before any major operational decision is made.

In this regard, agriculture has evolved. In the past, I think farmers predominantly relied on family to provide a lot of the advice and guidance. As farming has become more complex farmers still engage family, but also involve specialists in order to ensure they have a good understanding of the intricacies of any potential issue. As a result, one of the trends I have noticed among my best clients is that they tend to surround themselves with key advisors that they can talk to whenever they are looking at making a strategic change to their operation. This is where the specialists come in – whether they are professional (accountants and lawyers), production oriented (nutritionists and veterinarians) or personal (family, friends). On a combined basis, these key people form what I like to call a ‘circle of awesome’ around your operation. Why awesome? Simply because, if they weren’t really good at what they did, chances are they wouldn’t be key advisors in your circle

As you can see, Circles of Awesome tend to occur on multiple levels. The professional circle, made up of your lawyer, accountant and banker, are relied on for the ‘business’ side of your operation – managing tax issues, ensuring you are legally protected and arranging financing are all essential (if generally boring) parts of a successful operation. If done right these parts are invisible; if done poorly, they can each create substantial headaches for both the business and the owners. These are the professionals that can cost a fair bit of money in the short term, with the hope that they save you a lot of money in the future.

The operational circle tends to be more hands on – your nutritionist, veterinarian, mechanic and (in the purebred business) sale management team. These are the key people that help make your business tick. One of the biggest changes over the past 20 years is that a lot of industry people who previously only provided a service, are also now sales people. Most nutritionists now work for feed companies; vets make substantially more of their revenue on drugs than on farm calls; accountants have software and succession planning seminars to sell. In order to gain access to your circle of awesome, you need to feel comfortable that they aren’t going to sell you a product or service that doesn’t fit your needs, just to make that sale. That being said, you have to be aware that their time is valuable as well. The best relationships are formed on mutual trust and are mutually beneficial – they are only going to recommend the products and services that fit – you are going to understand that there is value in the services they provide and compensate them for the work they do. These operational experts are essential – and their impact on the day to day management of the operation requires a strong level of trust.

The final circle is one of family, friends and peers. As mentioned above, farmers have always relied on family for advice – and based on the unique dynamics of the industry I don’t think this will ever change – simply because the line between the business of farming and personal life is so blurred. Farmers live on the land, and tend to think about farming 24/7 – there is often very little separation between the ‘business of farming’ and the ‘life of farming’. As a result, friends and industry peers that form part of this circle also tend to think the same way. By surrounding yourself with like-minded people, there is a tremendous wealth of knowledge, a sounding board for ideas, and an understanding of similar challenges facing your farm. It is this circle that is there to help you up when there is a problem, and a steady shoulder to lean on during the challenging times that often face our cyclical industry. While the time and advice from the personal circle is often considered ‘free’, I think it is important to be aware of the implicit two-way street. Don’t ask them for time or input if you cannot return the favour when they ask the same of you. It can be extremely easy to take advantage of friends and family so it is very important to make sure that there is an eventual balancing in the relationship when they may also need a hand up.

Good relationships also have the strength to respectfully disagree, to have differences of opinion, and tactfully get their respective points across. There isn’t much value in having an advisor that is just going to agree with everything you say and tell you how great you are. That is what your spouse is for! But in all seriousness, the people that you want in your circle are people that are going to add value to your operation. While having a ‘yes-man’ around might make you feel good, it certainly doesn’t add any tangible value. The balance to this is that there always needs to be tact involved when disagreeing. Being able to have a constructive and open dialogue without getting argumentative is a tremendous skill. I guess the easiest way to describe it is simple: give the type of advice you would wish to get in return . . . be constructive in your criticism, and be equally generous with your compliments.

One of the challenges of building a ‘circle of awesome’ is that not only is the industry becoming more and more complex, but change is happening at a much quicker pace. In a lot of cases, farmers used to be able to get away with finding a single mentor that could be a go-to person for most of their advice and counsel. Now it is more important than ever to have a group of key advisors – you just never know when someone you rely on for advice decides to retire or relocate. It is always essential to have a back-up plan to ensure that a void doesn’t form in your circle of advisors.

In this regard, I think that Circles of Awesome can also relate back to building a stronger purebred cattle herd. It is often tempting to build a herd around one elite genetic line that has done well. While it is great to have that one foundation cow or herd bull that is renowned for the quality it produces, I think it is beneficial to ensure there continues to be diversity in your herd from a long range planning perspective. In order for commercial customers to become repeat buyers, they require diversity in their selections. Likewise for fellow purebred breeders kicking tires on genetics, they are always on the lookout for something different. From a herd management perspective, it also creates a built in succession plan – if you happen to lose a cow/calf/bull all your eggs aren’t in one basket. This process can be a major challenge for smaller producers like ourselves, where there just isn’t the capacity to run too many cows (or bulls). Our ability to maintain outcross strains is reduced, but diversity remains something that we try to continually focus on. In the long run, having a ‘constellation of stars’ (ideally unrelated) should create a deeper, more flexible herd that doesn’t rely on that one awesome superstar animal.

While it is important to have a group of people that you can count on for advice and counsel, it is equally important to remember that you as an individual are responsible for making that final decision. Advisors do just that: advise. While the issues may vary from being extremely complex (tax or estate planning) to the mundane (such as which AI sire to utilize), it is you as a farmer/business owner that not only gets to make the decision, but will also still be there to manage the consequences – no matter how they turn out. A great example of this is in the current lending environment – just because you can borrow additional funds, it doesn’t mean it represents a good business decision to spend it. Borrowing money is easy – it is paying it back that is the hard part! (And not something your advisors are going to do for you!)

Probably the best thing about forming these networks is that they often happen intuitively on their own – the respective circles develop over time, and contacts naturally grow among people you have a good working relationship with. The key is perhaps to periodically take a step back and ensure that you have all the bases covered before you actually need the guidance – having time and space to consider your options prior to making decisions always helps. And when emergencies arise and the time isn’t there – you already know who to talk to.

So in summary, I think developing all three circles – professional, operational and personal – with people you trust can provide tremendous value to an operation. Together they create a diverse sounding board that creates a combined wealth of ideas and knowledge on everything from big picture items like succession planning to immediate items like how to deal with a calf that refuses to suck. The best relationships are mutually beneficial – and often a lot of fun. Building long term relationships are always more than just business – especially since farming permeates so much of what we do.

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