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East Anglian farmers offered crash course on navigating pitfalls of succession

PUBLISHED: 14:26 07 February 2020 | UPDATED: 15:32 07 February 2020

From left, Ian Pigott, chairman, and speakers Edward Venmore, Brian Thompson, Gary Markham and Elizabeth Bagger discussing succession issues at the Sentry Farming Conference  Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

From left, Ian Pigott, chairman, and speakers Edward Venmore, Brian Thompson, Gary Markham and Elizabeth Bagger discussing succession issues at the Sentry Farming Conference Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

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What gets in the way of successful succession on farms and successful collaboration between farmers?

Speakers gather on stage at the Sentry Farming Conference 2020  Picture: CHERRY BEESLEY/SIMPLY C PHOTOGRAPHYSpeakers gather on stage at the Sentry Farming Conference 2020 Picture: CHERRY BEESLEY/SIMPLY C PHOTOGRAPHY

Often - if speakers at this year's Sentry farming conference have it right - it's the headstrong patriarch, unwilling to loosen his grip on power until age and infirmity overwhelms him.

But a crash-bang-wallop approach from the younger generation can also play a role in disrupting the harmony - and a failure to map a course that all are willing to follow.

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Speakers at this year's event - held at Newmarket's Rowley Mile racecourse on Wednesday (February 5) - were given the difficult task of helping farmers to navigate two areas fraught with many emotional and practical problems - collaboration and succession.

Delegates at the Sentry Farming Conference  Picture: CHERRY BEESLEY/SIMPLY C PHOTOGRAPHYDelegates at the Sentry Farming Conference Picture: CHERRY BEESLEY/SIMPLY C PHOTOGRAPHY

The story of first speaker, Scottish farmer Rory Christie of Port William - who joined the family farm, which keeps pigs and cattle, in the 1990s - was typical.

"The great man - my grandfather - had held onto power far too long and he had stopped listening," he explained.

A change in farming policy caused the successful and innovative family farm to go into freefall as he entered the business many years ago. It was desperately in need of investment, but in his grandfather's world, borrowing was considered a failure.

Rory's task was to set a 50-man team to work. He quickly learned that the farm's previous success had been largely built on its workers, and he listened to them. "It was my first lesson in collaboration," he said. Eventually four dairies were rationalised into one, and together with his brother and a very supportive father much more willing to share responsibility, they were able to turn around the business. They've invested heavily and focused on key areas such as governance and coaching and mentoring to drive the business forward - as well as Rory's own self-imposed programme of self-improvement.

New Zealand farmer Jeff Grant speaking at Sentry Farming Conference  Picture: CHERRY BEESLEY/SIMPLY C PHOTOGRAPHYNew Zealand farmer Jeff Grant speaking at Sentry Farming Conference Picture: CHERRY BEESLEY/SIMPLY C PHOTOGRAPHY

The business has also collaborated with other farmers, setting up a milk supplier association to support them. Collaboration has helped them achieve far more than they could have achieved alone, and was "all because we decided to trust each other and work together", he said.

Seeing your neighbours as competitors is not the way forward, he suggested. "Farming has to wake up to the fact that if it wants something different, it must do something different," he said. "What we are not doing in the UK is co-operating."

If UK farming wants a better future, it must look to itself, he warned. "Believe that change is coming and if you are not ready for it, you will be swept aside in its path."

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Elizabeth Bagger, director general at The Institute of Family Business, said succession should be seen not an end, but as a process. Family members needed to find what they agreed on, and who should benefit. "When we think about the future of our business, is it the employees, is it the family, are there others we need to take into account?"

She stressed the need to have these conversations "earlier than you think you need to".

Brian Thompson, chairman of Musgrave Next Generation in Ireland, said communication was key. His 144-year-old family food retail and wholesale business, started by two brothers and now into its fifth generation, was run by outsiders. It now manages 1400 grocery outlets across the country and enjoys sales of around £5.2bn. "We literally feed about a third of Ireland," he said.

Of the 132 family members about 90 are shareholders, and only three serving as non-executives. But shares must stay in the family. "That's how we do the succession of ownership," he explained. "Then there's the succession of leadership."

Sir Alastair Cook addressing farmers at the Sentry Farming Conference  Picture: CHERRY BEESLEY/SIMPLY C PHOTOGRAPHYSir Alastair Cook addressing farmers at the Sentry Farming Conference Picture: CHERRY BEESLEY/SIMPLY C PHOTOGRAPHY

This was outside of the family but had happened naturally, and the feeling in the family was if anyone from the fifth generation was a natural successor, that would have happened naturally, he said. A family constitution kept them on track, with regular get-togethers at which they are educated about the business. "It's a guide book, not a rule book," he said.

Rivalries in families can happen, he acknowledged, but it was important to understand "that we all are the way we are for a reason". He advised families to talk.

"Find a safe space to have a conversation," he said. "It might get heated. That's fine - leave that conversation in the room."

New Zealanders Dr Chris Kebbell and Jeff Grant gave an outsider's perspective of how farmers here can survive and thrive in a post-Brexit, free trade world. Dr Keeble, New Zealand's primary industries agriculture counsellor, is based at the New Zealand High Commission in London.

New Zealand's Dr Chris Kebble speaking at the Sentry Farming Conference  Picture: CHERRY BEESLEY/SIMPLY C PHOTOGRAPHYNew Zealand's Dr Chris Kebble speaking at the Sentry Farming Conference Picture: CHERRY BEESLEY/SIMPLY C PHOTOGRAPHY

Like the UK, New Zealand was about reputation, he said. "Supermarkets will say New Zealand and the UK are what good looks like," he said. With different standards required by different markets in the US, China and the European Union, finding a successful formula has not been easy, he admitted. "We found as a small country it was very difficult to win. We had to find a nimble way to move forward," he said. "We had to lift our game."

Jeff started farming two years before subsidies were removed - a seismic shift which meant "having to believe that we had to answer to the consumer rather than worrying about the other aspects", he said. After five years, farmers had got over the shock of it, and it prompted a maturity and an expansive attitude, he believed, and for him, a strong belief in the importance of research.

The result was that as an industry farmers had committed themselves to deal with the issues which confronted them together, he said.

Keynote speaker in the afternoon was former England captain Sir Alastair Cook - who also has a sheep farm at Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire - who drew on his experience as a leading Test run scorer as he finished off the event with a perspective on leadership.

Sir Alastair Cook, right, in discussion with chairman Ian Pigott at the Sentry Farming Conference  Picture: CHERRY BEESLEY/SIMPLY C PHOTOGRAPHYSir Alastair Cook, right, in discussion with chairman Ian Pigott at the Sentry Farming Conference Picture: CHERRY BEESLEY/SIMPLY C PHOTOGRAPHY


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