A Family Affair

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Working with family is both rewarding and challenging, and there may be no industry that knows this so well as the agricultural industry. It’s one thing to go to an office job all day, cooperate (or not) with your coworkers, and come home leaving them and your work troubles behind. It’s another thing altogether to work with your family in a family-run business. Here are six tips for having a happy, successful and sane family-run farm business:

1. Give Them Space

You wouldn’t want to be micro-managed in any other job, so don’t micro-manage your family members in the barn. “I’ve been fortunate that my mother was very good from the start with me, recognizing what I was better at it than she was,” says Monica Hunt, who operated Cornerstone Farm in Haverhill, Mass., with her mother, Pam, for many years until Pam recently semiretired. “We’ve always had very good give and take.”

With multi-generational equine professionals, it’s difficult to relinquish control over a certain area of the business, but recognizing each others’ strengths will help the business and your relationship grow.

“The most challenging [aspect of working with family] is letting the girls make—what we consider—mistakes in order to give them their freedom of choice and independence. It is difficult to balance the judgment/success of experience with the innovative—and unproven—ideas of youthful enthusiasm,” admits Iris Snyder, who owns and operates IB Stables in Noblesville, Ind., with her husband, Bill, and their daughters, Rose and Audra.

2. Outline Everyone’s Duties

Along with an anti-micro-managing attitude, providing everyone with a clear understanding of who does what is a good way to reduce toes getting stepped on and feelings getting hurt.

“Each of us has our own duties, and we share many, as well,” says Snyder. “Each daughter has her own set of training horses. Bill does the customer billing and ordering of barn supplies, like sawdust, hay and oats. I organize, schedule, manage the breeding and coordinate with clients. I also supervise building projects and improvements. Rose and I teach riding lessons. We all promote and sell horses. Rose likes speed events and jumping, and Audra likes western and hunt seat pleasure, trail and western riding, so show horses get directed like that. We all start the young ones in basic training.”

3. Check In

Everyone dislikes unproductive meetings, but yours don’t have to be the awkward Power Point kind. “Communicate openly with each other. We have at least one family dinner together each week to talk about how the business is going and keep each person up to date with how horses or owners are doing and other business-related information. We also work together each day and interact on the progress of each horse or rider,” says Snyder.

4. Work As a Team

There is no room for competition among business partners, and in a competitive equine atmosphere, there is no room for family-member rivalry. “As a family, we know we support each other and are on the same team with the same goals in mind. We also have a common method and experience, which produces predictable results,” says Snyder. “We have increased our business three-fold since Rose and Audra have joined full time training horses. Working as a team, we can do so much more in the way of clinics, shows and just making contact with people, not to mention being able to work with more horses at the same time.”

But families being families, and all the baggage that brings, conflicts can, and often do, arise. The key is to deal with issues quickly and quietly. No-one likes to be caught in the middle of an argument, and that is especially true of a barn’s clientele who are there to enjoy a hobby and passion, not mediate between the owners. For family businesses, it is important to deal with disagreements in a business-like manner and to avoid devolving into a family spat. Boundaries and open communication go a long way in preventing things from turning ugly.

5. Take Breaks

Preventing burnout in the business and from each other is essential for anyone whose work is his passion, but especially for families working together. “Spend some time apart, and have outside interests in addition to the business,” suggests Snyder. “We try to encourage each other and cover for each other so each of us can have other activities so we don’t get burned out.”

Taking a break from the barn and each other is easier said than done for many work- and horse-aholics, but the effort you put in will be worth the mental and emotional break you get out of it.

6. Know When It’s Time to Walk Away

“Taking over the business was the most challenging for me,” admits Hunt. Pam recognized when she was ready to step away from day-to-day operations and let Monica take on Cornerstone Farm herself. “We’re still very close even though we’re not together every day,” Hunt says, emphasizing that her mother is part of her strong support system—which also includes her father and husband—and the primary reason why the business transitioned to her control so smoothly.

Owning any business is hard work, and owning one that involves family is doubly so. Keeping open communication and a business mindset can go a long way toward making a family-run farm into a successful business.

“The most rewarding [aspect] is seeing my family together every day and being able to support each other in time of success and loss. It is great to see what I have worked for during my life continue and to build a stronger future for my girls,” says Snyder. “If I had known [when IB Stables began] how gratifying it would be to have the children in the business, I would have worried less about the future.”