Making a mess of succession

Managing employees and managing family are two very different jobs. Have you got the skills for both?

Going… going… gone! Bang! Down came the gavel. I never thought I’d see the day New Hope would have anyone other than a Bosman owning it! I’d watched Jacob and Helena (not their real names) pull themselves up by the bootstraps. After agricultural college, Jacob started as a farm assistant on the Lombard’s cattle farm.

He was an outstanding manager, and when he told the Lombards he wanted to go on his own, they tried their best to change his mind. But, with help from their families and Land Bank, the Bosmans bought themselves a small property. They steadily grew their beef herd into one of the best in the country. They bought more land, and added a feedlot. Their staff was happy, motivated and loyal. February Volschenk and James Malambe, Jacob’s two senior farm supervisors, were continually receiving job offers. But they stayed with the Bosmans.

Jacob and Helena had three lovely children – Annette, Jurie and a laat lammetjie, Ciska. During my visits to the farm I was always met with a smile and a hug. The Bosman home was full of laughter and joy. Annette chose to study Fine Arts and Jurie went off to study agriculture. He was in his third year at varsity when I had my first conversation with Jacob about his plans for his son, and my concerns began.

New ideas
“As soon as Jurie has graduated I want him back here. I need him,” said Jacob. When I suggested perhaps it would be good to have Jurie work elsewhere for a few years, Jacob scoffed. “Why would I want that?” he asked. “But, Jacob,” I persisted, “how are you going to get new ideas into the business if you bring him straight back here?”

Jacob was insistent. “Where will he learn any better than here? It’s the family farm, his inheritance.” It was a harbinger of things to come. Jurie wanted to take a break and do some travelling after graduating, but Jacob would have none of it. He placed Jurie in charge of one of the herds with February reporting to him.

Bad management
Put yourself in February’s position with a youngster, wet behind the ears, suddenly your boss. It was inevitable – Jurie and February had a disagreement about something, and Jacob sided with his son and scolded February. Six months later, both February and James went to work with the Lombards.

A few months later, I witnessed a shouting match between Jacob and Jurie, with a group of labourers looking on. Jacob, who had done such a great job of managing his team of employees, was making a mess of managing his son, and upsetting everyone.

Things went from bad to worse. During a heated dispute when Jurie complained about the measly monthly allowance he was being paid, Helena sided with Jurie. Jacob swore at her and she and Ciska stormed off to Ouma and Oupa in town. Relationships were falling apart. Jurie hadn’t been back a year when he announced he was emigrating to Australia. Annette had no interest in returning to the farm. Ciska was far too young to help. Two years later, New Hope was put up for auction.

Family business
Quite unbelievable! In Jacob we have a highly competent entrepreneur, who displayed all the characteristics of an outstanding manager of his staff, but who made a complete mess of managing his family succession. Emotions run high in families, and when emotions get in the way, logic and reason fly out the window. This is why few family businesses make it through the generations under the control of the founding family.

Succession planning is not seat-of-the-pants stuff. It needs thorough preparation as early as possible. We’ll have a look at this next time.

Contact Peter Hughes at
[email protected]. Please state ‘Managing for profit’ in the subject line of your email.