King Lear, Willie Wonka, Harry Potter and the future of your farm

Talk about a strange headline – what can these have in common?  English literature shows us that planning for the future is not a new concept.  Shakespeare clearly appreciated the need for Succession Planning, writing in the 17th Century when Elizabeth I (the Virgin Queen) was on the throne with no obvious successor.  200 years later both Austen and Dickens pick up the succession mantle with Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre. Moving forward in history and that magnificent story teller, Roald Dahl, gives us the rags-to-riches succession story of Charlie & The Chocolate Factory. More recently J K Rowling championed Harry Potter as the worthy successor over the demon Voldemort. My point is made - Succession is not a new idea.

Despite its prevalence in English literature, Succession Planning is still the ‘elephant in the room’ for many farming families largely due to the inextricable link between the family assets and the family business.  The farmer lives with the dichotomy of wearing two hats: one as business manager where his objective is maximum output and one as land owner and custodian where his objective is maintaining the land in good heart for future generations.  If we appreciate that inheritance is the transfer of assets and succession is the transfer of control, we can separate the ownership of the farm from the running of the farm.  That might be the trigger we need to start talking about how the future might look.

Despite there being so much at stake, farming families are often reluctant to talk about succession.  This might be due to the title ‘Succession’ itself.  In a monarchical society we often associate succession to the crown with the death of the monarch.  None of us wants to think about death so if the inhibitor to Succession Planning is the name, let’s just call it something else.  Call it The Future Plan or the Family Charter – it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that we talk about it.  During my training as an Accredited Mediator with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, I learnt to have a totally open mind when investigating family issues and to explore even the smallest lead. 

When working with families planning their succession, I have found that the key issues are not what you would expect and, a bit like Alice in Wonderland’s white rabbit, they only appear fleetingly before rushing off down a hole.  It is a real skill to pick up and follow those fleeting comments but I find that more often than not they lead to the crux of the problem and help families to plan for the future.