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From farm to seed company

Can the succession process at Simpson Seeds help your farm keep growing through the transition years?

Simpson Seeds group photo

Greg Simpson and his two brothers have already been through succession planning once. Almost 40 years ago, Greg’s father successfully transitioned the family farm to the three brothers. He also helped them set up Simpson Seeds, telling Greg “You know I’ll be here to backstop you, but I want you to have the reins.”

Today Greg’s generation is handing the reins to the third generation. This time, however, the process is inevitably more complex and there are more people involved, and the Simpsons have broken their planning into two sections: ownership succession and management succession. The ownership piece is done. They’re now working on management.

Greg says putting together a successful succession plan takes longer than one might think — anywhere from five to 15 years. The Simpson family is in year eight.

man in suit and tie
Greg Simpson photo: Supplied

“I guess if there was a message to be sent out there, you’d better start early,” Greg says.

David Bentall, who specializes in succession planning and executive coaching, has guided the Simpsons through the succession planning process. Greg says they could have got something done without David, but having a facilitator has helped them avoid collateral damage.

“You don’t want to have anything in the process that creates tension in the family,” says Greg.

Part of David’s job was to merge the views of each generation. Greg explains that he and his brothers had their original vision for the business. But the third generation has their own goals and ambitions. The family had to talk about what the company would look like 10 and 20 years down the road, he says.

The family emerged from those meetings with a common purpose — nourishing the world — which became part of the Simpson brand. They also established core values: family, integrity, quality, innovation.

Greg says those core values form “a gridwork for every decision to be filtered through.” That means, for instance, that the company supports employees’ families along with the Simpson clan.

Those core values affect hiring practices, too. When hiring, Simpson Seeds looks at character first. Chemistry — how well the employee will fit with the company — is the second trait they look for. Competence is third on the list. Greg explains if employees have the first two traits, they can always be trained.

Finding good people is easier said than done. Saskatchewan’s unemployment rate is very low. And potential workers for Simpson Seeds share some skills with people going into the potash or oil industries.

“A lot of our work here is about getting the right people on the bus. And then from there, getting them in the right seat. And then training them and advancing them so we can have good, qualified employees,” says Greg.

That view extends to Simpson Seeds’ management team. Greg and his brother John hold two seats, and Tyler and Elyce, both part of the third generation, are also executives.

But the other two executives are not family. Greg says the question was one of being a good family business, or a great, professionally run family business. They knew they needed a management team with the skills to grow the company.

The Simpsons recruited Clayton Bzdel from their advisory board to fill the chief financial officer chair. And Darren Lemieux, who grew up in the organization, rose through the ranks to become the head trader and market analyst. They also have a three-person advisory board they’re accountable to, Greg adds.

Many of the people who make up Simpson Seeds have worked for other organizations, which Greg says has benefits.

For one thing, people know they can contribute to other organizations, he says. “That just helps with your own self-confidence.”

It also gives them a chance to learn how other companies operate, he says. Simpson Seeds’ IT manager, for example, worked for other companies before coming to Simpson Seeds.

“Basically he garnered all that experience, and then came in here, and applied what he learned out there,” says Greg. “It’s amazing what he’s been able to do in terms of taking IT from the back of the bus and moving it to the front of the bus.”

Greg says the company plans to keep growing, innovating and improving. They want to provide the best service they can to customers, whether customers are delivering grain or receiving a container off-shore, he says.

Handing over the reins

Necessity is the mother of invention, according to an old English proverb, and it was necessity that pushed the Simpson family to sit down at the kitchen table 35 years ago and find a way to reinvent their farm. And now, as the third generation takes over Simpson Seeds, they’re focused on growing even more.

The roots of Simpson Seeds trace back to Jim and Helen Simpson’s family farm near Moose Jaw, in southern Saskatchewan. Their sons — Greg, John and Tom — were working to take over the family farm in the 1970s.

Greg had recently graduated from the University of Saskatchewan. He was working for Agri-Food Canada, as well as farming. His brothers were also holding off-farm jobs. They soon realized the family farm wouldn’t support three families, and they knew that working both off and on the farm would be difficult in the long-run.

If there was ever a time farmers needed to innovate, it was the 1980s. Wheat, which had been a mainstay for many Prairie farmers, was caught in a price trough. Farms were not profitable and the next generation was haemorrhaging from Saskatchewan, says Greg, now the CEO of Simpson Seeds.

“Our universities trained them and other jurisdictions took them… largely Alberta. And that hurt. We lost all that brain power,” Greg says.

simpson seeds product bagsThe Simpsons added value to the farm by growing certified seed. Right out of university in 1975, Greg had begun growing peas. In 1980, they added certified Laird lentils to the farm’s rotation.

There was a movement in the ’80s to grow crops that fell outside the Canadian Wheat Board’s (CWB) single desk. Greg describes it as the ABC philosophy — Anything But Cereals. The Simpsons wanted to keep their seed cleaning plant running year-round, so they looked for crops to process.

“So lentils — thank goodness — were outside of the (Canada Grain Act). And it was basically free-enterprising capitalism with a big C. And so that’s really the philosophy that was around the kitchen table in our family,” says Greg.

Processing lentils was a leap for the Simpson family. Traditionally, they’d only grown cereals and delivered into the CWB’s pool system. At first they cleaned their own lentils, but eventually they began processing for other companies.

In the early 1990s, they started exporting pulses on their own. Greg says it was a challenge, as they didn’t know “what it’s like to throw a container on the high seas and get paid.”

In the process, Greg learned to see risk not as something to avoid, but as opportunity. “That’s a fundamental shift in thinking that I had to go through.”

Taking those risks paid off. Today Simpson Seeds has four facilities in Saskatchewan where they buy, process and export specialty crops. They’ve shipped to over 80 countries worldwide.

The family still owns a separate pedigreed seed farm that provides raw seed for Simpson Seeds to clean, certify and sell. Westgate Mills, a red lentil splitting facility, is also owned by the Simpson family and run by the third generation.

In 2012, Simpson Seeds was named one of Canada’s Best Managed Companies. The awards program evaluates Canadian businesses on a range of metrics, including corporate strategy, customer relationships, compensation packages for employees, and more. Greg sees the award as a confirmation of their succession planning and focus on a professionally run family business.

Asked what the Simpson family has done right over the years, Greg says the family has been unified since the beginning, when they talked strategy around the kitchen table.

“We’ve worked together.”

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is a field editor for Country Guide.

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