Hiring business advisors and consultants is becoming a top habit on Canada’s most profitable farms, as identified in Farm Management Canada’s Dollars and Sense study. Whether it’s in accounting, law, human resources, succession planning, agronomy, livestock nutrition, communications or marketing, advisors are filling in the gaps in the farm team’s expertise.
It turns out, though, that some farms get a much higher return on the fees they pay.
Country Guide reached out to a broad range of farm business advisors from across the country to weigh in with their experience and for their insights into how to boost your benefit ratio.
Not surprisingly, the first step is to choose the best advisor for your needs. As everyone in the farm community knows, however, that’s not always as simple as it sounds, although there are ways to do it better.
First, be really clear on what it is you are trying to accomplish. Heather Watson, executive director at Farm Management Canada, a national organization which provides business management resources to farmers, recommends sitting down as a farm team to determine what you are looking for with respect to expertise and experience. There are a broad range of advisors available including personal and business coaches, investment advisors, mediators and psychologists, explains Watson. “Think about the needs of not only your farm, but also yourself, your team and your family.”
Recognizing that this first step of self-analysis can be challenging, it can be helpful to talk to an advisor with a broad base of experience who can ask the right questions, determine where the need exists and point you to advisors with the skillset to fill that need, says Chris Corbett, a marketing advisor in Melfort, Sask., who is national chair of the Canadian Association of Farm Advisors (CAFA), a national umbrella organization for farm advisors who serve the agricultural industry.
Sometimes farmers stick with a long-time advisor even though they no longer feel it is a good fit. This is a situation Boissevain, Man. farm family coach Elaine Froese sees frequently when working with families transitioning from one generation to the next. “Loyalty is keeping people stuck,” says Froese, who encourages her clients to find a new advisor if they are no longer feeling well-served by their current choice.
How do you find a new advisor? Asking your farming friends and neighbours for recommendations is a natural place to start, says Watson. “Word of mouth is powerful.”
In addition to asking other farmers, your accountant or lawyer may also be able to recommend someone, says Lise Deleurme, an accountant in Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, Man. Some accountants, lawyers, and other consultants work in teams and some network with other ag advisors through organizations such as CAFA, she says.
You may be able to find the professional services you are looking for right in your local community, adds Deleurme, who works in rural Manitoba. On the other hand, Scott Hoeppner, a lawyer with TDS LLP in Morden and Winkler, Man., says farmers may find a larger firm is able to provide more services. You can compare websites to find out what services are offered by lawyers in the firm.
If you have a good internet connection, you are not necessarily limited to professionals within driving distance, adds Froese.
Do you have to like your advisor?
Even in this digital era, though, it’s still about relationships. All of our advisors agreed that building a relationship based on trust is crucial. To get the best service, you may need to share personal details with your advisor and ideally, you’ll be comfortable with that, says Deleurme. “Find someone you click with, who matches up… that’s more important in the long run.”
Once you narrow down your list of potential advisors, you can meet with each advisor to see who’s the right fit for your values, your style of working and communication, says Watson. This is what Froese calls a discovery meeting.
And farmers are, in fact, adopting it as a strategy. Deleurme, for instance, has seen a trend with younger farmers coming in to meet with her before making any decisions about moving forward. “It’s like an interview,” she says.
When dealing with bigger firms, there needs to be a fit at both the individual level and in the firm as a whole, points out Hoeppner. “Ideally, you’ll be able to find both a lawyer and firm that fit your personal preference and business needs. At the end of the day, however, it’s important to find counsel that you trust and believe have your best interests at heart. When these are present, it ought to result in a successful and fruitful client/lawyer relationship.”
Since choosing advisors is a fundamental decision, Watson emphasizes the importance of checking resumés and references. What is the advisor’s education, expertise and experience? And does it match what you want the consultant to do?
Hiring someone for a smaller project can be a good way to try out the fit for the farmer, farm team and/or family, continues Watson.
Making it work for you
While getting the best advisory team in place is the first hurdle, effective communication and meetings with those advisors is also critical for success. With everyone so busy, it is easy to show up for meetings unprepared. Unfortunately, this will cost you more time in the long run as questions and documents will have to pass back and forth between advisors and the farm team after the meeting.
In some cases, advisors will provide a check list of the documents you need to bring to the meeting and it will save you time and frustration if you can hunt up as many of those as you can ahead of the meeting, says Sandra Alblas, a small business advisor with Meridian Credit Union in St. Thomas, Ont.
To make the most of your time with your advisor, make a list of your questions ahead of time, advises Deleurme. She has noticed that some farmers come in with “their questions in their heads” but then may forget to ask some of them during the discussion.
Before the meeting, be clear on what you are trying to achieve versus what you think you need done, says Hoeppner. “What you think you need done may not be the best way.”
It can also be helpful to jot down additional questions that come up during the meeting, says Hoeppner, who also encourages taking notes during the meeting. “It’s a lot of information in a short period of time. Taking notes helps you to remember it.”
And don’t hold back with your questions, continues Hoeppner. “Don’t be afraid to say, ‘Wait a minute, can you explain that?’ There’s nothing to be ashamed of if you don’t understand,” he says.
Deleurme also encourages her clients to have open communication and to also share their long-term plans to help her provide the best guidance to them. So, for example, a farmer may call from the dealership asking if it’s better to lease or buy equipment, yet it would have been better to have had that discussion ahead of time so definitive advice could be given.
Give honest feedback
Farmers also need to provide honest and candid feedback on the advisor’s performance and services, says Winnipeg HR consultant Michelle Painchaud. When it goes wrong, it’s often the result of a lack of communication and not giving feedback to the advisor, she says. “Don’t be afraid to hold an advisor accountable, calling them on deliverables, fees, etc.”
Checking progress and providing feedback are essential parts of the process, agrees Watson. Having the right team members present for meetings is also key, she says. Often an advisor’s role involves other staff who should be kept abreast of the advisor’s activities.
When it comes to meetings with financial advisors, Froese recommends that successors and spouses attend. Without healthy relationships between advisors and/or successors and beneficiaries, things can deteriorate quickly if something happens to the founder.
A lack of clear expectations and timelines for the advisor’s work can be a source of farmer frustration. The expectations, outcomes and timelines should be discussed and confirmed before the project begins, says Painchaud.
When possible, giving advisors more lead time will almost always increase the number of options they can recommend, and there will be more time to implement them, advises Hoeppner. An easy example is estate planning. Unfortunately, putting off estate planning can cost more money and cause more heartache in the end. “It’s not a problem, until it is, and then it’s too late. Better to deal with it in advance.”
Although farming has become increasingly complex and volatile, having the right experts in your corner, and managing those services well, can boost profits, make decision-making easier and reduce stress levels.
The Canadian Association of Farm Advisors (CAFA) is a national umbrella organization that provides continuous learning and networking opportunities for farm advisors across Canada. A directory of members organized by geographic area is available online.