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Family through succession: Putting the Hunter plan into operation

"The best thing you can do to protect your legacy is to be a part of planning what it will be.”

We wrap up the Hunter family succession story with this final article in our five-part series. It has been a remarkable venture for our team to share with Country Guide readers the transition-planning journey undertaken by this family.

The process took just over one year, from the start to the finish of the plan, and we are pleased to continue with the family in an advisory role. It’s been almost five years since we began this plan and we wanted to conclude our story with an update on the Hunter family and farm.

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We previously introduced you to the Hunters — a fourth-generation farm family with a mixed crop and dairy farm in southwestern Ontario. When we began the succession planning process, the matriarch of the family, Mary, was 80 years old and lived on the farm. She retained shared ownership of the land with her son, Bruce.

Bruce spent his life working on the farm alongside his father and felt it was time for him to take over, at the age of 55. Bruce and his wife had also raised their three children on the farm: Matthew, Maggie and Mark. Matthew chose not to pursue a future in farming, but both Maggie and Mark were key players in our continuity plan for the farm.

We learned more about the family members as we explored the family dynamics and how to align long-term visions and goals for the farm. Through this process, two guiding principles were established for the transition plan: family harmony and continuity of the farm.

When we assessed the financial feasibility of the transition, we were able to provide much needed clarity to all family members. Mary, in particular, was set at ease when our financial plan helped her understand how her current income and savings could fund her lifestyle needs.

We developed a tax-efficient transition plan that allowed for Bruce to obtain ownership of the land and for a pathway into the business for his two farming children. We also addressed quantifying the sweat equity value of Mark’s lifelong contribution to the farm and providing an equalization plan for the non-farming sibling, Matthew.

Finally, we ensured the plan was built for continuity so future generations would be able to carry on the family farm legacy.

In our last article, the family had moved from a partnership to a corporation. This involved Bruce and Susan taking back the frozen value shares and beginning a redemption plan of the value over their lifetime. The farm’s cash flow would help fund this redemption and growth for the next generation.

Let’s turn now to our conclusion, by offering a glimpse of the Hunter family today.

Bruce Hunter, 60 years old

“It’s still strange without her here,” Bruce shares with me. He’s referring to the passing of his mother, Mary, which happened almost two years ago in her 83rd year. Bruce continues to live on the farm, the only home he has ever known. Instead of his father, he now works alongside two of his children, Maggie and Mark. He is gradually reducing his day-to-day role. Leadership in most areas has also been transferred to Maggie and Mark.

“It has been a little hard to let go at times,” he reflects, “but they are doing a great job and making sound decisions on their own. They still run things by me — but I just agree now,” he laughs.

Bruce shares that they continue to meet monthly to discuss key areas of the business, review financials and make high-level decisions about large purchases. “The farm is in a great position for the future; our ongoing communication has been central to our family harmony and success.” Bruce has also joined a local co-operative board and he and Susan have even had a few trips away over the last few years.

Susan Hunter, 59 years old

Susan greets me with her warm smile. She continues to be a proud mother and grandmother, now of five grandchildren. One of her most cherished developments has been more time with her daughter since Maggie returned to the farm and settled into Mary’s home. It has been what she calls “an incredible experience to reconnect and learn about our daughter as an adult.”

“So, how’s everyone getting along?” I ask. She chuckles, “Five years ago, who would have thought the three of them could work together in harmony.” Then she reaches for her iPad to show me the new baby pictures. “It’s been a real blessing for the family and the business to have them all communicating and co-operating so well.”

We share news of our respective families since our last visit. Susan cheerfully recounts her trips with Bruce and a recent family getaway. “We did take your advice to go off-farm and have fun together this year.” As Susan shares pictures of the whole family at a cottage they rented for a week, I wonder aloud, “Did they actually relax?” She laughed and confirmed that they did.

Matthew Hunter, 35 years old

Matthew isn’t on the farm at the time of our visit, but his parents are happy to offer an update on him and his family. They are all doing well; Matthew is growing his career as an engineer with a great firm and his wife keeps busy running the kids to different sporting events.

Bruce and Susan share photos of Owen and Hudson from a recent trip to Great Wolf Lodge and continue to beam with pride over their grandsons.

“I think the best thing we have done is to include them in our plans and build time together as a family outside of farming,” she says. “They come to the farm every other weekend between hockey or ball games, and we really have become a tight-knit family.”

Maggie Hunter, 33 years old

Of all the Hunters, Maggie has experienced the greatest transformation over the past five years. After returning to the farm and moving into her grandmother’s home, she reconnected with her past.

A year and half ago, Maggie married a childhood sweetheart who runs his own agri-services business in their hometown. Just seven months prior to the wedding, Mary passed away, leaving ownership of the home to Maggie. She is now a brand-new mother to a baby girl named Rosemary and happily continuing the family legacy.

As soon as we meet, she asks excitedly, “Did my dad share the news with you? We received a master breeder award; our milk production has never been better!”

Maggie’s introduction of new technology allows her to monitor production and change feed within the herd at a touch of a button on her phone. It paid off, as she knew it would, and I was proud of her.

The financials of the farm are now at the family’s fingertips as well, allowing them to make better and more timely decisions. “Can you believe what five years has done around here?” she muses with a smile. I give her a big hug. She’s always looking forward, and it’s such a pleasure to speak with her.

Mark Hunter, 31 years old

Mark’s life also looks very different now. He is the proud father of two children, one boy and one girl. He’s softened over the years since welcoming his children and is genuinely happier knowing the family has a long-term, multi-generational plan. With Maggie as a partner, he has also found that the division of roles and responsibilities has helped to free up time for a social life — something he didn’t really have when we first met.

Since our planning concluded, I’ve been back to the farm three times to help facilitate annual family meetings. Each time, Mark has either been coming from or headed to local farm committee meetings. He and his wife have also become involved in the local 4-H club and Mark is now able to share his experiences of farming with others like himself. “It’s been great to see our roles develop, and it’s made it a lot easier for me to plan and make time for things outside of the farm,” Mark shares.

When we reflected on the past few years, I asked Mark what had made the biggest impact. He responded, “When you helped us clarify our strengths, develop our roles, and build milestones for leadership.” Maggie made some significant changes to herd health and I wasn’t sure how Mark would feel as they were implemented. However, he seems to have fully embraced her input. “Together, we continue to make changes in the field and feed systems that have positively impacted our production and overall efficiency.”

Mark is proud that he and Maggie have been aligned in making these decisions but recognizes that they were challenging for Bruce. “He struggled with the changes, but once he recognized the risk was for Maggie and me to bear, it was easier on him. It also helped to remind him of a time when he was the one making changes. Remember when he shared that during one of the family meetings you facilitated? When we talked about how the farm developed over the generations.” I smiled when I heard that. This family is really understanding the value of communication and sharing stories with one another.

Grace Hunter, 30 years old

Grace now has two children; she is a very busy mom, wife and 4-H leader. “I don’t know how you find the time!” I say to her smiling as her children run screaming through the house with their boots on.

She’s been telling me how she’s helped Maggie with the books for the past few months. She became involved as her pregnancy progressed and has found it to be a great fit. “It’s only been a few hours a week, but it’s given me a break from this!” she laughs. “I look forward to developing my role that you made us discuss,” she admits. “I was worried that Bruce or Maggie would object, but that’s what happens when you don’t communicate. As you would say, ‘You make bad assumptions!’” I laugh that she’s cited my caution from one of our first meetings. “I quote you often at our family meetings,” she declares. “They all laugh at me when I imitate your voice!”

Our work with the Hunter family will continue as we host annual meetings and provide on-going continuity and governance support. Most of our clients retain us on an annual basis for this service, and we are honoured to maintain continued involvement in their family business planning.

It is not easy to envision the future of your business without you, but we hope by sharing this series we have highlighted the value of having these conversations and developing a transition plan. We hope you feel encouraged that it is possible to overcome obstacles you might think are too great to tackle. The best thing you can do to protect your legacy is to be a part of planning what it will be.

About the author

Contributor

Darrell Wade is a certified family enterprise adviser and a CFA-certified farm adviser. He is the founder of Farm Life Financial Planning Group and can be reached directly at [email protected]

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