Summer Series: Building a better farm business

Summer Series: Building a better farm business

Hiring farm business advisors isn’t a new concept, but the creative ways some of them are approaching consulting is worth a second thought.
– April Stewart, CG Associate Editor

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Today’s farm operations are growing ever more complex. There are crucial production, financial, human resource, marketing and other management decisions to be made, and it is impossible for farmers to be expert in every facet of the business.

Enter farm business advisors.

Hiring advisors and consultants isn’t a new concept, as farmers have outsourced accounting and legal management for years. But now, the range of available specialists is wide and some of their practices are far from traditional.

According to research from Farm Management Canada, farmers who routinely work with business advisors are significantly more likely to regularly and consistently implement business management practices. These include using a written business plan with a clear vision and future goals, and reading and analyzing financial statements.

Trish Fournier is a business advisor who set up her own firm — South Coast Advisory Solutions — nearly two years ago. When small or medium-sized businesses have sophisticated needs but it is not practical for them to hire full-time executives, she has a creative solution.

Fournier becomes part of the farm’s team, taking on roles as a CFO-for-hire or a strategic advisor or management coach for as long as she’s needed.

A new kind of advisor

Fournier worked as financial manager and then CEO of Lake Erie Farms for 20 years until the company exited the industry in 2019. Compared to most farms, the structure of this tobacco and greenhouse business was unique — it was family-owned but not owner-operated.

“The business had transitioned down through multiple generations and the family was spread out in three different countries so they went the route of hiring people to manage the company,” says Fournier.

Throughout her career, she saw many benefits to having a formal board of directors and staff management team working together.

“Having different perspectives and a range of skill sets on an ongoing basis was beneficial for Lake Erie Farms,” she explains. “I worked with different growers in the tobacco and greenhouse sectors and we made a really good team. Whether it was a problem or opportunity, I would come at things from a completely different angle than they would, and it would get them thinking outside the box. We always ended up with better results than any of us could have come up with on our own.”

When word got out that Lake Erie Farms was winding down and Fournier was selling off divisions of the company, she started to receive queries about her next move.

“It got me thinking that there is a real need in small business — particularly in agriculture — to have someone who can become part of the management team, more so than your traditional advisor.”

“Like all new things, it might be out of your comfort zone to start,” says Fournier.


She knew it wasn’t practical for most farms to hire executive managers full-time but wanted others to experience the benefits of doing so. That’s when the vision of her new role came to her —businesses could bring experience and new skills to their teams if they could hire an executive and share that person’s time.

Traditional farm advisors typically meet with clients annually and often review historical data, while traditional business consultants typically follow a template with a set number of meetings and a report presentation. But Fournier’s model is not one-size-fits-all. “I’m more looking to become an ongoing team member.”

She currently works two days per week as a CFO-for-hire for one farm client. She meets with others as a strategic advisor or management coach on a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly basis, depending on their needs.

Business planning is key

Fournier sees formal business planning as the key to optimizing daily management decisions and laying the groundwork for future growth. Writing a superb plan also attracts investors and instills confidence in banks and lenders, she adds.

As farms grow in size and management complexity, farmers are pulled in many directions and often in areas they are lacking skills and comfort in.

“Farmers really want to spend time doing what they are passionate about and consequently those areas tend to be where they can have the most impact,” explains Fournier. “But when they get pulled away or stuck in the details, they’re not able to think about the business from a strategic point of view or use analytic tools to manage smarter.”

By injecting time into the business planning process and writing a formal plan, farmers are forced to think beyond the here and now and focus on what they envision success to look like.

“By looking at strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in a very deliberate way, it helps create a strategy. Once you have that, you can break it down into smaller pieces and create an action plan,” Fournier says.

When a solid business plan is in place, farmers can better prioritize business activities and better communicate with people about their business, and they are more confident in decision making. Living out an annual business plan and using it to assess performance also improves family harmony and reduces stress.

How advisors can help

If business planning is new to you and your business, there is no shame in asking an advisor to guide you through the process. “Like all new things, it might be outside your comfort zone to start but management advisors are experienced in doing this with many other businesses. We know what questions to ask and what tools to use,” says Fournier.

If you already have a business planning practice, advisors like Fournier can support the implementation of your plan and help to hold managers accountable moving forward.

Advisors can also bring skill sets to the table that may not be represented on your internal management team. Fournier specifically sees a need for this in family-run businesses. “Family farms are especially disadvantaged by being isolated and often that means the people involved are looking at things similarly.”

In terms of financial management, for example, farmers may only be reviewing financial statements at the end of the year. Through what she calls the “digging deeper component,” Fournier would advise combining interim field and operational data with annual financial ratios to analyze trends. When you do that on a timely basis, you can make production decisions and see the financial difference they make. You can learn a lot from the data, make adjustments and become more efficient, she says.

Fournier is used to being the outside perspective challenging the status quo. But time and time again, she has seen new ideas spark more creative thinking and ultimately better business solutions.

“If you’ve got a management team where everyone respects each other and their different skill sets, you’re going to have a lot more diversity and be stronger as a whole.”

Adding to the team

So, is Fournier’s advisory model working in agriculture? Well, Ryan Schuyler of Schuyler Farms thinks so.

He and his brother Brett are the next generation of managers in their family’s business of producing apples, sour cherries, corn, soybeans and sheep near Simcoe, Ont. They joined their father and uncle in the farm corporation 10 years ago.

“The business is evolving too rapidly to just put your head down and farm,” says farmer Marshall Schuyler. “We have to be constantly looking at what we can do differently.”

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The brothers have since led the business through significant growth, including an amalgamation that added 800 acres of orchard and a cherry processing facility to the operation overnight.

But notable expansion usually brings new management challenges. As the business became more complex, the Schuyler brothers recognized the need to expand their management structure by adjusting current responsibilities and adding new roles.

After seeing the success of Lake Erie Farms, they added Fournier to their team to advise them through their management transition. Although the Schuylers were already using a written business plan when they initially met, they have further developed it together.

To Schuyler, planning is essential to success in agriculture. “If we didn’t have a business plan, we would just keep doing things because they have always been done. The business is evolving too quickly to just put your head down and farm,” he says. “We have to be constantly looking at what we can do differently and to figure that out, we have to have someone sitting back and analyzing our operation.”

Why consider a senior management advisor?

Trish Fournier, South Coast Advisory Solutions, shares 10 ways a senior management advisor can add value to your small or medium-sized business:

1. Expert advice: Day-to-day access to experience-based advice leads to more informed management decisions. It also broadens your business network, which can help you identify new opportunities and ideas.
2. Expert analysis and real-time management reporting: Receiving accurate and reliable financial information in a timely manner provides an ongoing analysis of business strengths and weaknesses and allows you to adapt in real time.
3. Strategic clarity: A well-developed company strategy — including a vision, mission and values — frames the future of your business and aligns your actions with your goals.
4. Growth: Developing your business through improved planning, performance and productivity means sustainable growth based on sound business fundamentals.
5. Risk management: New insights prepare your business for upcoming shifts in the industry and help to minimize operational risk while significantly reducing uncertainty.
6. Profits: Improving sales, minimizing costs, streamlining operations and controlling inventory, payroll and other factors lead to increased profitability and improved liquidity.
7. Systems and processes: Putting systems in place to optimize staffing and reduce errors gives leaders the confidence to delegate tasks or be able to take a holiday.
8. Communications: Superior results come from good communication, including strong collaboration and conflict resolution.
9. Team building: Ensuring the right people are on the right team in the right roles is key to success. Mentorship is crucial to developing  the skills of key employees and future leaders.
10. Personal health: Improved time management and greater productivity reduces stress and anxiety while bettering your overall work-life balance, both physically and mentally.

– This article was originally published in the March 2, 2021 issue of Country Guide.