Friday, July 3, 2015

Heir Turbulence

Feb 1996

In farming we receive much from our forebears. Noses, history, grudges, wealth - all are handed down. Farmers rarely acknowledge it publicly, but we feel uncomfortable about the wealth.

Inheriting appears, at first blush, to be about as complicated as standing in line. All that is required, for the most part, consists of keeping your body temperature around 98.6°. It’s dealing with the consequences that cause us the greatest difficulty.   

I am the sixth-generation in our family farm, and have long known in a vague way that eventually some of it would be mine. Until recently, this pleasant prospect didn't cross my mind often. Now at mid-career, I ponder what this process means to me, and how it affects who I am.

One of the popular standards of excellence for our profession is the concept of the "self-made man". We all contrive to fit into this description, regardless of reality. In farming, the probability of starting from nothing and progressing to a full-time career decreases each year, while the sum of assets needed to provide the expected standard of living continue to grow. In my honest moments, I know for a cold hard fact that the only reason I have had a chance to farm is because I picked my parents so well.

Brat pack?  So, does that make me a spoiled child of privilege? My mother says no. But still a nagging doubt remains for many of us. How do we reconcile the fact that we are benefactors of an accident of birth, and how can we take credit for any subsequent accomplishments?

In fairness, it is hard to equate running the farm with founding the farm.  Also, many of us hold to the axiom that start-up lessons are essential to good business sense, and successors therefore lack essential expertise. This is sometimes expressed as the Three Generation Rule: The first generation builds the business, the second uses it, the third loses it.

While there may be some anecdotal truth in that, the saying is probably just an expression of envious disdain for the inheritors. But if, leaving a considerable estate is a commendable achievement, how can inheriting that same estate not be an honorable fate? We work to make inheritances tax-free - why not guilt-free?

First, realize that we are not the only industry where children frequently follow in the wake of parents. From professional sports, to medicine, to politics, there are a lot of Juniors “in the business.”  

Growing up in a family of fishermen makes fishing seem like the right thing to do, and children gravitate to that occupation. Taking advantage of this toehold – including the boat – does not unfairly disadvantage others, since it otherwise would be lost. The efficiency of in-family succession should be a point of pride.   

Second, prepare yourself for some uncomfortable emotional struggles. Traditional family business arrangements exacerbate our tendency to measure ourselves by our predecessors. Early in our careers, especially, this assessment is skewed by near-canonization of our elders, on one hand, and constant self-criticism on the other. Maintain strong friendships; talking to a friend in the same situation can help.  

Sadly, parents sometimes try to use an inheritance to enforce filial obedience, or even coerce respect or love. The bottom line is that inheritances flow from a ranking in time, not worth or competence.   

Third, stop being apologetic. Being heirs to accumulated wealth does not make us better people, of course, but it doesn't make us worse either. Acknowledging the lifetimes of effort by family on your behalf does not diminish you. But how you handle the responsibility of an inheritance does speak volumes about your character. View it as a challenge. As Gen. Lew Wallace wrote in Ben Hur , "A man is never so on trial as in the moment of excessive good fortune."

Finally, many farmers evade the truth of the wealth they too will eventually pass on, claiming to be "just plain folks". Few Americans, however, will leave estates the size of a successful farm operation. Moreover, underestimating these riches can cripple efforts to successfully transfer them. Modesty starts not with denial, but restraint.

Wear it well.  Above all, remember inheritances will be seen as unfair. Certainly I have done nothing to warrant such a gift. But there is not much I can do about it. What we inheritors can do is rise to the level of responsible stewardship that such a gift deserves. Our contribution can be measured in terms of momentum added to growing enterprise, the inclusion of more family, the positive impact we have on our community and profession, or any other worthwhile goal that the family embraces.

If our lot is not to plant the crop, at least let us tend it with skill and honor.

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