U.K. Update: Spring 2017
Sustaining a family legacy.
By Rob Burtonshaw
On May 9, 1942, Farm Services Ltd. was given a certification of incorporation under the 1929 Companies Act – this was the date the company was founded.
Seventy-five years ago a local miller and a local forester decided to start a business offering contracting services to local farmers. At the time, Britain was fighting a rearguard action in the Second World War and domestic life had been greatly disrupted. The incorporation certification demonstrates this: it was signed in Llandudno, a small town in northwest Wales, rather than in London, as many parts of the British civil service were evacuated there for the duration of the war. I can only imagine the difficulties in finding staff and machinery in a time of war and rationing. Nevertheless, the company survived and expanded. Once the war was over, the company found a new service that eventually became its sole focus: land drainage.
My grandfather joined the company as general manager in 1957 and started the association between Farm Services and my family, which continues to this day. My father joined the company in 1982 and I joined in 2001. Over the years, my father and grandfather built up a shareholding and now our family owns nearly all of the company.
I’m sure this story sounds familiar. The vast majority of drainage companies are family-owned and they are normally passed on from father to son (sometimes daughters are involved too). This is a great strength – after all, the business has a succession plan and the continuity offered is a considerable advantage. In addition, the business is always more than just a job when it’s a family business. The commitment to the cause shown by family members is often extremely high. This commitment and willingness to go the extra mile are massive advantages and can make the difference between a failing company and a successful one. Nor should the marketing advantages be overlooked. I know from my own experience that everyone loves a story that starts with “As my grandfather told me…” or “I found the drain my grandfather installed and it was running clear as a bell.”
However, there are problems that come with a family business, too. Emotions can often run high in families and I’m sure many of you know of family members who do not speak to one another. There can also be problems when work is brought home or when family members involved in the business become too domineering. The older generation often struggles to let go, whilst younger family members want more and more influence. I suspect the isolating effect of working for only one company can be the biggest problem. Of the few drainage courses that exist in Europe, none would suggest that they qualified an individual to be a drainage contractor upon completion. The only way to learn is by learning from a contractor, and while the situation may not be as bad in North America, it is not too dissimilar.
My father and my grandfather taught me, and I doubt I could have had a better education, but like my father, all of my knowledge comes from one source. That source might be an excellent one, but it can stifle progress. When asked “why are you doing it this way,” many, if not most will answer, “that’s the way we have always done it,” or “that way works for us.” This may be true, but without questioning how we are presently doing something, it is not possible to improve. I have tried to make a conscious effort to address this issue, both by talking to as many contractors as I can and by completing a Nuffield Scholarship, yet I suspect that I still do not push change and innovation as much as I should.
I’m convinced it is only by adapting and being willing to accept new ideas that the company will survive for another 75 years. I feel a weight of responsibility for the company; it has a long history and I feel that I’m a guardian of that past. I need to respect the foundations of the company and understand what has made it successful in the past, but this must add to how I run the company rather than dictate it. To truly respect that tradition, I believe that I need to change with the times and not stand still whilst the world moves on.