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Gardens & Stewardship: Sharing Values Across Generations

31st July 2015 Robert Holton, Vice President, Private Client Group, Cleary Gull

Next generation challenges and stewardship explained in the context of gardening with the next generation!

Lately I’ve been pondering the concept of stewardship as it relates to family-owned business and a recent weekend gardening with my daughter brought new insight. Earlier in the year, she and her good friend had decided they should grow vegetables…so I took them to the store and let them pick any seeds they wanted. They spent time planting the seeds in small pots and nurturing them through the early spring until they were ready to plant outdoors and that’s when I realized the work I’d created for myself. 

We now had to prepare enough space for cucumbers, pumpkins and watermelons to grow. We needed a trellis for the pea vines to climb. The rain barrel I had been meaning to get to now became a pressing project. Two days of tilling soil, pulling weeds, building a fence to keep out rabbits and layering mulch to keep in moisture. My fingernails were caked with mud and my back was a more than a bit sore. Yet, when we looked out on the work we had done together we were happy with the results. My daughter, her friend and my younger daughter had all joined in helping build the garden.

The process helped me clarify my own thinking about stewardship, a word I’ve heard with some regularity when listening to successful families. The word came up in a recent conversation with Ed Treis, Managing Director of HN Co., which traces its family roots to a firm which sold the first bound ledger to the village of Kilbourntown for general accounting purposes in 1847. Over six generations, the family has been involved in businesses as diverse as paper & stationary, office furniture, commercial printing, finance and real estate. 

Different operating entities have come and gone, but there is continuity to the entrepreneurial success of the family, generation after generation. Ed often consults with business owners struggling with a transition decision, sometimes with owners reluctant to make decisions about future generations. In his view, decisions become clearer when owners are able to see themselves as stewards for the next generation. He emphasized that stewardship is about caretaking of the family enterprise for the next generations, but it is a dynamic process, involving constant awareness of market changes and new opportunities. He suggests that retaining and building wealth over generations is the result of vigilance and effort, but also in seeing the purpose of the efforts as something beyond just one generation. In his experience, this often does not develop in a family until the fourth or fifth generation of wealth.

One family that may be the exception then is the family ownership of the Boelter Companies. At a recent seminar on Servant Leadership, Rick Boelter delivered the keynote address and talked at length about the lessons and values shared by his father. A company started in 1929 out of the back of his grandfather’s car has grown into a multi-state, four-division, diversified foodservice supply company. Rick shared the effort his father undertook to transition the firm from a command-and-control style leadership to an employee empowered firm. 

The conversation in the family is about being a good steward of the firm, not emphasizing ownership, but rather focusing on a responsibility to develop a stronger, more empowered group of employees. The children were invited to experience the company at a young age by performing work in the warehouse. Each of them were also encouraged to grow individually – to get an education, work outside the firm and experience failure as well as success. They returned to the business by choice, fully accepting the responsibility of stewardship, rather than believing they were entitled to the privileges of ownership. 

Upon returning, and embracing an ethos of servant leadership, Rick shared his view of their greatest challenge, “How do we carry the firm forward, paving the way for future generations while keeping the culture strong?” The focus is on serving the organization and specifically serving it the way envisioned by Robert Greenleaf in his essay “The Servant as Leader” when he asks: “Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” The stewardship approach can build on this servant leadership approach by transferring these values from generation to generation.

Returning to our family garden, I realized the process of building the garden was more important than any vegetables it might produce. Building the garden provided some very practical lessons on how to approach our work from a stewardship perspective.

  1. Choose the seeds
  2. Till the soil
  3. Water the plants
  4. Protect the garden
  5. Work together

First and foremost, the desires of the next generation are at least equal to the desires of the leading generation. Give the rising generations the freedom to choose the seeds they want to plant and the resulting production will be something they will uniquely enjoy.

Second, the ground must be prepared properly so the roots can spread out and take hold. A garden flourishes in ground that is both nutrient rich and loose enough to allow for growth. The family flourishes when they are encouraged to root deeply in family traditions and also given the freedom to find their own way.

Third, the plants must be properly watered in order to grow and in the same way, stewardship is about ongoing care and attentiveness; providing the resources to succeed for multiple generations. We installed a rain barrel to stretch natural resources over dry periods. The deep commitment in families often provides the same type of security to weather times of emotional or financial difficulty.

Fourth, our garden is subject to the appetites of rabbits and deer. Family resources are subject to the far more complex appetites of taxes, waste and mismanagement. Our firms can be subjected to competitive pressures, internal strife or gradual erosion by complacency. Consideration must be given to how we keep out destructive forces in order to maintain a healthy garden.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, working together creates an opportunity not only to accomplish the task at end, but to strengthen the family bonds in the process.

Stewardship, at its core, means being able to stand back at the end of the day, together, and enjoy what you have accomplished and anticipate the fruits of your labor in due season. The Treis family and the Boelter family have embraced this approach. And after a weekend of gardening with my daughter, I can better appreciate the many values it carries forward.

About the Author - Robert Holton is Vice President at Cleary Gull.  Find out more by visiting their website here




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