Disengaging 8 | Rained On

Disengaging 8 | Rained On

by | 'Dec 18, 2017' | Disengaging | 0 comments

Grace Portman Lear

Wednesday afternoon

Matthew and I had our quarterly meeting of the Cannon Springs divisions this afternoon. My mom, Joyce, who is the President of the company, made me head of the Clear Lake vineyard in 2002 after my grandfather, Pete Sr., died, saying it would give her more time to deal with issues at our Potter Valley vineyard. 11 years later, when Matthew joined the family business after 15 years in private equity in San Francisco, my mom foisted Potter Valley on him—kind of a “here, you have so many good ideas, you fix it” sort of move. I know she was frustrated from battling the crown gall and overwhelmed dealing with all the challenges of being President and managing the entire business, but handing over an entire division because you’re frustrated doesn’t exactly seem like good management. Pete Sr. never really taught her the office side of running the farm—she had to figure it out for herself.

I do like working with my brother—he’s certainly easier to deal with than my mom these days—though it worries me that he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He grew up at Cannon Springs, just like I did, but growing up in the business doesn’t mean you know how to run it. I was lucky to have mom’s guidance on cultivating wine grapes while things were good, financially. But Matthew didn’t get much from Joyce but a blustery description of how her workday usually goes, the brief instructions: “don’t screw it up,” Pete. Sr.’s old pruning shears and a disorganized bin of receipts Joyce kept for taxes. Now, he’s got the crown gall, the pests AND the job of finding buyers for all that Muscat that Uncle Peter decided on a whim he won’t buy. I try to help Matthew as much as I can, and not roll my eyes too much when he suggests some completely ridiculous growing method that the private equity trolls are promoting to their rich buddies who are buying up vineyards and ruining our market. None of those guys depend on the land for a living.  They’re all hobby farmers and dilettantes looking to make trophy wines for bragging rights.

Anyway, one good thing that Matthew brings to Cannon Springs Farm is some better business practices. Each January, we set aside time on the calendar for quarterly meetings throughout the year, and we’ve been good at sticking to the dates. He has helped me learn to plan agendas—we look at the financial results and projections for each of the divisions. We talk about operations—vine stock, harvest, employee matters, buildings and equipment, maintenance. I think that Matthew and I are more on top of things now than Joyce and I were when I first started working with her. Matthew calls Joyce’s style the “whack-a-mole” method of management, where you just hit whatever pops up.

Thursday morning

Remember what I said about whack-a-mole?  I just got whacked—and so did Matthew.  We were both feeling upbeat after our meeting, where we had constructive conversations about the major issues, agreed on our strategy, and were ready to get to work.  Then Joyce stopped by each of our offices (she always does the day after we meet) and blew a hole in our plans.  “You don’t want to sell to those guys—you stick with the customers we have.” “We don’t have the cash to be messing with the harvesting equipment.” “You can’t reorganize the vineyard hands like that—you know how we do things around here.” And the best one: “I don’t know what you two were smoking, but you left your heads somewhere else when you thought that up.”

I am ready to quit, I swear! To tell Joyce that she can deal with this mess. To tell her that if she doesn’t appreciate what Matthew and I are doing, then she can do it herself.  She can run the business, she can deal with the buyers, she can deal with the #%&* crown gall. I have better things to do than be treated like this!  I have had it!


Family Business Analysis:

Episode 8 of Disengaging finds Grace, Joyce’s daughter who runs the Clear Lake vineyard for Cannon Springs Farm, thinking about management. She mentions a couple of things that may sound familiar for family-owned and managed businesses that are contemplating, or in the midst of, succession.

  • Lack of training – For many family businesses, next-gen family members are left to figure out the job by watching, listening, and learning on the job. You might call this the “figure it out” method of succession. Grace makes the point that her mother learned the business of the farm that way, and it seems Joyce assumed that her children in the business, Grace and Matthew, would do the same. The challenge, of course, is that like a game of telephone, information can be lost or become garbled in the succession process. Family owner-managers who are considering succession may want to look back in an organized way at how they learned their jobs, what worked and what didn’t, what was missing, and how they might improve on the process. Family businesses create their own history, and family owner-managers improve the odds of long term success when they take the time to intentionally create the history they want to see replicated in future generations.
  • Lack of management structure – This is very, very common when an entrepreneurial founder passes on the business. So often, that founder is a jack-of-all trades with an unshakeable view of “how we do things around here.” The problem is, as businesses grow and change, they need managers with new and different skills—and it’s almost always unreasonable to imagine that every one of those skills can be found in the next generation, no matter how skilled, talented and experienced they are. As Grace points out, Pete Sr. was a farmer, not a financial guy, and Cannon Springs Farm has never had someone who has the knowledge and skills to focus on the business of the business. Pete Sr. wasn’t a financial guy, and he was successful, so who needs it, right? Well, it’s becoming clear that as the business of growing wine grapes changes, Cannon Springs Farm does. Matthew might have been that person (maybe), but Joyce followed the family history and put him in charge of a vineyard. Had Joyce (or even better, Pete Sr.) sat down to think in an orderly fashion about the functions of the business and the skill sets needed to deliver them, she might have used both Grace’s and Matthew’s human capital more effectively.
  • Good process – Matthew worked for a private equity firm before coming back to the family business, and the good news is that he has been able to bring some skills from his old job to his work at Cannon Springs Farm. Grace acknowledges the value that an organized planning process brings—she and Matthew, as heads of the two vineyard properties, Clear Lake and Potter Valley, meet quarterly to plan for the coming year and discuss issues and weigh options. (It’s worth mentioning that they might benefit from meeting more frequently—at least monthly.) They’ve developed an agenda-making process that helps them stay informed, to identify and prioritize the most important problems, and to stay aligned.
  • And then there’s Joyce – Many successor owner-managers have had to deal with a parent-owner-manager who put them in a position of significant responsibility, yet withheld the authority that should accompany the position. Grace and Matthew are trying to handle the responsibilities of managing Cannon Springs Farm, but Joyce is undercutting them. It’s quite possible that Pete Sr. did the same thing to Joyce—to “pooh pooh” different ways of doing things and disparage new ideas and alternative viewpoints—but whatever the origin of Joyce’s attitude towards Grace and Matthew’s efforts to better manage the vineyards, that attitude is keeping them from doing their jobs and damaging their enthusiasm. Are there steps that the board of Cannon Springs Farm and the Cannon family can take to help Joyce deal with her fears and frustrations more constructively and to recognize and take advantage of the good work that Grace and Matthew are trying to do? We’ll be looking at these topics in future episodes, so please stay tuned.