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Rural women in business

06 December 2013

Isobel Knight Julie Rynski Giovanna Webb

Nominated for an RIRDC award for her work and involvement with women and their families in rural Australia, Isobel Knight’s project - to develop an online version of the process she steps families through when they decide to establish a farm succession plan – helped win her the 2013 RIRDC award for NSW and placed her as the national runner-up. (Isobel is pictured above at left with Westpac's Julie Rynski and RIRDC National winner Giovanna Webb at the awards night in late 2013.)

One wet Friday morning having just returned from a week in country Victoria speaking with families about succession, and on her way back home before shooting off to Queensland to speak with more clients, Isobel met with Ruby for coffee and a chat about her business proAGtive and what is shaping up to be the largest exchange of land ownership this country will have seen since Europeans arrived and settled.

As a business law graduate who’d grown up on the land, Isobel was certain she wasn’t going to marry a farmer. But in that funny way ‘never’ has of happening, she found herself a farmer’s wife and almost immediately began thinking, “so what’s the plan? Where do I, my husband, possible family, my new in laws, etc., fit, and where are we all going?”

These thoughts and ensuing life events and actions, eventually brought her to begin a succession planning for family farming business.

“The area is so important and completely under-serviced,” according to Isobel, who also points out, that it’s not unusual to think the questions she thought about her future.

The unusual thing is to articulate them, to communicate and to start the process of sorting through them and moving toward solutions before something awful, a family tragedy, an argument, a falling out, drought, debt, whatever, forces everyone into a position where decisions are being made on the hop, with no time for planning and usually incurring incredible losses, economically, emotionally, financially, socially.

All this is why Isobel says it is important to discuss options before they become urgent ‘have tos’.

“Families need to think: what are the expectations of the older generations for their retirement and of the younger generation coming through? How are multiple children compensated in the scheme of things without sending a family broke? The list is long and to rely on a will and some sort of poorly thought through insurance plan just isn’t going to cut it.

“Nowadays to get on the land requires a leg-up and that is usually done through family. Farming requires massive capital outlay. To be involved in the business means you are dependent on someone else’s wealth and often that wealth is generations of family work and build. That’s a lot to ask of people,” explains Isobel of the circumstances surrounding many farming families.

“I saw parents and their children struggling. The parents have truly honourable intentions and really want to get things right. The children mainly want some clarity. Everybody wants to know what the road map looks like.

“You can turn to accountants and lawyers but they’re rarely trained in the soft communication skills that need to be used to establish needs on a family table that can then be discussed.

“Starting the process, getting everything out, that’s the hard part. Finding solutions is simple.”

The process, Isobel continues, is further made difficult by the ill-defined meaning of succession planning versus estate planning.

Succession planning is about the transition of the business, of management and leadership and eventually ownership. Estate planning is the legal framework that sits around that ownership transition: the wills, powers of attorney, insurances, etc.

As Isobel can tell you, “succession planning if it is just a will is a disaster. That is an irrational way to structure a business. It needs to be orderly and timely to allow for the transition period.

“I could see in my community alone that it needed to be done better. When my children were young I studied psychology, mediation and counselling. I did small business courses, grazing for profit with RCS, communications courses, everything I might need to deal with the business and communication needs of families facing the problems inherent in a family farming business.”

With her children grown and the business more established, it is now that Isobel has the time to take her vision wider, reaching out to women through online means and providing families with a structure through which they can operate and discuss the opportunities succession planning offers.

“Women tend to be the communicators in the family and are often in the position to begin the process. They’re also, we’ve found, more likely to be technically adept in the older generations. For the younger ones there’s no difference,” says Isobel.

Her plan, it seems, is simple. Get everyone to articulate their needs and wants in a calm, professional way now and put a stop to those “walking on egg shell” family gatherings where one misunderstood word or action could bring down the house, so to speak.

Institutions at the coal face, banks for example, see the consequences of this poor planning, and as Isobel has seen, “that is the last thing banks want to see happen (many of the staff come from the land themselves)”, and she is hoping to link up with more of these institutions to widen the net, capturing more families and getting them thinking about succession and their plans.

“I really believe our farming families are the best stewards we have of our land,” finishes Isobel, who believes looking after them means looking after Australia.

For more: http://www.proagtive.com.au/

Westpac's Davidson Institute has information and courses specifiaclly targetting succession planning: see https://www.davidsoninstitute.edu.au/

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