Sowing the Seeds of Success: Balancing Tradition and Innovation in Multigenerational Farms

In this episode, Melanie Harty, Partner at Grant Thornton LLP, shares her expertise in guiding agricultural families through generational transitions and legacy planning. With her background as a CPA and certified Family Enterprise Advisor, as well as her firsthand experience working on her family farm, Melanie brings a unique and practical perspective to her clients. She emphasizes the importance of clear communication, aligned visions between generations, and thoughtful decision-making in ensuring family businesses’ long-term success and harmony.

Throughout the conversation, Melanie highlights the significance of adaptability, realistic expectations, and inclusive discussions in preserving a legacy for future generations. She stresses the value of open communication and flexibility when navigating the complexities of family businesses, ensuring that all family members feel included in the decision-making process. Melanie also touches on the need for families to approach these conversations with curiosity and realism, seeking mutually beneficial outcomes that honour past generations while empowering future ones.

About Melanie Harty

Melanie Harty, a CPA, certified Family Enterprise Advisor, and Partner at Grant Thornton LLP, specializes in helping business owners build their family legacy and successfully transition their businesses to the next generation. With her expertise in specialty tax work, farm succession, corporate reorganizations, and amalgamations, Melanie guides clients through the intricacies of estate and succession planning, accounting, auditing, and financial management. Her diverse client base spans various industries, including agriculture, construction, oil and gas, retail, and family businesses.

Before joining Grant Thornton, Melanie was a managing partner at BVA LLP and gained valuable firsthand experience working on her family farm. This unique background allows her to provide clients with a practical, real-world perspective on their businesses, ensuring that her advice is tailored to their needs and goals. Melanie’s comprehensive understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by family enterprises positions her as a trusted advisor in helping clients navigate the complexities of building and preserving a lasting legacy.

Contact Cory Gagnon | Beacon Family Office at Assante Financial Management Ltd. 

Contact Melanie Harty CPA, CA, FEA Partner | Grant Thornton LLP (Canada): 

Welcome to Legacy Builders, strategies for building successful family enterprises. Brought to you by Beacon Family Office at Assante Financial Management Limited. I’m your host, Cory Gagnon, Senior Wealth Advisor. And on this show, we explore global ideas, concepts, and models that help family enterprises better navigate the complexities of family wealth.

Today, we welcome Melanie Harty, Partner at Grant Thornton LLP. With her extensive experience in tax planning, estate and succession planning, accounting, auditing, and financial management, Melanie guides business owners in building their family legacy and successfully transitioning their businesses to the next generation. As a CPA and certified Family Enterprise Advisor, Melanie brings a wealth of expertise and insight to her clients. Before joining Grant Thornton, Melanie gained valuable real-world experience working on her family farm, which allows her to provide clients with a unique and practical perspective for their businesses.

My goal is to be the most curious person in today’s conversation with Melanie Harty, where we explore her wealth of experience in guiding agricultural families through generational transitions and legacy planning. We’ll focus on the significance of clear communication and aligned visions between generations, and thoughtful decision-making in ensuring the long-term success and harmony of these family businesses. Together, we’ll uncover the importance of adaptability, realistic expectations, and inclusive discussions in preserving a legacy for generations to come.

Now, let’s dive in!

Cory: Well, welcome, Melanie. We’re excited to have you here today to share your wealth of knowledge and experiences with us. Let’s dive in, shall we?

Melanie: You bet.

Cory: Melanie, imagine you’re delivering the commencement speech to the graduating class of 2024, and you have the chance to inspire them with your story. How would you begin your speech to convey the incredible lessons and expertise that you’ve gained throughout your career?

Melanie: That’s a good question. The first statement I would make is don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. When I look back on my upbringing, we didn’t have a lot of money when I grew up. We were in a small rural town, a small school. There are a lot of assumptions made in small rural communities that you’re never going to leave that community.

“You can’t do this. You can’t do that.” If I had listened to them, I wouldn’t be where I am. The biggest thing I always stressed and told my kids growing up is, ” Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t.” 

Cory: Awesome. Tell me about the small town. I grew up in a small town as well. I feel like there’s a bit of that push and pull for people leaving and staying. What about that small-town attitude that you think is different or distinct?

Melanie: Well, and being mindful, this was a few years ago.

Cory: Yes.

Melanie: It was before all of the Google, social media, and those types of things.  You’re in your little bubble, and it was an egg town, so the assumption is you’re either going to stay on the farm or marry somebody who’s staying on the farm.

The idea of leaving was just not something that many people did, and if they did, it was huge news. Now, part of it is its security. You’re staying with the people, you’re staying close to family, and it can be scary to go outside of those boundaries.

The other is the finance and education requirements. We didn’t have many electives in our schools, so sometimes, that means upgrading what you have.

There’s a lot and even just understanding what is out there because, besides the basics, a lawyer, doctor, accountant, secretary, there’s a lot of other things out there in all of those different fields. 

But because we didn’t have as much exposure, it’s hard to even know. Even if I wanted to leave, what would I do? What do I want to do?

Cory: Absolutely. There is a bit of cultural difference even within smaller communities versus larger centers that are neighboring each other.

I’m listening to you say that there are also some great benefits to some of that. Just thinking about specialization in a certain area it doesn’t provide choice, but it also gives a lot of those educational opportunities for what is important to the community and presumably, those families that are in that community.

As you look around at some of the communities we visit today, some are struggling because it’s hard to keep their population up because of those of us who’ve gravitated to the larger centers.

How do you see today balancing that choice versus specialization as you engage with those families and communities?

Melanie: Well, things have changed a bit today in that you can have those specializations. You can have those careers and commute; you don’t have to move to the cities. That’s a huge advantage.

Post-COVID, I think people have realized that many things can be done remotely, and you can be very productive. When I look at some of the rural communities, the ones that thrive are based on that same analogy.

It is strong leadership that is willing to step up, maybe think outside the box, and still have that. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t. There will be those who will try to discourage you, and that’s too big of a risk. 

We shouldn’t be doing that. How are we going to make that happen?

A lot of those questions come out of fear, but it is the individuals or groups in those small communities that approach those questions with curiosity instead of fear.

How can we do this? If we do this, what will happen? Those communities are thriving because they have a very entrepreneurial view of those leaders who are creating those new projects, whether it’s a new building, a new arena, or a new business—bringing in a business that isn’t common in that community—taking a chance, taking the risk.

Not all those risks will work out, but they take the chance. If they don’t quit and keep trying, eventually, they will figure out something that works.

Cory: A few things that you said there; I want to return to that strong leadership because leadership in a community is very much the same as leadership within a family enterprise.

And within these agricultural businesses that you work with today, how do you see some of that leadership where they’ve been able to be successful over those generations?

Melanie: Part of it is not being afraid to be the trailblazer. If you look at the farms, we’re the most expensive farms and if you look at their operations, they’re ones that are trying the new technologically advanced equipment. 

Maybe they’re just trying new commodities, stepping outside, and going, “Okay, what am I doing? If I keep doing this for the next 10 years, I’m not going to be able to grow to where I want to grow.”

And maybe they’re looking at their families saying, “Okay, right now, the family feeds all of us, but when our kids are older, if we want to continue this farm to grow and become a legacy that can support more than one family, we have to do things differently.”

Because if we keep doing it the same, it’s safe, but we’re not going to get to where we need to go. You’ll see them more progressive; you’ll see them take on risks. Now, they’re calculated risks, but they’re still willing to take that risk because they know that to achieve their vision, they are going to have to take some risks that may not be comfortable, but they’re willing to do that to achieve that vision.

It’s drive. It’s even having that foresight, that vision in the first place, and they approach it as an entrepreneur, as a business person, and you have to step some of that emotion out of it because there is an emotional tie to that business, to the farm, to the land legacy. But you have to set that to the side sometimes to say, “Okay, from a business perspective. If I was going to tell somebody else, a third party, what they needed to do, these are the steps that I would take.”

Cory: Right. Now, going back to calculated risks and coming from an accounting perspective, how can people have confidence in those risks? What would be the steps to say, “This is a calculated risk, and I’ve assessed the upside and the downsides of that?”

The first calculated by definition really just pros and cons, really thinking about it, not just jumping in and doing it. The biggest thing is to always give themselves grace or the permission to say, based on the facts that I know today, “that I’m willing to do this because of this, this, and this.”

I recognize that “this can go wrong, this can go wrong, this can go wrong.” But if these things happen, these are the safeguards I’ll put in place. “Maybe it’s okay, we’re going to try this for 3 years, and then we’re going to assess. If at the end of 3 years, this blend of crop does not work, then we’ll take a step back, and we’ll revisit it.”

The biggest thing is also being fluid and open to adjustment. Every year, do that analysis. How’s the report card? How did we do? Where can we tweak it? 

Understanding that it’s not going to just be, “Okay, here’s our plan, now go. We have to revisit. Did it work? Are we getting closer to our goal? Are we moving farther away? If we’re not achieving that goal, if we find that we’re not moving closer to the goal, what do we need to change? What do we need to tweak? And then move on.”

As we know, with the never-ending changes in our tax laws, for example, now we have these different, like, capital gains might be changing. There’s the release of Bill C208. There’s a whole pile of things that might impact what that goal was. Maybe you have to ramp up and get there a little bit quicker or maybe you have to do a full pivot or maybe you have to start over depending on if that goal was a transition, for example.

I think the biggest thing is always being open. Just like big corporations, you have to step back and visit your goals. You have to look at your results, and you should be doing it more than just at the year-end with the accountant.

It should be revisited monthly or quarterly, looking at your cash flows. You have to step back so that it’s not a risk, and you have a bit of control over that outcome. 

Cory: Now, agriculture is one of those businesses that have many variables that are uncontrollable in that outcome.

We could say commodity prices, we could say weather, we could say many different components to it. I think the farming community understands risk extremely well, and, again, going back to those things that maybe aren’t taught in school but taught on the farm, I think that is an extremely valuable lesson that is taught.

And so, Melanie, going and thinking about generational transfer, we’ve got a generation that’s now running the farm, and now, they’re bringing on that next generation. There may be grandchildren on the way, more mouths to feed, and they’re bringing family members into the farming operation.

As you mentioned, we have a lot of resources or information at our fingertips, and you’ve got this next generation that wants to try something, wants to make their mark, and wants to expand the operations because they see their vision.

How do you see those conversations and bringing in that next generation to make their mark and take the reins over time to be able to expand?

Melanie: Well, it all depends on the situation. There isn’t a set solution for anybody. We all know that families are different. Every family is different, there are different personalities, and every farm operation is different.

The biggest key is communication. When the next generation is saying, “Hey, we want to take a shot at this, we want to become involved. How is that communication happening? Is the previous generation open to that communication? What is their vision? What is the vision of the next generation coming in? Do they align?” And I think that is very key.

Looking back on my personal experience, we farmed on a family farm for 16 years, and if there were one thing that we definitely could have done better, that would have reduced some of the issues that happened along the way. It was having those conversations ahead of time and understanding, “Do we both have the same vision? Are our goals the same? Are our risk tolerances the same? When you have one where the goal is just what? At this point, we just want to ensure we have enough to feed our mouths and whatnot, and we don’t want to take risk.”

We just want to play it safe, but the other generation coming in is going, “No, we have to think about this. We want this farm to survive over time, so we need to make sure that we’re big enough and that we have the equipment that keeps up with the most up-to-date practices.”

Back in the day, it was cultivate everything and then seed, go to where and it was half and half for crop rotation, saying, “Okay, we have to maximize this land, here’s a better way to do it.”

And you need both generations to have that openness if that’s where you’re going to go because if not, it’s never going to be aligned, and you’re never going to have, it’s not going to be successful.

It’s going to be frustrating, right? Or you see somewhere the child says they want to come in. Are they coming in as a business owner, or are they coming in as a hired hand, and dad’s still running the show?

There are no teachable moments, we’re not preparing for the future time when Dad steps back, whether because he wants to, he has to, or he’s no longer here. If we want that farm to continue from generation to generation, there is a lot of business knowledge that has to be understood. You have to market your grain.

That is something that you can take courses on, but there’s a reality: there are connections. You can use the theory, but practical isn’t always 100% of the theory. Who is that connection? Some of it is like instinct. “Okay, what?” These are the things that I think about before I sign or decide to sign.

There are many details behind it, and a lot of prep work needs to be done before the trigger is pulled. I have those conversations, communicate, and I find that sometimes, it’s the fear of communicating that causes it.

“It can be what?” As a dad, it’s like, “I’ve got this plan, I’ve got it figured out,” and in my head, I know when this transition’s going to happen but dad never talks to a child, so the child is thinking, “what? It doesn’t look like there’s any room for me on the farm. I don’t want to approach if Dad’s not ready to talk to me about it. I don’t want to approach the entitled child” Coming in and saying, “Hey, when can I get in on this?” 

So then that child makes their assumption that dad doesn’t want a succession to happen. Maybe that child moves off the farm or decides to do something different and then dad’s upset because that ungrateful child never wanted the farm. But in the end, if they had both just communicated, and Dad said, “What? This will be yours at some point, ” it would open that conversation. 

Or if the child came in and said, “Hey, dad. I’ve been working on the farm for a while. I love this lifestyle. I want to be part of this. Is there an opportunity for me to do so?” Just that one question on either side can open that communication.

Cory: Absolutely. Melanie, I like how you described the roles, the hired hand versus management, because I think that is a key distinction at certain stages. This is not to say that it can’t evolve; it can’t be hired at the beginning, and now it’s evolved differently. And it takes the family, just thinking about the seasonality of it.

You talked about crop farming. Well, there are times of the year that require more hands, and sometimes, the kids do come back from their careers off the farm to help. Then, there are times when a decision is made about when that outside career is wrapping up, and I’d like to have a career on the farm.

How have you seen people transition from some of those? 

What was a great circumstance and has worked for everyone’s life to change, either the new generation getting older and needing more help or the rising generation saying, “Hey, I’ve learned what I wanted to learn here and I’m ready.” How have you seen those transitions, well?

Melanie: It all depends. If you’re looking for the successful ones or ones that are open and flexible, they’re not cheap because of the land prices.

There’s still debt, where back in the day, a lot of times parents had their land paid for, and we’re sitting there with enough time to build that nest egg before the next generation is ready.

When you look at times now, there are many times when those parents didn’t get the farmland until they were maybe in their forties, compared to being in their twenties way back.

So, if you’re looking, we might be talking gen 2 to 3. Gen 1 hung on to the farm; possibly in the eyes of Gen 2, it may be too long. Then Gen 2, when they should be thinking about retirement, is still trying to reduce their debt.

If you look at one of our stats, they say the average age of farmers contemplating retirement or the average age of contemplation of retirement from a business is 57.

Well, that’s an interesting stat because, at 57, many farmers are still in debt. They aren’t able to walk away from it. They say, “Hey, child, we’re going to give you a step up so that you don’t have to struggle as much.” In a lot of situations, it can be health reasons. They just can’t do that work anymore even though, from finance, they have to.

And so there have to be conversations on, “Okay, I hear you want to be part of it,” but how will we make this work when we still have like, “I need to retire at some point.”

You love your kids, but you must ensure you’re also taking care of yourself because I don’t think the kids would love you living in their basement. You need to think about things like that. 

We’ve had a lot of conversations of, “Okay, there is going to come a time where for that generation coming in and sometimes even the current generation of farm income might be something that is going to have to happen to supplement that farm over a period of time until that debt is reduced. Now, if that the debt is gone, we can give mom and dad a retirement pension, so to speak, so that they can live comfortably on the farm as they should because they’ve worked hard for that, and then move in.”

And then, you have to step further to go, “Okay, what is that vision?” Is the vision to have the next generation? And if so, how is that going to work?

Because people are living longer, if we’re going to be paying out the first generation or supplementing their income off the farm, we’re still paying debt, still operating the farm, and we have to work.

How long does that generation work now? How long do they have to do both? And when they are looking to retire or their children are looking to come in, how will that work? How big do we have to be? Is that possible?

Because we know that there’s only so much land, and with the prices the way they are, you can have a lot of land for sale, but if you can’t come up with enough money or pay for it, it won’t happen. Having those realistic conversations and in some situations, it’s a question of what? “I love that you want to come in right now, but until this and this and this are either paid off or this, this, and this happens, there’s no way this farm can pay for all of us to be here.” 

And then you have to start going through, “Okay, if we want to make this happen, what are the other options? What can we do? Are there different farming practices? Is there a way to maximize this property?” Those can be really hard conversations. Right? 

It’s easy to say this is what I want, and if you want it hard enough, there are ways to do it. But are you willing to do what it takes to get there? And that’s the biggest thing because we know farming is a full-time job already, and if you have to work off the farm, that’s another full-time job.

What sacrifices are going to happen? What are the sacrifices to your personal life, your family, stress, all of that kind of stuff? And are you willing to make those sacrifices for that farm? 

Having those hard conversations ahead of time is much easier than getting five years down the road and then saying, well, this isn’t working. Then you have to unwind it all, and we’ve had those situations as well where the family came to us after they had just said, “Okay, let’s do this.” They jump in and do it. Then we come in partway through and try to mitigate the conflicts that have happened, the hard feelings, the burnout, the financial stress, all of that.

It’s a lot harder. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but it’s a lot more work, a lot harder, and usually a lot more expensive.

To try to fix the situation and resolve some of those issues, we just have those hard conversations right off the get-go, and everybody comes in knowing what they know today because we can’t control everything.

We can’t control what will happen five years from now, but knowing what they know today, they can say, “We’re making the best decisions that we can today, and this is what we’re willing to do.”

Cory: I want to go back to the parents living in the basement because mom and dad live on the farm, and often, the farm operation surrounds the house. Retiring in place is very difficult for farming families, and this becomes a conversation that isn’t necessarily a business decision. 

Now, we’ve got family members who are not involved in the business and who have joined the conversation about what mom and dad’s retirement is going to look like. How do those complexities fit into how this all works, as the enterprise is bigger than just the business?

Melanie: That’s a great question, and I think the biggest thing is its family. It’s a family business, and even if we approach it for state planning, it’s the same thing. We have a farm, but we have more than the child who is farming. 

How are we going to make this fair for everybody? And fair is not equal, but how do we make this fair? And it’s stepping back to being holistic.

And that’s where you look and say, “Okay, if you look at family enterprise, the operations are one thing, but you have to look at everything else. So, let’s go on the road of Mom and Dad retiring.

Are they going to stay on the farm? Are they going to move to town? Can they stay on the farm, or for medical reasons, do they need to be moved to a town where they’re closer to all the amenities and doctors and whatnot? If that’s the case, how is that going to work?” 

As a non-farming child, my question would be, “Well, if you’re taking over the farm and mom and dad have put their heart and soul into this farm, how are they going to have enough?

Because maybe myself, I’ve been off the farm, I’ve done my own thing. It’s not right that I have to pay for mom and dad to move to town. From my perspective, if I am a non-farming child, I will want to know that mom and dad are okay.

Having that plan, having that conversation is great, “let’s cash flow this. How is the farm going to make sure that mom and dad are okay?” And so the same thing, open communication and there should be full family communication.

Everybody should know, or I shouldn’t say that for it to be successful, it is a great idea to include all family members in some of these conversations. They don’t have to know the ins and outs of what’s going on on the farm.

They don’t have to know the income, but they do; they need to understand the greater plan, or they’re going to make up the story themselves so that they understand.

“Little Joey is going to get the farm, and he has not given the farm. He will be paying for it over time, and that payment over time is what’s going to supplement us, and we’re going to be able to move to town, and this is the cash flow we’re going to have then everybody understands, and go on step further. 

And if we shall pass away before that debt has been paid off, this is the plan. So that everybody understands the why and you have the communication while mom and dad still have the capacity or they’re on this earth to be able to answer those questions.” I think the key is transparency in some of this planning.

Cory: Absolutely. Melanie, I want to return to the part, “Are you willing to do what it takes?” As you mentioned, this land is generating a lot of wealth, and the next generation sees the dollar signs that are tied up in this land, and they might say, “I’m not willing to do what it takes.” How have you seen that be successful? I think that people often see that as a failure and that that vision will be transitioned.

How have you seen different ways it allows that generation who doesn’t want to take over operations for mom and dad to be still proud of what they’ve done?

Melanie: That’s a good question. There are many ways that we’ve had that. We step back with the first question I always ask. What does legacy mean to you? Legacy can mean different things to different people, and even mom and dad’s views of the land can differ. For some, the legacy of the land is operating the farm and seeing it with those operations with their name on there.

It’s been in the family for 100 years, and that’s what our legacy is, but for some, legacy can just be the cash flow that it generates. We do have many situations where the kids are in their forties or fifties, and they’re like, “I am so close to retirement. I don’t want to do that. I am so far removed. I don’t even know where I’d start. That’s great for mom and dad. Maybe when I was in my twenties, that was something I wanted to do, but now we’re established.”

The conversation then flows to “Okay, what next? Well, there are many options, such as operating that farm operation, which can turn into an investment operation, and renting that land out. It still generates x amount so mom and dad can be taken care of in retirement through that, and then conversations happen. “What is the kids’ view of this legacy? Is that something they want to do going forward? Do they see the value in renting that land?” 

The biggest thing to remember is there are lots of dollar signs. Still, it’s in the land, so they’re asset-rich and usually cash, and so that is something that a lot of outside, whether it’s outside family members or people, not 100% involved in the operation don’t understand that it’s not like, the money is flowing in like crazy.

That is based on the fact that the supply and demand of the land has raised the value of the land, but to capitalize on that, you have to sell the land and then figure out what you really have left after tax. And with that cash amount, what can you invest in to provide that income?

And we’ve had a lot of conversations where we compare. “Okay, if you sold the land today, after tax, what can you invest in and get a return on, and what would that be going forward? If you keep the land, what can you generate from land rent? Because you’ll always have that asset. So, at any point, you can sell it, but what can you generate?”

So, we’ll have that conversation. Usually, mom and dad understand, and they’re like, “No, this is the easiest investment. We’re going to keep the land, but it’s when it goes to the next generation.” When mom and dad are maybe in their eighties, and they’re talking about simplifying a state, that’s when we start talking to the families.

Then we go back and forth because sometimes mom and dad are trying to do whatever they can. It’s, again, communication. Mom and Dad see this land as the best investment land together. Do you want 3 kids owning that bond together? Do they see that as the best investment ever? Because sometimes that’s not always the case.

You might have one that wants to keep the land and 2 that want to sell. Now, you’ve created a conflict with the kids. How is that going to be resolved? Then we go down those conversations of saying, “We need to have a family meeting. Let’s ask each of the kids and a lot of times in these meetings, we will sit down with them separately because they might not be comfortable with mom and dad in the room, so they know it’s confidential.

We’re going to share the outcomes that come from the meeting but we’re not sharing who has said “But then we can come back with a poll of saying It’s unanimous x, or there’s a little bit of division here.” They can see the pros and cons to both sides but at the end of the day, probably when you are to pass, it’s going to wind up being a conflict.

Let’s talk about this now. In some of those cases, mom and dad are like, “We’ve been hanging on because we thought this is what the kids want, but if the kids aren’t interested, we’re in our eighties now. Taxes aren’t likely going to go down, especially with some of the things happening. Maybe we should look at triggering it now, or the renter came to us; we can either sell it for x now, or we’re going to have to. Do the kids want to keep negotiating these rents?”

Then, they start going back to the legacy. What is the purpose of the legacy? Is it the land, or is it the wealth? And if it’s the wealth, we’ve had some families say, “Let’s trigger it now. After tax, we’ll take what we need to live off of. We’ll divide it between the other three and let them enjoy that wealth now.”

Maybe it’s allowing them to retire sooner or helping their grandkids go through university, whatever the case may be, but a lot of times, the families will say, “As the parents or the grandparents, I want to see them enjoy it now.”

If that’s the case, let’s just do that now and solve the pain later when the kids try to negotiate this by themselves.

Cory: Absolutely. So many nuggets there for people to think about, and I think going back to what you started with is “don’t tell anyone that you can’t because there’s so many things that we talked about where having an experienced adviser such as yourself who’ve navigated so many of these situations. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all, and so much can be tailored to the individuals within the family to ensure that, as you said, those conflicts don’t come up later. It’s better to deal with it now to prevent so much of that later.

Cory: Melanie, as we near the end of our conversation, I ask each guest a few questions before we wrap up. Are you ready for the tough ones?

Melanie: You bet! Bring it on. 

Cory: First, what is one key strategy you believe is essential for building a successful family enterprise?

Melanie: I think the biggest thing about that is that there isn’t one key plan. If families are unique, we’d all be kidding ourselves if we said, “Here’s this plan on paper.” It can apply to every situation. 

Instead, I would say the key practice is to have open, clear, honest communication and trust.

Cory: Awesome. That’s great, and if it were one size fits all, life would be easy. What is the most common challenge that family enterprises encounter regarding wealth transition and generational continuity?

Melanie: I would say the one common challenge that I see in all families is setting time aside to work on this and not be distracted.

Be committed to the process because we get busy, and the farms are always busy. We know it’s busy, and then when it’s not busy, there’s that time to recharge. You get Christmas, and then you’re starting to think about seeding or you go into calving. 

You have to be very purposeful in setting that time aside. Book a meeting from a meeting, have an agenda, and ensure it is a priority. 

Cory: Absolutely. And in your experience, what would be the top three qualities that successful family enterprise leaders possess?

Melanie: The top three are to be great listeners. We’re here to listen; we’re not there to talk to. We need to listen. The other thing is being willing to work with others as a multidisciplinary team because we all have our strengths, but we need to recognize that we need to stay in our lane.

I’m not a tax specialist; I will bring a tax specialist in; I am not an investment adviser; I will bring that investment adviser in. 

The third is to be aware of your biases when you come into those meetings. We all have biases and baggage from our family dynamics, and we need to put that aside and recognize that if we see what’s coming in. 

Cory: Awesome. I love that. There’s so much that we covered today, and I’d like to highlight for our listeners that they could engage in more conversations that you’re having or more information on some of the topics you’ve been reading or enjoying.

Melanie: There is a lot of information out there that can help you understand what a family enterprise adviser does. You can definitely link to our website. We have links regarding family enterprise advisory, but I would say the biggest thing is to just call and book a time to ask the questions.

Again, a generic answer specific to your own family might not give great detail about how it can help that specific scenario. 

Cory: Absolutely. I wanted to ensure that we covered everything today. Is there anything else that you’d like to share with our audience that we didn’t get a chance to touch on?

Melanie: I think the biggest thing that I want to share is a statistic: We pulled one of our speaking engagements, and it’s fairly in line with the Alberta website.

Only 25$ of Alberta farm operators have a formal succession plan. Considering the age of farms or the original farm owner-operator and the number of farms in Alberta, that is quite low.

When we’re talking about wealth, we need to ensure that it’s a priority to protect that legacy built, whether it’s continuing it or creating wealth and turning it into cash.

But we want to ensure that that legacy stays within the family because without a plan, it can end up going in tax and legal fees, and that legacy can be gone.

Cory: Awesome. That’s a staggering statistic that is unreal to think only 25%, and we often hear quoted that only 50% of Canadians have a will. Yes, that’s a significant first step, but a succession plan is distinctly different. 

There’s a lot of work for us to do in that space, so thank you for bringing that one up. It’s something to think about for advisors and our listeners who are deciding on their succession plans.

Melanie, I wanted to thank you for taking the time to share all these stories, your expertise, and your experiences. There’s so much that we touched on today, and I think that it’ll be extremely valuable for our listeners. I know that it was extremely valuable for me, so thank you for your contribution.

Melanie: Thank you for your help. Thank you for having me. 

As we wrap up this episode, we invite you to reflect on the wealth of insights Melanie has shared about navigating family business dynamics and her expertise, shedding light on the unique challenges and opportunities families face as they strive to build a lasting legacy. 

Whether you are part of a family business or provide consulting to them, Melanie’s emphasis on open communication, calculated risk-taking, and proactive planning highlights the key factors in ensuring family enterprises’ long-term success and legacy. 

Throughout our discussion, Melanie discussed the importance of open communication and flexibility in navigating the complexities of family businesses. She emphasized aligning the visions of different generations and ensuring all family members feel included in decision-making. Melanie’s insights highlight the need for families to approach these conversations with curiosity and realism, seeking mutually beneficial outcomes that honour past generations while empowering future ones. Ultimately, our conversation showcases the value of experienced guidance and open dialogue in navigating family dynamics and securing a lasting legacy.

Melanie is always eager to connect directly with those seeking additional guidance on navigating the complexities of tax planning, estate and succession planning, and accounting. You can reach out to her via the Grant Thornton LLP website, and we’ve included her contact information and additional resources in the show notes to support you on your journey. Also, a word from Grant Thornton LLP: The information and examples contained within this podcast are for information purposes only and are not intended to be relied upon, to be a complete description of any specific accounting or tax issue or the opinion of Grant Thornton LLP. You should consult your Grant Thornton LLP adviser to obtain additional details, to discuss whether the information in this podcast applies to your specific situation or to obtain specific advice.


This program was prepared by Cory Gagnon who is a Senior Wealth Advisor with Beacon Family Office at Assante Financial Management Ltd. This is not an official program of Assante Financial Management and the statements and opinions expressed during this podcast are not necessarily those of Assante Financial Management. This show is intended for general information only and may not apply to all listeners or investors; please obtain professional financial advice or contact us at [email protected] or visit to discuss your particular circumstances before acting on the information presented.

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