CREATING A FAMILY BUSINESS, FROM CONTEMPLATION TO MATURITY
BY: ALLAN NATION
REVIEW BY JOEL SALATIN
I think I've read 90 percent of what Allan Nation ever wrote, and this book, Creating a Family Business, From Contemplation to Maturity seems to contain most of his business wisdom. Having done so many conference talks with Allan, I relished all the famous quips that would leave the audience in stitches.
If you've ever wanted classic Allan all in one place, this is it. The stories of buying a bankrupt magazine, going into horrendous debt, the climb out of it, restructuring the staff, changing the theme are there in all their glory. Allan was a master storyteller, and this book preserves the best ones in a way that only he could tell them.
Cobbled together posthumously by his widow, Carolyn, and business partner, Glinda Davenport, the book preserves Allan's voice for all of us who ever heard him speak. It's like sitting down with Allan and enjoying his wit and wisdom all over again. He referred to Glinda as his "corporate wife", which anyone who runs a small business can appreciate.
Allan traveled the world over, capturing the essence of successful family businesses. Of course, no vocation has such a high percentage of "family" in its business nomenclature than farming. Even in our industrial agricultural age, most farms are still family owned and operated. With this vast experience, and using The Stockman Grass Farmer as his foundation, Allan has you laughing one moment and sobered-up-dead-convicted the next.
He talks about the hard stuff; cycles of life like youth and aging; maintaining margins with low capital overheads; diversifying the market portfolio for financial stability; experiments that failed miserably.
And everywhere, the "slog". I've never used that term much, but since reading this book, I've begun to use it a lot, especially to millennials. At our farm, we spend a lot of time with millennials, and if I could boil their weakness down to one word it would be "impatience." Of course, if I could boil their strengths down to one word, it would be "honesty".
Allan looks at what he calls "the slog" from losts of different angles and it's incredibly helpful for old geezers like me to appreciate how long and difficult success actually took. I've often told people that I'm not really that smart; I just would not quit, which enabled me to outlast others. We all suffer from short memories and short attention spans, and Allan refused to give into that weakness.
Young people and business newbies must remember that success will not come until you're on the other side of the slog. The sun will rise, but not after the night. This is especially hard to appreciate for young people today whose impatience is unprecedented. Next-day delivery, Google search engines, Facebook likes - it's a frentic lifestyle and expectation. Allan hammers the slog principle home; that alone makes the book worth reading.
If you're in the slog, remember it won't last forever. Like Allan, you can retire into the business, not out of the business. I've heard true freedom defined this way: getting up in the morning and knowing that you don't have to do anything you don't want to do. Allan achieved that, giving over the magazine's day-to-day operations to commission-based women. He often joked that the way to success was to start the business and then turn it over to women.
Throughout the book, I found myself laughing one minute and tears rolling down my cheeks the next. To realize that this level of insight, this mentorship, was gone from my life left me feeling acutely orphaned. That Carolyn and Glinda have resurrected Allan, from his notes and essays, to offer such a great represention of himself is truly a gift for all ages.
I hope this book, which I think is by far Allan's best work, reaches far beyond the SGF family. Of course, it can never be as meaningful to folks who have not walked, for years, through SGF pages with Allan, But it stands on its own merits as a legacy book for family businesses, a true friend and compass from the written word.