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Family Business Matters       10/27 05:10

   A Pandemic Blessing: Margin Redefined

   A new perspective provides a noneconomic meaning to this business term.

Lance Woodbury
DTN Farm Business Adviser

   In business, the concept of margin implies some remaining amount of revenue 
or profit after accounting for expenses and is reflected in terms like "gross 
margin" or "profit margin." But the word "margin" is also used in another way, 
according to a book titled "Margin," by Dr. Richard Swenson. He defines it as 
"the space between our load and our limits." In other words, how do we take 
time, in the midst of our busy lives, to invest in long-term activities that 
improve our relationships, nourish our spirits and add a noneconomic "margin" 
to our lives?

   Today's family farm or ranch is a hub of urgent activity focused on the 
financial margins. Family members wear multiple hats while supervising other 
people, managing millions of dollars in assets and reacting on short notice to 
unexpected market swings or weather events. The attention to operational and 
financial health -- the load -- often comes at the expense of personal and 
family care.

   When we asked people about some of the unexpected benefits of the COVID 
pandemic, they told us one of the silver linings was a form of margin: the 
chance to work with their school-aged kids (or grandkids) in the business. 
Because of school cancellations in the spring, young people had a chance to 
help with planting or livestock management, continuing into summer work. The 
pandemic, while not creating any less workload, offered a chance, via family 
involvement, to incorporate life margins with business margins. Consider some 
of the following effects this might have.


   A sad fact of our modern life is the absence of parents from their kids' 
lives, especially in the teenage years. I often hear adults describe how their 
parents were not around or did not participate in their lives when they were 
kids. I know firsthand that parents don't generally want to be absent, but the 
demands of owning a small business, especially in agriculture, often take time 
away from school events, vacations or other meaningful interactions. This 
pandemic gave many families a chance to experience both work and more leisurely 
activities together, thereby building relationships with one another.


   One of the results of current education and sports models is that farm and 
ranch kids are at school or on the court or field for most of the daylight 
hours. Couple that absence with differences in communication styles and work 
preferences, and the gaps between generations grow larger. However, with remote 
education and limited athletics, family members have had a chance to better 
understand and appreciate the approach each generation brings to its work. 
Perhaps in the future, we'll see more compliments and fewer complaints between 
generations in the workforce.


   As young people have worked longer hours in the business, they've had a 
chance to see the range of technical and business skills necessary to lead a 
modern farming or ranching enterprise. We won't know immediately, of course, 
but the time spent and insights gathered on the farm this past spring and 
summer may lead a few more people to consider returning to the business and, 
thus, continue the legacy of the family enterprise.

   We all know that creating more time, or in noneconomic margin terms, 
increasing "the limit," is impossible. But we can redesign how our time is 
spent. The COVID pandemic did just that for most families around the world. For 
farm and ranch families, the blessing of more family time, even while working, 
may pay unexpected dividends for years to come.

   Write Lance Woodbury at Family Business Matters, 2204 Lakeshore Dr., Suite 
415, Birmingham, AL 35209, or email

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