Winter is a great time to get rid of that terminal case of piles in your farm office. Someone once said that “clutter is a delayed decision”. My business consulting friend Stuart Morley of Ontario, wrote me a story from his observations in Africa, that I think might be an encouragement to you. My new office is making me more money with better systems in place. Beauty does create energy, so get to work after you read Stuart’s observations:
As a city kid, growing up in Africa I spent my holidays with friends who lived on farms. The farmers seemed to be the ones with cars, planes and tractors unlike us poor city folk. I figured all farmers were rich so I decided I would become a farmer.
However I was a little taken aback during my third year of my agricultural degree to find most farmers lived pretty poor. Some died rich but few lived and died rich. It was the early days of computers and to save costs for farmers and give us a project we needed for college we persuaded a group of about 30 farmers to give us their financial records and in return we would tell them how they were doing compared to the average. It kept the professor happy we had a project and we liked the idea of experimenting with computers plus on a hot day the only room that was air-conditioned was the computer room.
Once we overcame the usual concerns about confidentiality we found the farmers not only liked to see how they were doing but now wanted to visit the farms of those who were doing better than the average. Some wanted to see these farms because they suspected those doing better meant they were not counting all their costs and others wanted to find the secrets of how others were doing better.
We worked with the local farmer’s co-op to arrange several of these visits as this request was now getting outside our course curriculum and as students we were tempted to focus on passing exams rather than seeing the fruits of our analysis.
I was curious and decided to go on some of the farm visits. However after a while these visits became boring. I could not judge a good cow from a bad cow, or a great crop of corn from any other. As a city kid I could not tell if a tractor was properly maintained or the right size for the type of work. All of this knowledge seemed to be part of the DNA of the farmers and the other kids at university who tagged along. Many times I would land up in the farmer’s house having a cup of tea with the farmer’s wife and chatting about what was going on in the world rather than tour the farms. These successful farmers never asked for nor showed their records to other farmers. However I did notice some farmers had grand offices and others were almost a hole in the wall.
It was in my fourth and final year that I stumbled on a thesis that a doctoral student was working on where he was trying to find the correlation between the farmer’s profit and a number of other variables. It included the usual stuff like type of farming – where tobacco was thought to be more profitable than growing cotton, the size of farm, whether the farmer had irrigation and so the list continued. However the one item he added was the size and comfort of the farmer’s office. When he had done his work the only thing that was closely correlated to profit was the size and comfort of the farmer’s office. The size of office was easy to measure in terms of square feet, but for comfort he included a score according to whether the office had desks, chairs, phone, typewriter, filing cabinets, maps on the wall, couches and other items he thought the ideal office should contain. I was fascinated with this finding. How could a nice office generate a nice profit? Or did it mean you had to first make a nice profit and these folks then built the nice office?
As I went on farm visits in my fourth year I spent time comparing the farm office to the financial statements. My own informal observations confirmed this strange relationship but how to test it out?
When my girlfriend invited me to her family farm for the holidays I decided to watch her father, Martin, at work. He would get up and start work at 5 am and drive in the ‘bakkie’ (the name we used for the farm pick-up truck) to the various parts of the farm and allocate the duties to the workers. He would also stop by the shed to check which tractors the mechanic was working on and check the sheep and cattle pens and then head home for breakfast. After a hearty bacon and egg breakfast followed by a few cups of tea with the family, Martin would drive to the village to collect supplies and be back for lunch around noon. As the weather was pretty hot at lunchtime, a few beers before lunch made sense and then a quick nap after lunch and back to check on the workers in the lands around 2pm. At about 3 pm it was tea time back at the farm house and at about 3.30 pm it was time to head to the office to do the paperwork.
The office was in a part of the house that caught the afternoon sun. The room was only slightly larger than a closet and sitting down at the desk made it hard to open or close the door because it was so small. Piled high on the desk was a ton of paper including invoices, newspapers, magazines, chemical recommendations for the crops and notes of things to do.
Sitting at the desk looking out the window was not easy with the hot African sun shining in your eyes. To the left and right of the desk were shelves with fishing tackle and various household repair items, screws and plugs.
We used to time how long Martin would sit in the office. It ranged from a few minutes to never more than half an hour. He would sit down and start searching for documents. The longer he sat the more uncomfortable he became as the sun was beating down on him and he struggled to find the paperwork that needed to be reviewed and approved. Finally he would get so frustrated that he would storm out of the office muttering under his breath and go and check on the workers one more time before beer time at five pm.
My girlfriend and I discussed moving the office. Her mother, Mary, warned that Martin had a terrible temper and would not accept change easily. We raised the issue with Martin one evening after dinner and a few beers. He muttered something about not having enough time and he had other more important worries as his banker was warning him that he was close to his credit limits.
On the following Saturday, Martin went to the city for a farmer’s co-op meeting and we knew that he would be gone most of the day. So I decided, despite the warnings from my girlfriend and Mary, that we should move the office. We picked a bedroom in the rambling farmhouse that had not been used for years and cleared out all the junk. It took a while as Mary was a hoarder and the idea of throwing out old magazines and other junk was painful for her.
Then we had to take the desk apart to get it out of the old office and we would have to reassemble it in the new office. So we moved everything else first. We hung some maps and pictures on the wall. We had enough space in the new office for Mary to have her desk and chair as she did some of the bookwork.
However as we were moving the desk into the new office, Martin arrived home. He was earlier than usual. He came round the corner in the house and saw the desk in pieces on the floor in the hall. He started to yell … What the … and then … suddenly stopped … and stared. At this point I was alone. My girlfriend and Mary had disappeared. As Martin stood above me scratching his head, two little heads popped around the corner to see what was going on. Cowards leaving me to face the music!
I quietly explained that we were moving his office and would he help me with the last few pieces. Martin did not say a thing. He did what I asked and then when we had finished we showed him to his seat and asked for his opinion. He sat down and with a smirk on his face decided to point out a few minor things that were not quite perfect. We corrected them quickly. He tried to think of some more objections but was stumped.
That evening we all had drinks in the office instead of the lounge. The next day he moved the phone wires and the party line phone system into the office. My girlfriend and I went back to finish university and go on to other careers and forgot about becoming farmers.
Each year we came to visit the farm during our holidays.
The first changes we noticed was the office had become the main room in the house and the furnishings had been improved.
We then decided to check on Martin’s routine. He still went out early in the mornings to allocate the work but after breakfast he went into the office instead to the village. He spent time in the office doing calculations and estimates, checking invoices, ordering supplies by phone as he told me he did not have time to drive into the village. After lunch and a quick nap he was back in his office and it was only after tea in the afternoon when he sometimes went to the lands to check the work.
The second year when we visited we found Martin had promoted two of his best workers as supervisors to do the work he could no longer do because he was spending so much time in the office. Often around 5 pm when the work was done the supervisors came to the office to discuss with Martin the work they thought needed to be done the next day.
Martin proudly told us that he had figured out he was making more money sitting in his office than he did wandering around the lands supervising workers.
The third year when we visited, Martin was only checking up around the farm every few days and sometimes only once a week. Martin and Mary were taking longer holidays. Mary noticed that her husband seem to have some of his best ideas when he got back from a few weeks away.
The fourth year was amazing. Martin had changed his whole cropping program. He was cutting back on tobacco and starting to grow soybeans. Farmers in the area thought he was crazy and told him so at the country club. Martin tried to explain but they were not interested. “They don’t get it”, he used to mutter.
In year five when we visited, Martin was trying to help his neighbours see the merit of a comfortable office, hiring supervisors and taking long holidays. They thought he was crazy. They had inherited farms from family and everyone knew that unless you could see the farmer’s footprints in the lands all day every day, all year around – you were a lazy farmer. Yet these hardworking farmers were going broke.
In year six, everything changed. My girlfriend became my wife and we had a big farm wedding. The next year Martin bought two farms from famers who had gone broke. He was determined to make them profitable. He also wanted to bring his eldest son, David into the business to help him.
It was another ten years later when Martin had a stroke. David took over control of the farms. The youngest son, Paul was now also working on the farms. When we went to visit, David and Paul told us they did not want the office to be in Dad’s house anymore. There were several houses on the family farms. They wanted our help to plan a new office. They told us they wanted a bigger more beautiful office because they wanted to make enough money to support three families on the farm as well as all the workers.