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An undaunted shift into agriculture and a family now reaping the rewards

Posted by Rabobank Australia on

13/03/2024
Helen Baillie

Helen Baillie has never been afraid to jump in headfirst.

From purchasing a Melbourne small animal practice just three years out of her veterinarian degree, to embracing a tired working farm across the Bass Strait, she’s not one to shy from a challenge.

And it seems her now-adult children are following in her footsteps.

Helen and her husband Max Cameron were both Melbourne professionals with four young children when they purchased ‘Wesley Dale’ in Tasmania as an investment to help offset their busy urban lives.

Tackling ‘Wesley Dale’s’ development was a team approach, with Max in charge of restoration of the historic buildings, whilst Helen had ambitious commercial aspirations for the picturesque Chudleigh sheep operation.

“‘Wesley Dale’ was a run-down family farm we purchased in 1999 – Max’s family has a long history in rural Tasmania spanning back to the 1800s, however Max followed a legal career path on the mainland.”

“I had no experience in farming either, however my veterinary background helped inspire our decision to develop the farm,” Helen explains. “I knew that I wanted the property to be more than just a lifestyle block, it had to be commercial, and thus I had a baptism of fire learning the ropes of agriculture!”

Initially the family split time between Melbourne and Tasmania, spending weekends and holidays at ‘Wesley Dale’, with Helen spending more and more time there once the children were at boarding school.

A force of positive energy, Helen and Max have tirelessly reinvigorated the historic property and established a successful prime lamb and dairy heifer agistment operation.

She also inadvertently unlocked a passion for agriculture amongst her children, opening them to a world of opportunity – yet when three of her children expressed an interest in joining her on the farm, she knew succession would be a challenge.

“Three of our children, Max, Sandy and Cec were at university and keen to return to the farm. Our eldest daughter Georgie saw various opportunities within the business. Together we knew that we needed to grow the business to make it a viable option for us all, but I had no idea how to do that.”

Gaining the confidence to grow

Helen with daughter Cec.

Helen with daughter Cec.

In 2018 Helen joined the Rabobank Sheep Knowledge Tour – to the amusement of her family, she laughs, who affectionately tease her for being a “sheep geek”.

A constant discussion on the tour bus, however, was the Rabobank Executive Development Program (EDP).

“Everyone seemed to rave about it, and it felt like a great fit for me at just the right time.”

A participant of the 2019 program, despite being Covid impacted, Helen attributes the significant business success of their operation, and its growth since that time, directly to her learning from the EDP.

“There was such a good mix of ages, I was at the older end of the mix, but it was insightful talking to the younger generation, perhaps ten years ahead of our own children, and their perspectives on the challenges in their succession stories.”

At the other end of the cohort, she found conversations with an older gentleman equally defining, particularly his disappointment around opportunities missed.

“It’s always so valuable getting like-minded people of different generations into a learning environment together, and my greatest takeaway was that there is risk in growing a farm business, but there is more risk in not growing.”

Putting practical business strategy into place

Rabobank_EDP23-1 September 2019

Helen taking part in the Rabobank Executive Development Program

The first implementation within the business inspired by the EDP Helen concedes was ‘the boring stuff’ but necessary – establishing good governance.

“We knew we had a problem in the way the operation was being run, and that we needed to systemise the business, but I really didn’t know where to start,” she explains. “Putting good governance in place has made a huge difference, it was like opening a door.”

The family booked meetings to undertake a formal succession planning pathway, and upon direct advice from the EDP, established a quarterly strategy meeting with an external facilitator.

“The discussions we now have as a family in a formal setting with an independent facilitator go so much further than they did when we would try to have semi-formal conversations amongst ourselves,” Helen explains.

During the formal strategy meetings every family member has full access to the business’s financials, whether they’re working on the farm or not.

“It’s amazing how much can be achieved during these meetings when everyone is fully informed and understands what the business can and can’t afford,” she explains. “It also ensures everyone is on the same page, and no sibling is under any illusion regarding another's place in the business.”

An independent facilitator – and one not necessarily from a practical farming background – also provides fresh eyes with a focus purely on the figures.

“Operationally and practically, we know how the business works, and these strategy meetings are just drilling down on how to improve the business.”

The importance of effective communication has also been a critical learning, and while Helen concedes it’s still a work in progress, getting the basics correct has improved conversations enormously.

“Respect was the first strategy introduced - we have weekly family meetings and ensuring there’s respect for each other has been a key theme for improving the flow of communication.”

“Being able to say your piece without interruption is a simple example, but an important one – our facilitator even had to introduce a ‘talking stick’ to get this right, but it makes a huge difference.”

With son Max and daughter Cec now working on the farm, son Sandy is currently working in South Australia and is looking to return to the farm.

Their eldest daughter Georgie is managing a tourism business in Tasmania, and is looking to develop agri-tourism opportunities on the property.

Returning from the EDP, Helen also recognised the value a quiet, questioning, reasoned voice at the table could provide, especially in terms of accountability, and is thrilled that Max continues to fulfill this role, in addition to his full time legal work on the mainland.

With different levels of engagement in the business, and various locations, finding communication channels and systems that work for everyone has been a challenge.

“My husband has worked as a corporate lawyer for 40 years, so he thinks very differently to myself and our farming children,” Helen explains. “The EDP made me see this as a strength for the business.”

“For instance, we started a visual presentation of monthly financials to help his understanding, and this invertedly raised the financial literacy of the whole team, and it’s great now we’re all on the same page!”

“When you say it out loud, these solutions all sound so practical and obvious, they’re simple measures but they’ve made a world of difference and I wouldn’t have gone down this path if not for the EDP.”

Benchmarking has been another tool adopted on-farm, further helping streamline decision-making based on firm and trusted data.

“I’d always toyed with the idea of benchmarking, and now, having put a formal structure in place it’s been so valuable and the support amongst the benchmarking group is terrific.”

“We knew we could improve our production systems, and now we have no option but to do better – we’re guided by data and it’s been enlightening seeing where we can improve efficiencies and how that improves our cash flow.”

Armed with benchmarking feedback, Helen has confidently made choices about changes to enterprise mix, helping drive profitability, and ultimately, growth.

Enjoying the spoils of business growth

Max, Cec and Helen.

As part of the EDP, a course run over 12 months with two face-to-face modules, participants are required to prepare and present a business plan for their enterprise.

Helen’s business plan focussed on generating cash flow to buy an additional farm, and now, four years later, it’s a goal that’s been well and truly realised.

Having managed to acquire two smaller, but productive blocks in the years since purchasing ‘Wesley Dale’, her business plan outlined a goal of acquiring a third, similar-sized block.

However, that signature can-do thirst for opportunity was piqued when two significant neighbouring properties came up at the same time – it was a chance they couldn’t resist – and one underpinned by sound business strategy.

“Thanks to the EDP I had a renewed and acute understanding of the business, we knew it was relatively safe to grow the business and push those limits, we could articulate the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ thanks to benchmarking and strategy meetings, and we had the confidence to use our equity and put all our capital into more land.”

“Before the EDP I never would have contemplated such an investment. Our growth has been so much greater than any of us anticipated, but it’s something that makes us all very excited for the future.”

With a tightening of efficiencies and business strategy increasing cash flow to support the purchase, Helen concedes that the current lamb market and increased interest rates continued to challenge their plan. Yet her confidence outweighs any market concerns.

“If I hadn’t done the EDP I probably wouldn’t sleep at night, but thanks to the EDP I feel empowered that we have options, and can plan for scenario A, B or C – and I’m at a stage in my life that I can think things through without panicking, which is important for the children to see considering the uncertain nature of agriculture.”

A future to look forward to

Helen with two of her children, Max and Cec.

With the farm’s growth helping plan for succession, Helen is thrilled to be helping provide their children with a unique agricultural opportunity.

“I feel extraordinarily lucky that I get to work with my kids, and I want to leave them a business that’s viable, and one they still have plenty of opportunity to develop.”

“We’re ready to hand the baton on to them to continue, and to leave their mark on the business.”

“And one thing is for sure, we couldn’t have done what we’ve done over the past four years without the EDP.”

Applications for the 2024/25 EDP are now open, closing on March 22. For further information see www.rabobank.com.au