Don’t follow the ‘dae fit yer telt’ approach to family business

Maitland Mackie, of ice-cream and crisps fame, is always thought-provoking. His most recent effort came at Strathclyde University, where he was one of the speakers talking about how to run a successful family business.

That’s something he knows a lot about, Mackie’s having moved in two decades from being simply an Aberdeenshire dairy and arable farm to one of Britain’s most successful ice-cream makers, more recently in conjunction with Taypack, a successful crisp-maker, and now close to moving into chocolate-bar production, while remaining resolutely family-run.

There are family farming businesses in the Borders and elsewhere who don’t necessarily need advice from Maitland or anyone else.

But there are others struggling with the problems of when one generation should hand over to the next, who gets what in a family changeover, or where the oldest member simply won’t quit, who would find it worth their while to study his speech.

Maitland, now 76, but looking, and thinking, younger, said the first rule for handing over is “Don’t meddle.”

He said: “When I was pulling out I discovered that the less I did, the better the business did. Very humbling.”

Essentially, he said, there are two main concerns for a family business – innovation and how it is run and how it is passed on. He is the third Maitland Mackie in a business that started in 1912.

His son Maitland (Mac) and two of his daughters are now in charge, and plans have already been made on how grand-children will be brought into the business. Much of this integration and forward planning, said Maitland, began in the 1990s when the family moved on from a “dae fit yer telt” (do what you’re told) approach to involving everyone in decision-making and consultation with regular family ­councils.

On many family farms the same process is followed less formally. Talk round the breakfast, dinner and supper table, or any other time, is about what’s happening on the farm, what should be happening, what could be changed and let’s do it.

But on others, “dae fit yer telt” and not having a say in the present or the future will sound familiar. The old theory used to be old clothes to old clothes in three generations – the first established a business, the second generation worked hard and expanded it, the third squandered their inheritance.

There are many examples in Borders farming and rural business of that not being true, each generation taking the business onward and upward. The sheer scale of some farming operations now is proof of that. But we can all think of examples near us where the old three-generation theory was proved correct, sometimes spectacularly.

Harvest has been stop-start in the past 10 days, but as always now when the big combines move they move fast to cover big areas, as do the follow-up balers, ploughs and/or cultivators and seed drills. The result is that the look of the countryside can change rapidly from a lot of fields on the cusp of being cut to a patchwork of stubble, ploughing, just-drilled and fields already greening over with next year’s potential harvest.