“With proper planning, you can keep the ranch in the family and the family in the ranch,” says Donnell Brown, owner and manager of the R.A. Brown Ranch in Throckmorton, Texas.
For his family, succession planning has been an integral part in the longevity of the fifth-generation ranch that traces back to the late 1800s.
Skipping forward through the years, we’ll pick up the long history of the R.A. Brown Ranch with R.A. Brown Sr. The young cattleman was attending college in 1922 when his father passed, leaving him the responsibility to return home and run the ranch.
“Granddad was a very beloved man but very traditional and not quick to try new things,” Brown says.
R.A. Sr. had a son, R.A. Jr. “Rob” (Brown’s father), who was the first Brown to graduate from college. Shortly after, he returned home to the family ranch full of ideas and ready to use all the things he had learned.
“Dad is a risk taker, but granddad wasn’t. That personality difference proved to be difficult for the two to see eye-to-eye,” Brown explains, saying Rob felt his passion was being squelched for several years.
It was the 1950s and Texas was hit by a severe drought. Determined to keep the ranch and its registered genetics together, the family expanded to Colorado. R.A. Sr. would spend months at a time looking after the new ranch while Rob stayed in Texas with the home ranch.
“Seven years after Rob had come home to help run the ranch, he drove to the Colorado ranch and spent two weeks with his parents,” Brown says. “During that time they agreed on more things about how to run the ranch than they had ever agreed to in their lives. Grandad was finally willing to let my dad try some of what he learned in college. At the end of their visit, my granddad had a massive heart attack and died. Looking back, my dad received his father’s blessing to go be progressive and pursue his passion, and they were able to strengthen their relationship before it was too late.
“I shudder at the thought of where R.A. Brown Ranch would be today if that conversation and permission had never happened.”
As Rob took over the ranching business with his wife, Peggy, the two grew their family, adding four children and hooking them all into the business through lessons of value.
“When we were kids, dad and mom clearly communicated to us that we could do whatever we wanted after high school but that we would be responsible for paying our own college tuition. We were each given two heifers to get our start. As a way of teaching each of us valuable life lessons and how to manage risk, we each were responsible for the breeding, marketing and management decisions for those cows,” Brown recalls. “My parents would say, ‘We want you to have what you have because you earned it — not because it was a gift.’”
This valuable life lesson sunk in, with all four kids eventually returning to the family business at some point of their lives with their spouses. The ranch set up an entrance plan, allowing each returning family member to work as an employee and to expand the family business in partnership with their parents. Each of the children came back to work on the ranch and then grow and diversify the ranch in the areas of each child’s interests and expertise. For some, that was with commercial cows; for others it was farming and stocker cattle. For Brown and Kelli, his wife, it was the seedstock part of the family business.
“Our family hired a moderator to help with the initial conversation on how to best transfer ownership from one generation to the next. It was beneficial to have someone ask the tough questions, because none of us felt comfortable doing it,” Brown says, noting that an effort to place emphasis on the family relationships was put ahead of personal business interests. “It takes time and is hard to get the ball rolling, but once you get going, it gets a lot easier. My parents started estate planning 30 years ago when our generation was in our teens and 20s by forming a Limited Family Partnership — with dad serving as the president. He still called all the shots even though he had transitioned ownership of over 90 percent of the ranch to my siblings and me,” Brown says.
Fast forward to 2013 — Rob and Peggy had built a ranching business that was highly respected across the United States with the help of their four children and decided it was time to allow them to take over, with Rob saying, “I had the opportunity to live out my dream; now, while mom and I are enjoying good health, we want to watch each of you pursue your dreams.”
“They realized that four children all raised in the same home working together was one thing, but 17 grandchildren trying to work together is a much larger challenge,” Brown says. “So they decided it was best to let us determine how to divide the ranch so that each family could grow in the direction of their passion.”
The siblings began setting up meetings away from the ranch so the focus would be on the succession plan. Even though Rob and Peggy chose to let their children make the decisions, they were always available to provide a listening ear and advice whenever needed.
“Now that the ranch is divided evenly between the four families, this family that has always been very close is even closer,” Brown says. “We see so many families that are torn apart by succession planning, and I don’t know what it would be like to transition a family business while grieving the loss of your parents, but I believe that the way our parents did it was much, much better.”
Now Brown and Kelli work to continue their passion in the seedstock business, preparing it for their two sons, if they choose to return to the ranch.
“Something I want to pass on is that returning to this ranch is not a ‘birth right’ — it’s a ‘work right.’ You have to work to grow it. One of the best things we can do for our children is to teach them to work, earn, save and invest. Mom and dad did a great job of teaching us these valuable life lessons, and now our children are carrying on this legacy as they work to pay their own way through college with the help of a couple of heifers they were given as a start. This entire process has been a great reminder for us to look at our children and allow them to pursue their passions and talents that they are blessed with,” Brown says. “But to also set up the family business so if they want to return, we can keep the ranch in the family and the family in the ranch.”