Sorting out the succession can turn ordinary farming families into the Roy children | Gabrielle Chan

Having a parent at the head of the company can keep adult children acting like children – even when the family’s fortunes are at stake

Spoiler alert: this column contains details from Succession season four. Don’t read on unless you’ve watched the finale, episode 10.

Power. Money. Love. Betrayal. In the HBO hit Succession, these elements crash into each other like dodgem cars as they warp and rip family relationships asunder.

The ultimate goal is who gets to wear the crown wrestled from the ageing patriarch.

It reminds me of some Australian farm families.

I once ran into a farmer in the street. When I asked how he was going, he said with a deadpan stare, “Nothing a dead father wouldn’t fix.”

As many people have noted, the bones of this story echo King Lear, the patriarch. Like media empires, farming often centres around a patriarch. As he buries his father, Kendall describes Logan as a man with “a fierce ambition”.

“My father was a brute. He was. He was tough. But also, he built. And he acted … There are always … a thousand reasons to not act, but he was never one of those … He had a vitality, a force, that could hurt. And it did,” says Kendall.

He reminds the presidential candidates, the clutchers and schemers who come along to mourn Logan (or check that he is dead) that he may have had money but he built his business with his own hands.

The doing, the building, always justifies the means. If you are the ruler of your own domain, however small, your authority trumps. So it is with farming. Whether family inheritances are worth billions or millions or thousands, these succession dramas still play out.

Sorting out the succession in farming is often the biggest hurdle to making the business last past one generation. Since the culture (thankfully) has mostly moved past giving land to the eldest son, things are necessarily more complicated.

In more recent times, farm succession has spawned an industry, used by banks, lawyers and accountants.

One of its pioneers, Lyn Sykes, has conducted hundreds of meetings for families trying work through the succession puzzle to distribute the family’s assets to the next generation. She is interested in people, not farming.

Sykes is always surprised at the focus on legal and accounting structures to protect the farm business while the relationships are ignored. Just like the Roy family, if the relationships don’t work, it doesn’t matter how good the accounting is. It’s likely to fall apart.

Sykes has regularly seen the economic ties of a family business stunt the capacity of its members to develop communication skills. Bosses are parents and employees are children and they swap between roles.

“Parents continue to act like parents in the business, and when they do, their children tend to react like children. Many don’t learn to communicate adult to adult,” Sykes said.

This dynamic plays out so many times in Succession, when the Roy siblings slip into their childhood selves. Even in the final episode in their mother’s kitchen, as Kendall is handed the “bauble” of leadership, “haunted and cursed”, Shiv forces him to drink a potion made of disgusting pantry combinations – iced with a dollop of her spit.

Three of the Roy children during the Succession finale.
The Roy children flex their communication skills during the Succession finale. Photograph: HBO

In farming, parents and children can be proud of each other but critical of their actions in the business. But criticism from the boss can land as criticism from a father, and criticism from adult children can sound like a lack of gratitude.

Sykes has seen farming parents create a dynamic that reaffirms their roles and way of behaving.

“Whether the message is that good people farm or good people run newspapers, that’s about an affirmation for the older person of what they do,” she says.

Likewise, failing to work out succession plans before the older generation passes away can lead to what Sykes describes as a “contaminated grieving process”.

Most of Succession’s final season is one extended nuclear contamination zone; grief intertwined with business manoeuvres, punctuated by the briefest glimpses of capitulation. In the final episode, all three children insist “Dad said it would be me!”

Advisor Dr Mike Stephens has spent years studying as well as working in and with farming businesses. His conclusion from that research is that only a minority of farms will ever be handed down to the next generation.

Skyrocketing farmland prices will increase the degree of difficulty in family succession conversations, and children’s expectations can be just as high.

Rural Bank’s Australian Farmland Values for 2023 showed sharp rises across the country – a median price rise of 20% per hectare – combined with steep declines in transaction volumes. People are paying more for farmland at a time when there are fewer properties coming on to the market.

As a result, the farm portion of a family’s assets is going to make up a bigger piece of the pie. Splitting the assets starts to look as fraught as a Roy family board meeting.

Stephens said 10 years ago he was working with clients whose assets were $6-$10m.

“Now we’re typically talking $20 to $40m”.

The scale might be of another magnitude to the wealth of the Roys, but to most people, the assets held by a successful family farm are still very significant. That can lead to Succession syndrome, a real thing whereby successful and wealthy households “create a deep-rooted fear of weakness and failure” in children.

The final episode of the Roy family melodrama was a good reminder to maintain perspective. Poor Kendall, he didn’t get the crown. He only got a few billion dollars. Who wants to be that family?


Gabrielle Chan

The GuardianTramp

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