E-i-E-i-CEO

Alpacas have introduced our family to a life we couldn’t have imagined just a few short years ago. Busy in business and raising a family, my husband and I pushed our careers hard, striving to become the best at what we do and to make a comfortable life for our family – he as a monument craftsman, and myself as general manager of a development corporation.

In the midst of that full charge ahead, alpacas somehow “found us”. I am sure many of you can relate to how that happens!

Scarcity of resources.

Scarcity of resources.

Like all smart business people, we listened intently to the good advice of our accountant. She too is the best at what she does and encouraged us to explore farm uses on our property to realize tax advantages. And the rest, as they say, is history. If you want to read more about the incredible journey that turned this country home into an alpaca farm, see “The Great Alpaca Tour” in the March 2010 issue of Camelid Quarterly.

We are now six years down that road and the farm is thriving. Each day begins with a visit to the barn before we head to the board room. Our herd of alpacas have woven themselves into our daily lives, giving us an escape each day from the business of the workplace.

It is equally rewarding to see how the discipline of business and the skills that go along with that, have flowed back in the other direction and influenced the operation of the farm.

When we contemplated adding farming to our lives, we set out to look for something that would be, at the very least, a break even proposition. We discovered alpacas, and like most, simply fell in love. But that did not mean we tossed aside our goals. We tested the prospect of alpaca farming through a business planning model and discovered that, if our research was right, we might do better than break even and realize a profit.

Now we were in business!

Corporate leadership.

Corporate leadership.

Our herd began with 6 beautiful alpacas and today Oak Hills Alpacas is home to 16 animals as we buy, sell, breed and broker the sale of alpacas. Over those few short years, more than 30 alpacas have called Oak Hills home.

Peak production.

Peak production.

So do you have to have a background in business to make an alpaca farm a business too? We get asked that question a lot. I’ve seen many make it work from various backgrounds, but I can tell you that the key to success is to think like a CEO, even when your board room is a barnyard.

I was recently at a business conference listening to an esteemed panel of speakers talk about what it takes to be a great CEO. John Wilson, Founder and President of the CEO Global Network, shared seven characteristics of good business leaders, and I couldn’t help but think that these characteristics are also present in all successful alpaca farmers I have met.

  1. Staff meeting.

    Staff meeting.

    Emotional Intelligence. Wikipedia defines emotional intelligence as “the ability to recognize one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different feelings and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior.[1] Emotional intelligence, often innate to the best CEO’s, is something I have recognized in successful alpaca farmers too. When you are in the business of alpaca farming you will find yourself working with many different kinds of people who visit your farm to buy your fibre, products, come for farm visits, or even purchase alpacas from your herd. If you are truly aware of the emotions and feelings of others, you meet your visitors with the right approach in every situation. Greet customers with warmth and provide information that is appropriate to their needs. Teach them all you know about alpacas in keeping with their level of understanding and their goals and objectives. Provide them with the products that they are looking for and information that will peak their interest in alpacas.

  1. Great CEO’s lead their teams to success with inspiring vision and behavior that makes everyone want to succeed and reach a common goal. I’m told by our customers that if you visit our farm you are inspired by our infectious enthusiasm for our alpacas and our drive to make the most of every product they produce; from fleece, to cria, to alpaca beans. I have yet to meet an alpaca farmer that didn’t truly love their alpacas and have a passion for what they do with their herd and its fibre. The key to our success with the farm has been to share our enthusiasm, and to inspire others. We work with them and mentor them (as others have done for us) and provide encouragement during those first few years when they are finding their way to their own success.
  1. Executive tools.

    Executive tools.

    Life Long Learners. Business leaders have recognized for quite some time now that continual improvement and learning are key to success in business. That is now deeply ingrained in corporate culture. Alpacas, while becoming more mainstream than they were even 5 years ago, are still largely an unusual experience for both vets and the general public. When newcomers visit the farm and spend some time with us they almost always ask, “how did you learn to do this”? The answer continues to be, “we are learning every day”. And to be a success at anything you have to be willing to do this. We are lucky. The supports for learning are all around us. There is a wealth of great reading material out there, from magazines like Camelid Quarterly, to books by Eric Hoffman, Dr. Evans and others (see our website for a list of “Links & Resources”, ohalpacas.com). There is an incredible network of more experienced alpaca farmers that are willing to provide advice and give you hands-on opportunities to work with them and learn through the seasons. And organizations like Alpaca Ontario (www.alpacaontario.ca) offer webinars with some of the industry’s top experts that you can take advantage of without the additional time and expense of travel.

  1. The most successful CEOs balance the demands in their life and achieve a satisfying quality of life. That’s defined differently by every individual, but you know when you have met a business person that has found that balance. When we began alpaca farming, everyone we met asked us what our goals were for our farm. We were mystified by that question. We leapt into it and began the daily and seasonal routine of farming. It was incredible how adding that element to our lives, brought a balance we never expected. We have found our focus, understand our goals and move simply toward them as the seasons unfold. It is a balance that brings peaceful rewards. I have written about that balance in “Achieving Balance by Completely Tipping the Scales” (December 2010 issue of Camelid Quarterly).
  1. Dedicated team members.

    Dedicated team members.

    Surround themselves with Great People. Great business people build great teams. In my business life, as I recruited individuals to our team, I insisted on only “A” team members. We all expected a lot of one another because we had a lot to offer, and we achieved great things. In our alpaca farm life, we do much the same. Shearing day clearly demonstrates how important a great team really is. We bring family and friends together who are enthusiastic, experienced and have very specific, well-honed skills, to make a frantic day on the farm a success. To name just a few, my accountant sister keeps immaculate records for each animal; my artistic husband shears our animals to perfection, making them show-ready; my videographer niece documents the process and photographs the “before” and “after” photos for each animal; and my mother prepares a meal for our large team that only a grandmother armed with a B.H.Sc (Bachelor of Household Sciences) could do. But we don’t just build a strong team for shearing day. We hired only the best to build our barn – our Amish neighbours. And when we need a team for chores, the older Amish children are who we call on.

  1. Develop a culture of accountability. A CEO that demands accountability is often seen as tough, but always seen as effective. It does not take a CEO to instill a sense of accountability on an alpaca farm. If you weren’t diligent about every last detail when you began farming, you will be in short order. Close the barn door. Latch the gate. Latch the feed bin. We have all experienced what happens when you don’t! As you are chasing your swift-footed herd down the lane you have a heightened sense of accountability that stays with you forever!
  1. Succession planning.

    Succession planning.

    Connected, have a coach or mentor – a braintrust. The best in business have a network of inspirational and knowledgeable individuals that they turn to for advice and encouragement. Alpaca farming is no different. In fact, given how new alpacas are to North America, to vets and to the farming community, the braintrust you assemble around you is particularly important. Your “mentor farm” will walk you through your first seasons and all the new experiences. They will encourage you when a problem arises, reassuring you that you can handle it and sharing their knowledge or providing other sources of knowledge to resolve the problem. Find your farm, find your friends, and build your braintrust.

Boardroom obstacles & challenges.

Boardroom obstacles & challenges.

After 6 years of alpaca farming, we have found our business lives and business skills to be such an asset to our life on the farm. These skills aren’t just transferrable, they are essential to success no matter where you practice them. So don’t be surprised if you find yourself out in the pasture gazing off into the distance and forecasting in your head your feed costs for next season. That’s what I like to call, “updating my business plan”.

Ground truthing the facts.

Ground truthing the facts.

And if you are a great CEO with a burning desire to move to the country and try what comes next, it just might be alpacas! The skills for success can be applied in both the board room and the barnyard. You might be surprised where you feel most at home.

References

  1. Coleman, Andrew (2008). A Dictionary of Psychology (3 ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN9780199534067.
Statutory holidays.

Statutory holidays.

Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Camelid Quarterly.  A special thanks to the editors for their permission to reprint.