Being the fourth generation President and Chief Executive Officer of Babson Farms Inc., Taylor Kirkpatrick takes his responsibility very seriously running the family office. His job is running the family business and managing assets created over 100 years ago by his great grandfather. Right now, Babson Farms’ core asset is based on agricultural holdings, with supporting operating businesses like captive crop insurance company, tiling company, drainage, bin storage, trucking and transportation operations. Taylor shares that running the family business is a demonstration of patience and fortitude because you’re charged with seeing the future and trying to take advantage of an opportunity that might occur in the future. He always keeps the mindset that like everything in life, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You have to keep a generational thinking, map out strategies and figure out how to do things on a daily basis as well as look at the bigger picture.
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Successfully Managing a Family Office with Taylor Kirkpatrick
We have a treat now. We’re in Babson Farms and we’re with the CEO, Taylor Kirkpatrick. Taylor, welcome to the show.
Bob, thanks for having me.
Do us a favor, tell us a little bit about your business and who you serve.
The easy answer is Babson Farms is a family office, which is a term that a lot of folks may or may not be familiar with and what it is, I serve one family managing their assets. These assets were created 100 years ago when my great grandfather, Henry Babson, went and visited the Thomas Edison at the Columbian World Exposition in 1893 in Chicago and said that he was willing to go and sell the phonograph for Thomas Edison outside of the United States. He took a prototype of the Edison talking machine and went to China and India and sold several thousand of those over the course of about two years.
When he came back, he took those winnings and started a mail-order catalog that competed with the Sears catalog in the South side of Chicago called Babson Brothers. That sold everything from sundries and fabric and things like that to dairy equipment and other farming equipment. He was selling a piece of equipment that he realized was not that great. It was difficult to clean. There was some sanitation issues. It would taint the central plant of the milk if you didn’t have clean vulcanized rubber tubes and things. He ultimately invented and patented and then sold the majority of the world’s dairy equipment called Surge Dairy Products for a period of about 50 years. In the‘70s, we had a liquidity event when we sold that to Westphalia which is a German conglomerate. The proceeds from that sale lead to the core assets that we have now.
Our core asset is based on agricultural holdings that we have, which are mostly in North Central Illinois. We have a bunch of farms that grow corn and soybeans up in North Central Illinois. Then we have supporting operating businesses or products and services that we use ourselves. Then we said, “We can do this in-house and then we can also help our neighbors as well.” Those are everything from a captive crop insurance company to a tiling company, which is a drainage situation to bin storage and some trucking and transportation and then GIS mapping services. Those are the types of things that we do for our customers and that’s what we’re trying to do. When you say who do we serve? The question for me is the constituents are the family themselves. That’s everybody that is a lineal descendant of Henry Babson.
Then there are also the employees that we have that worked within these businesses and then the partners that we have. We have operating partners that manage and work on all these farms. We have to make sure that we’re being smart about doing what we can and helping the family members achieve what it is that they want with the proceeds of these businesses. Then also making sure that the employees are happy and that the operating partners are happy. Then the end-user is for us, we don’t see that down the chain, but we’re selling this corn and soybeans out to either ethanol plants or to the elevator, to the river, on the futures market.
Here in the office, I met a nice lady in the front. We chatted beforehand and you said you guys had a discussion about the firsthand success that Babson had when he went to China. I understand that there was a small hiccup.
When he was making the cylinders, this was the RCA Victrola which ultimately won is what everybody thinks of when they think of a record, that flat desk. Edison had a play on a cylinder on a drum. That was the way that he was trying to record the music. When he knew he was going to go to China, Henry Babson went to Chinatown in Chicago and recorded what he thought was somebody so that they could demonstrate the efficacy of this product in China. What he did is he recorded Cantonese Chinese versus Mandarin Chinese. When he went over, everybody looked at him quizzically and he couldn’t figure out why this wasn’t working. He found out that it was the wrong dialect that he recorded it. He had to come all the way back to the United States to record in Mandarin. That was a little hiccup, but I guess one learns to adapt and overcome those exciting moments.
You don’t just stand up and go to China and then you get to go, “I’m going to go and sell in China and I don’t speak the language.” He also, with success, got involved in the horse market. We were chatting about just the logistics of what he was trying to do. It was in the Arabian market.
When he was traveling, he fell in love with a type of horse, the Arabian horse, and decided that if he would ever made it big, he was going to try and bring Arabian horses to the United States. When he did get some success, he went and traveled around the world and went to several different countries to try and find the right stock and ultimately ended up with six mares and two stallions that became known as the Babson Blood or Babson breed of the Arabian horse in the United States. It took him years to find those horses and he had to travel all over the world to find them. When he came back and finally did get them here, it was this hand wringing that took months because to get them from a boat to a train to a truck to get them to the ultimate farm that he had in Dixon, Illinois was a real process.
Then after breeding them, it was another several years to see whether or not these were things that people thought were going to demonstrate the right characteristics to be the right Western Pleasure Saddlebred horses. His process was a demonstration of patience and of intestinal fortitude. It ended up being a very successful operation and it arched and crested with about 110 horses in the stables. Then the world moved on past the Babson Blood and ultimately decided to look for other characteristics. There is still a lot of Babson Blood that’s out there that’s crossbred, but there aren’t that many purebred Babson’s anymore.
Obviously, he took the long view. It’s still evident today because Babson is still here.
That’s our goal. We try to think generationally. We try to think not about what we can do in the next year or three years or five years, but what’s going to happen in 20 years, 50 years, and 100 years. One of the old saws about the land they don’t make it anymore is the reason that we still continue to hold onto these agricultural holdings. I don’t think you’ll see us sell out of them for the next twenty generations.
You’re fifth generation?
I’m Gen Four.
We were chatting about the family office similarities. You had an old axiom about family offices.
It’s funny because when you see one family office, you see one. Every family office is very different and some families have huge dispersion and many, many family members and some are very small. We’re on the small side of things. Even through Gen Four and Gen Five, we’re still in the single digits as far as lineal descendants. If you compare that with some of the bigger families that everybody knows whether that’s the Pritzkers, the Rockefellers or the Coors family here in Denver or anything, those folks are numbering in the hundreds in many cases. They come with their own set of problems and having a small, very focused group of constituents also comes with its own excitement.
For a lot of folks, they run their business for their customers. For you, you’re running the business for not only these family members, but future family members. What’s it like to take and operate in that environment?
It’s a responsibility that I take very seriously. It’s difficult because there are times when you feel as though everybody knows that your heart’s in the right place and you’re trying to do the right thing, but just because of the added dynamic of trying to run a business and trying to create additional wealth on behalf of other people that don’t have the opportunity to participate. They feel as though they’re passively watching, but being able to judge your successes from the sidelines, it’s tricky. Taking on that responsibility at the beginning, it had a detrimental impact on my relationship with my brothers to a certain extent in that some of the baggage that came with them knowing me as a brother for my whole life and knowing where my capabilities were and where my weaknesses were as well, that was something that made them anxious and the change that occurred made them anxious. The good news has been through probably way more luck than through my own ability, we’ve had a pretty good run of things. The level of changes has dropped dramatically over the last couple of years. As we settled into the groove and the dust has settled, everybody has become much more comfortable with the path forward and this strategy that we’ve articulated about how we are going to continue to grow this business.
The change from the original Babson and Victrola and I think it was on wax that they did the recording. We now have internet and digital. Over the lifespan of Babson, we’ve gone from rudimentary technology to incredible technology. You’re in charge with seeing the future, trying to take advantage of where an opportunity might occur in the future and you’re also in charge with day-to-day operations. What do you do on a daily basis or how do you take and populate your mind with the stuff that allows you to get 100-foot view, a day-to-day view? What do you do?
I’m a believer in the more things change, the more they stay the same in some ways. One of the things that we focus on is on the day-to-day side, it still comes down to relationships with family members, with the employees, with the operating partners and with ultimately our end-users. The level of loyalty and respect and creating an environment that is a place that people want to come to work is all still going to be there forever. That piece will always stay the same. The way that things have evolved as it relates to things like technology, we do a lot to try and stay informed about and abreast of different technologies certainly within the ag space but also just another investment spaces. We pilot these new technologies that are trying to be predictive as far as picking the characteristics of the seed that we use. We do precision farming to the extent that we are sending out soil samples every year so that we know exactly how much of the different nutrients that we have in the soil, P and K, and we know what kind of fungicide and herbicide we should be applying and in what capacity. That changes from acre to acre on the fields because depending on the undulations and the amount of water that is leaching those off of the fields, that impacts it very differently from one corner to another.
The level of loyalty and respect and creating an environment that is a place that people want to come to work is going to be there forever.
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We’re also very comfortable with the idea that we’re stewards of this land. We make the additional investments to try and do things like keeping the waterways clean and being above the EPA standards as it relates to fertilizer going into the watershed. We are the gold standard as far as how we keep it measured and keep it under control on the properties that we own. Then as far as the investment side, I am a big believer in the fact that the world is going to continue to evolve and it’s going to continue to change much, much faster than it ever has before. I’m leaving to go to Austin to go to South by Southwest to go to the Intelligent Future Track of that.
I go to conferences and symposia several times a year to try and stay on top of those types of new technologies and how one can invest in and benefit from those technologies. We, as a family on the investment side, have invested everything from Blockchain to driverless cars to technologies that are being created outside of the United States. We have invested specifically in countries like Israel where they do have this startup nation component to them. We’re trying to be smart about how we invest and maybe getting a little bit out of the tracks of equities and fixed income and looking at alternative investments, looking at direct investments in private equity and real estate.
You do have a background. You worked in that industry prior to this job.
I worked in a couple of mutual fund companies involved in product development there. Then I was an investment banker doing mergers and acquisitions for a period of about twelve years.
You’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly?
You have language skills?
I do have some language skills. I was a French major in college, which was helpful once in my life, which I was in a Boston market. I was ordering two rotisserie chickens and the ladies in the back were from Haiti and I heard them saying to each other in French like, “That fat bleepity-bleep needs two chickens.” I was able to say to them in French, “I speak French and it’s for a dinner party.” It helped me then. It’s a little tongue in cheek. I lived in Paris for eighteen months after I worked in the mutual fund industry for about five years.
You take that timeframe and you were in Paris, what effect do you think that had on your perspective and behavior in your current role?
It was a wonderful time to be there. I was able to take a step away from being in the work grind. I took cooking classes and art classes and I wrote a book then that was published in the United States later. I was able to touch on some of the components of life. It’s hard to find the time to balance when you work in business and when you have a family and all the rest of that stuff. It was a nice departure for me. It was also nice to get back into the mix as well.
When we were chatting and all of us had bucket lists and probably one of the things they may not know about you is your most recent performance.
I’m hesitant to say, but I’ve always enjoyed stand-up comedy. I did a two-minute set at the Comedy Works here at Larimer Square in Denver. It was just a kick. It was one of the greatest experiences as far as when you get that first laugh up on stage and you hear 200 people enjoying what you’re talking about and it’s something that was your own joke or your own idea. That’s pretty powerful. I’m definitely on the docket to do it again.
You wrote a book and you did comedy and both of them have an element of a hook. I think about the skill set to do that. That application when you’re working, you were talking about culture. Trying to preserve the culture of your organization and communication skills between France, the book, and in comedy, do you think those are benchmarks or indicators of the culture that you’re trying to keep going?
There are times when in this business, there are conflicts. Comedy is a terrific way to diffuse when tensions are very high in a room. I’m proud of the fact that even though there’ll be times when it has to be confrontational, when you’re unhappy about something that’s happened, when you’re at the place where both sides are about ready to have some détente, it’s nice to be able to diffuse that a little bit with a joke, get everybody to calm down and realize that the world still turns and all that stuff. That’s certainly a technique that I’ve employed for a long time. I would also argue that people should want to go to work and that creating an environment that people feel like is collegial and that they can laugh and share stories and enjoy each other’s company is important to the culture of the organization. I hope that my jokes aren’t too corny or aren’t too offensive or don’t do anything to make anybody feel uncomfortable. I always try and infuse a little bit of humor into every meeting.
That’s one of the things when we chatted on the phone first time and I’ve gone like, “I think we’re going to get on because you have a good sense of humor.” You’re an imposing figure. How tall are you?
A 6’5” guy who has written a child book, comedy and CEO, I would say that’s not a normal combination. You’re widely read. What is the most recent book or influential book that’s altered your perception on your job?
I read a book that I enjoy giving out copies to other people called Against the Gods and it’s the remarkable story of risk by a guy named Peter Bernstein. When I think about my role as a CEO, in a lot of ways, it’s Chief Risk Officer. It’s trying to determine after you’ve articulated the strategy and so on, how you are going to navigate the risks that are inherent in the business? For us, there are everything from Mother Nature to commodity pricing to execution risk to personal liability in the event of using big equipment that’s out there, planning or cutting or tiling or doing whatever it is that we do. This book is a great example of how the notion of bringing risk in our control and it’s distinguished in the modern times from the distant past. While I can’t claim that all of our future risks can be understood, measured and predicted, it does a good job of crystallizing where we are by understanding where we’ve been.
Everything from probability theory to statistical sampling to other diverse activities that it’s everything for testing new drugs to stock picking to wine tasting to the development of business, forecasting and game theory, insurance and derivatives. Those are all things that have helped us think through our investment strategy and if you try to understand how the great minds of the past tried to quantify those risks, it’s an interesting book to consider. Our core assets, we have a crop insurance company, we trade our own agricultural commodities on the futures and options market. It was in engaging and provocative exposé on risk takers that are the true humanists helping to release mankind from the chokeholds of superstition and fatalism.
I think about what you populate your mind with. You’re a bright guy from what I can ferret out online. You’ve got some IQ advantages from what I see. Your exposure to language and education and coming here and risk theory and doing M&A and all of these things and yet you’re faced with this multitude of timeframe view, and being enough of an expert in multiple disciplines. I think about your day to day coming in to the office in your focus, do you find that that stays here or does that go home with you?
It goes home with me for sure. I don’t think that I take it too far home. I’m a lifelong learner. I love learning. I love being on top of what’s happening in the world, whether it’s geopolitical stuff or it’s trends that are affecting the business or it’s keeping track of pop culture or sports or whatever the things are. I’m always hungry and thirsty for more of that knowledge. When I get home, there is a lot of time talking and cogitating and reading and doing things that are still probably related to the things that I do at work, but for me, it’s almost more about being a human. I feel like if you don’t have that curiosity, if you’re not always trying to figure out what’s happening in the world around you, that you’re on the road to decline.
You have a six-year-old son at home that helps you with that.
The chip off the old block part of this is his teacher say that we need to get him more stories. We need more less non-fiction, more stories. He’s a voracious fact-gatherer and whether it’s sharks or scorpions or rocks and minerals or whatever it is, he wants to know every single thing about it and he wants to be able to tell you about it. They want him to focus more on the creative side because they say he knows more about igneous and sedimentary and metamorphic rocks than anybody else and he’s in kindergarten. He’s got time to pick up on all that stuff. Let’s get him thinking more on the creative side.
Do you see some vestiges of the original Babson coming out?
You look at your kids and you go, “I wouldn’t have thought that.” Looking back, either here or in prior times of failure and what appeared to be a failure, has that served you or your company best or set you up for future achievement and if so, why?
We have some farms out in Virginia and those farms, for whatever reasons, seem like they’re always under a dark cloud. If it’s not the drought, it’s the flood and if it’s not the flood, it’s the hail and if it’s not the hail, it’s the plague of frogs or whatever the thing is for that year. For us, the hard part about that is we were custom-farming then and that means that we were paying fee for service to have that planted and harvested and everything and the guy that we had as an operator, I always felt like we were looking over his shoulder too much and he felt like he could do it better if he had done it on his own. What seemed like a very daunting, difficult row to hoe there, we took his enthusiasm and his confidence in himself and we said, “If you think you can do better than us, let’s do a complete reallocation of risk here and let’s turn this into a cash rent farm,” which means that we’re strictly landlord collecting rent and allowing him the opportunity to buy all our equipment, buy all our cattle, and run it the way that he wants to run it.
As long as he’s making enough money to pay our rent, we’re comfortable with him doing that on our property. It took a situation that was a very volatile farm for us that usually was to the negative and turned it into something that was a cash generator that also had completely removed the risk from him. For me, the takeaway from that is if you are a creative thinker and you’re wondering about how you can take a look at the current situation that you have, if you take yourself out of the lane of how you’re thinking about these little incremental changes, and instead, think about maybe changing the entire arrangement around, you can take a negative and turn it into a positive. The truth is, he’s happier now because he’s the master of his own domain and he can do what he chooses to do. We’re happier now because even though we don’t ever have a chance to make any real upside on him, we’ve certainly protected ourselves to the downside and our relationship with him is much more collegial now that he’s not a hired gun and instead, he’s a tenant and a partner.
I think about putting your hat on backwards. You’re like, “We’ll look at this. Now, we’ll look at it the other way.” It’s awesome and I’m sure he’s just thrilled because the better he does, the better does. For you, if you could put an ad on page one of the local papers, share your company’s message, your advice, what would it say and why?
It takes a lifetime to build a reputation and a minute to ruin it.
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I think about Will Rogers and the quote, “It takes a lifetime to build a reputation and a minute to ruin it.” That’s the message that at least from the business side that we want to continue to project. I’m very proud of the fact that we have five tenants that have been with us for over 50 years, two of them are over 75 years. Those are multi-generational partners that we’ve had and the reason that we’ve had them is because we’re fair. We treat people with respect and dignity. We listened to their suggestions and we either agree or disagree, but we always come to a common ground. Because of that, we get the best farmers. We also are in the fortunate position where we can get the best dirt from a productive index perspective and I think we get the best employees as well. The great news is when you’re talking about the small little neck of the world that we’re in up in North Central Illinois, everybody that’s been there for any amount of time knows about the Babson Farms and knows that that is the gold standard upon which all their farms should be measured and because of that, we see the best deals, we see things first and it’s become this flywheel of success. I have very little that I’ve contributed to that. I’m standing on the shoulders of folks that have built that reputation over the last 100 years or so. It is absolutely imperative to me that we continue down that road because that’s the right way to do business.
You didn’t stick your finger in the pie either and mess it up. It’s funny for a lot of folks who’s working so well, we decided to change it. I think about integrity and reputation and you guys had been around for a long time. In your exposure to other family office operations, do you know very many family office operations that have been around as long as you guys have?
In the United States, the answer is no. There’s a saying that’s true in almost every language, which is slightly different, but paraphrased it’s, “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.” It’s to say the founder makes it, the son or daughter tries hard not to lose it, but in so doing doesn’t do anything to grow the business or stagnates the business and the Gen Three, usually who doesn’t have a connection to it, does something to lose all the money. They go back to where they were before the generative dream that occurred. There are some families here that are five, six generations into. We have a fifth generation that’s born. I’m very proud of the fact that we are able to weather those storms and that we have through just good familial communication and documentation and celebration and all the governance that we have, maintained a reasonably successful business that also supports everybody’s dreams and aspirations as they continue to grow.
I look at places like Europe where you have some families that are sixteen, seventeen, eighteen generations and it’s a funny perspective when you see a family that’s owned a vineyard since 1200 or since. It reminds me of a funny story. I was on an archaeological dig in Turkey one time and I was talking to a fellow who was from Bodrum in Turkey. He was saying he loved nautical archeology, he loved to go on wreck dives. I said, “I’ve been on one wreck dive in the Florida Keys. There’s a Spanish guy and it’s there and it’s pretty neat to see a boat that’s that old. He said to me, “I don’t like to go on modern dives. Anything about 1492 and later to me is too modern.” As a citizen of the United States, thinking about the fact that 300 years before we declared independence for him is still way, way too modern. It’s a funny way to look at things.
They have an institutional memory. I was in Budapest and we had a guide and the guide was talking about, “The Turks did this and the Turks did that.” I said, “When did the Turks do that?” He said, “600 years ago?” I was like, “You all got a long memory.” For you, what’s the best allocation, either time or initiative that’s helped you or your company most and why?
When I first started looking at how I can be helpful, one of the things that we didn’t have a cohesive strategy on was portfolio construction asset allocation. We had this core asset that was in the agricultural world and then other than that, it was willy-nilly stocks and bonds and there wasn’t a lot of communication amongst different managers. There was a lot of duplication of efforts and things like that. One of the things that has been terrific over the last several years is me as quarterback getting to build that portfolio construction and asset allocation to include lots of other types of assets to diversify out of the long-only equities and fixed income and some farmland. Then also to make sure that everybody knows what seat they have on the bus and that they’re fulfilling the roles that they have.
Even if they are underperforming in relation to other managers, as long as they’re staying and doing what it is that they said that they’re doing and they’re performing in line with the benchmarks that we’ve said and things like that, that we are in a more holistic, thoughtful place than we were eight years ago, ten years ago. That initiative has been very helpful. We’ve been in a pretty darn good investment environment for those eight years. Even if I wasn’t doing a great job, I think you’d still see that there were some pretty good numbers that have gone up. We were in a place now where I feel like there’s a little bit of science to it. We’re being smart about correlations, were being smart about the way that we’ve invested and who we’ve invested with and most importantly that all those folks know what all the other folks are doing so that there aren’t duplicative efforts and there aren’t any concentration issues.
When I think about the farmer, they could be the world’s best farmer and you have a drought, it didn’t matter. You look at that guy and you go, “You expect them to grow a crop with no water.” Those guys, they work harder in a drought year than they do obviously in a good year. Many folks would be well advised to consider what you had to say there. Over the past three years, what belief or protocol have you put in the company that has most impacted you or your company’s success?
The attitude of gratitude. We’ve talked about that a little bit before. My predecessor was maybe a little bit of a harder touch. When things were going great, he said that that was what he expected and when things weren’t going well, he was upset about that. To me there’s real value to being transparent and being present and making sure that everybody realizes how much you appreciate the efforts that they’re making. We had an employee appreciation event here in Denver. I flew all the folks from Illinois out and we went to the Stock Show and went to the PBR semi-finals this year and everybody had nice dinners and all that stuff. That was one of the first times that they’d all been invited outside of Illinois. We’ve done some employee appreciation stuff there. We’ve done other employee appreciation events with the operating partners and because of the milestones that I mentioned, the 50 years of service and the 75 years of service and partnership, we had an event where they all got Lucite plaques and they got photos and they got a thank you note from me and from the folks that have been their primary contacts at the office in DeKalb and cakes and all the rest of that stuff.
It was the first time that we’d ever done anything to commemorate, memorialize the fact that they’ve been such great operating partners for so long. That’s another example. The third one that I like is we as a family have been very philanthropic forever, but we’ve usually done it in the communities in which we live and work. One of the things that we had been remiss in doing was supporting the community where our farms are, where we are generating capital. Over the last few years, we’ve given to a forage and to the cattle farm bureau and to lots of other areas that need support and assistance within the community where a lot of our operations are and that’s been very appreciated by the county and by the outlying counties that we’re also invested in.
That’s extraordinarily proactive and not only did you take your employees here, but I’m sure the folks that your partners back there hearing from the locals as well, will appreciate what you guys are doing. What would you say is your most unusual habit or what others may consider out of the ordinary that’s helped you or your company most and why?
I think the stand-up comedy. If we go back to that, using humor to defuse situations or to try and create a community or culture has been pretty appreciated amongst the folks. Everybody’s keenly interested to know how it went and see the video of it and all the rest of that stuff. The hardest part has been honestly on the stand up. My mother is fascinated that I did this and she’s very curious to see the video of my performance. There are a couple of jokes in it that are a little bit blue that I’m loathed to share with her because I can’t imagine sitting next to my mother watching her watch this video and hearing her son say these things. I probably am overblowing how blue and dirty it is.
There’s this hope with a second career if this one doesn’t work out. What advice would you offer a new CEO that’s assuming the role of CEO for the first time?
The easiest piece of advice that everybody needs to follow is it’s a marathon, not a sprint. What I’ve done well is I’m very organized. I developed this thing called a heat map and the heat map for me shows six categories of family education and governance and investments and risk. As you look down those, I have the rows across those columns that are done, hot, short-term, mid-term and long-term. If you fill out that map that way, that’s a great way to articulate your strategy to show people what has happened, what is happening soon, what’s going to happen down the pike.
Everybody can start to follow that vision and they can see how the progress is going and then it’s also easy to know what’s teed up for next. Knowing that this is a generational thinking and some of those long-term thoughts are five years out there, I think that helps me set strategy and figure out how to do things on a daily basis but also look at the bigger picture. I’ll always be able to take a step back. The employees get that as well as well as the family constituents. We have quarterly phone calls and we have a couple of meetings in person a year and one of the things that we always start with that’s a touchstone for us is this heat map so that they can see, did he do what he said he was going to do and what is coming up next.
As you look at the business, there’s that distinction between in the business and on the business. If you were to look at the allocation of your time, how much is in and how much is on it?
I’m probably 70-30 in and on. There is still a lot of day-to-day stuff that has to happen and we’ve got to keep the trains running on time, but to be able to think about the strategy and how we’re going to try and grow this and how we can be thoughtful about it, it’s not an insignificant amount of my time.
For many, so busy with the in that the on just get shuffled to the sideline and you’re always thinking about your Paris timeframe. If you know you could take an eighteen-month timeframe right now and then come back, I wonder what kind of things that would strike you for on the businesses and in the business. You don’t have the luxury, but it sounded good. If I can tell the constituents, “I’ll be checking back in eighteen months, don’t worry about it. I’ll be back.” What’s the most common misconception about you or your role as CEO?
There are some family members that aren’t exactly sure what happens on a daily basis and that I’m a traffic director, that I’m quarterbacking, but ultimately delegating. Every good CEO is good at delegating and figures out how to empower their employees to do what they’re supposed to do. The misconception is that somehow I don’t have projects to be working on, that I’m not busy working in the business or on the business. Thinking about grander strategies, thinking about global strategy is something that I wish that everybody knew was an exercise that I was engaged in and also that was an exercise that ultimately bears fruit.
The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.
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It’s very hard, I think for people that don’t do what you do and haven’t done what you do to appreciate. Let’s say you make a decision to do A versus B, and then you had the angst that, I have a handful of people looking over my shoulder. I think I’m right, but I could be wrong and says then it’s compounded because if I’m wrong, you have additional input. You go, “Percentage-wise, I better have more rights than wrong.” I think the part that folks don’t get is the angst of the decision process. Looking back over the past three years, what would or should you have said no to and why?
I don’t mean to make this sound weird, but I take more meetings than I ought to. I have this innate feeling that I should help everybody. I have people that realize that hopefully I give pretty okay advice and my willingness to help and to make introductions and because of experience in the past in investment banking, I know a lot of privately held businesses in Colorado and I know a lot of the service providers and professionals that are in accounting or in finance or in legal or wherever it is. There are a lot of folks that try to mine me for ideas or intel or job placement or whatever it is. I take a bunch of those meetings. When I look at my calendar, there are some times when I’m diverted away from what it is that I need to do more than the job at hand. I need to be a better curator of those meetings and making sure that I’m not doing a disservice to the business by trying to save the world.
Interestingly enough in my past, I was a direct report to a general officer twice and so much of that, it was like focusing the canon. A great deal of the job was protecting his calendar from this very same thing that you’re talking about. It happens everywhere to everyone. It’s a hard thing to do. The day-to-day operation of your company as CEO, what’s the personal habit or self-talk dialogue that keeps you and the company focused?
I am an absolutely rabid list maker. I make lists and then I make a list about the lists I need to make. It’s the way that I keep myself focused and that I know how to prioritize these things. The heat map is the global list and then I have a weekly list and then I have a daily list and I make poor Meredith right up her list so that I know what she’s doing and when we debrief on a daily basis, it’s what are the eight things that you have to do now and how are these six things going to get done if I don’t do this? I wish I could say that I was digital and that it was somehow I was using the Nexus of technology in my brain to figure out how to make this seamless and all that stuff, but I have Word documents that I fill out every day.
If you have a power outage, you have no degradation of operation. I would tell folks that in the digital world, you’re very secure. How do people reach out to you in social media if they want to say hello or talk to you about Babson Farms?
I am not a big Twitter. I’m on LinkedIn. My email is Taylor@BabsonFarms.com.The other way that people reach me from time to time is I am very involved in the philanthropic community. I serve on a number of boards, nonprofits here in town and if you are ever interested in getting in touch with me through those avenues, that’s another easy way to get in touch with me.
What is a quote for you that you find meaningful or one that you use frequently?
I have a little note that I keep on my desk and it is, “The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it,” by a guy named William James. It speaks to the legacy piece that we’re talking about. I wear this mantle and take this responsibility very seriously that I am a small cog in this wheel that has been successful for a long period of time. If there’s one thing that we can all do to leave a mark on the community and make it a better place than once when we found it and whether that’s through philanthropic service or whether that’s through supporting the employees and the operating partners and the family and the other constituents that we have or continuing to build on the reputation of greatness that was originally established by my great grandfather, those are the things to me that are the drivers. When I read that, it puts into perspective that we’re all here for a pretty short time and you don’t have that much time to make an impact on the world. If you can do something that will outlast yourself, that’s the legacy that you leave.
Anybody that has been successful in the ag, the last thing you want to be is a bad steward because the ground is going to be there after you’re gone. I think about that just as a thought process that permeates your family, because obviously it’s not just your generation, it was your uncle before and before. If colleagues were asked what you’re best at, what would they say and how do you utilize that strength on a day-to-day basis?
One of my favorite sayings and it’s a great way to under promise and hopefully over deliver is I always tell people, “I’m chock-full of bad ideas,” but every once in a while one will squeak out it’s not terrible. A lot of people use me as a sounding board or an advisor or somebody that they can lean on to say, “I’ve got this business dilemma. I’m trying to buy this thing and I’m looking for a creative way to structure it or I need to figure out how the capital stock works if I’m going to try and finance this or I want to figure out this dilemma that I have with this particular employee or whatever it is. I love being that advisor.
I love being that person to try and come up with creative solutions or to try and ask them questions that they need to be asking themselves so they can arrive at the best answer on their own or figure out ways that I can participate in helping them get to the right decision. The fact that I have this varied background and that I can synthesize information from a lot of disparate sources and that I’ve been involved with some of the ins and outs on structuring and on negotiating and on pricing and on financial engineering and on investment management and M&A work and all the rest of that stuff, I have this solid base of acumen and then hopefully have the creative thinking as well that allows for good decisions to ultimately percolate from those discussions.
Before you assumed this role, was your career path driving toward this role?
I would say that I was never scheming to have this be the answer, but I followed paths that I thought would ultimately be helpful for this role. When you think about the investment banking and the investment management before that and I worked as an accountant in charge of disbursements at a law firm and I worked on the Chicago Board of Trade on the Agricultural Commodities Floor to learn about futures and options and how to trade those and so on, all those different components in and of themselves wouldn’t put you in a position to be qualified for this role. In the aggregate, it makes a pretty compelling narrative to say that if you follow the logic on all that, that I would be a likely candidate for that role.
I think about that as people prepare for roles and sometimes it’s on overt, you’ve been preparing for this role all your life. I quizzed you pretty much to death and we still haven’t got a joke, but that’s okay. We’ll find that video somewhere. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your time and your candor. I appreciate the difficulty of your role in trying to take care of a lot of varied group of customers and taking time out of the middle of your day has been awesome. I sure appreciate your time.
Bob, it’s my pleasure. I really appreciate it. Thank you.
About Taylor Kirkpatrick
Taylor is President and Chief Executive Officer of Babson Farms Inc., a family office overseeing operating businesses in agriculture and insurance, diverse real estate investments, mineral interests and public and private equity investments.
Taylor was named to his current position in 2011. In the years since, Babson Farms has been involved in the development of real estate holdings and made direct investments into private equity and alternative investments on behalf of a multi-generational single family with offices in four states. Taylor gained a deep knowledge of financial services working in management and consulting roles at Putnam Investments and New England Funds / CDC-Ixis (now Natixis) in Boston. After a sabbatical in Paris, Taylor repatriated to Denver (his hometown) to pursue work in mergers and acquisitions – first at WG Nielsen & Co, where he worked for close to a decade, and later as a founder of St. Vrain Partners, Ltd.
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