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Interview: Roy Brown: From Law to the Family Cattle Business

Brown Roy Brown's father is a legend in the cattle feeding business. Yet Brown initially opted for a career as a lawyer focused on agricultural bankruptcies. Only in 1995, at his father's request, did Brown return to the family business, Cattle Empire. In recent years, management of the business has been smoothly transferred to Brown from his father after Brown first spent a few years learning the ropes. Indeed, Brown's story makes for an excellent case study of a successful transfer of a family business from one generation to the next.

Brown says that he does not regret for one day getting his law degree, and that his degree has undoubtedly helped him in almost every facet of running his business. In particular, as an agricultural bankruptcy attorney he learned a lot about what makes businesses succeed, what makes them fail, and the steps needed to return a business to profitability.

Read the full interview with Brown below.

JD Bliss (JDB):  For 10 years you’ve been CEO of Cattle Empire LLC, one of the largest family-owned cattle feeding operations in the country.  Yet you started your career, not in the company, but as an agricultural lawyer.  Why did you initially pursue a career in law?

Brown:  I did not want to return home to the family business straight out of law school.  It is important to me, and it was encouraged by my father, to establish my independence and work for someone else for a period of time.  At the time I was attending law school, my dad was young enough and the feedlot business was small enough that we really did not discuss opportunities to come home at that time.  I ended up doing agricultural bankruptcies because it not only utilized my strengths but that was where the jobs were when I graduated from Tulane Law School in 1984.  I joined a four-man partnership in Wichita upon my graduation from Tulane and focused in the area of agricultural bankruptcy law. 

JDB:  Did you find satisfaction in your career as a bankruptcy lawyer?

Brown:  Certainly I took satisfaction in working with my clients, helping them reorganize their businesses in ways that could help them stay in operation.  In almost 12 years of practice I learned what makes agricultural companies fail, and what makes them successful.  Unfortunately, my ideas sometimes didn’t coincide with my clients’, and it was frustrating to feel in so many situations like I knew what had to be done but had no final say to do it.  Ultimately I decided that it would be more profitable for me to go into business, thereby putting my ideas into practice.

JDB:  Was it an easy choice to join your family’s business, or did you consider alternatives?

Brown:  Even while I had my legal practice, I was somewhat involved in the affairs of Cattle Empire, but what really decided it for me was a fraud scheme that victimized my father and the company.  A partner in Alabama defrauded us and our customers of 6,000 head of cattle, and I spent three years trying to recover what we could.  My father’s reputation for integrity was unquestioned, so we got the financing we needed in order to continue and to repay our customers.  But that event led my father to approach me about joining him in the operation, and in 1995 I decided to do that – but on my own terms.

JDB:  Certainly working in a family business can be challenging even under the best of circumstances.  How did you structure those terms in a way that made you comfortable joining the company?

Brown:  I actually sat down and negotiated a written agreement between Cattle Empire and myself before I ever left my practice.  I had been a lawyer for almost 12 years, and for me to leave an established practice in Wichita and move to western Kansas to start a whole new career required some assurance for me and my wife on finances and succession.  My father and the family CPA, who is now my business partner, developed a transition plan in which I would learn the business by running an older feedlot outside of Satanta that had about one-third the number of cattle as the main yards.   I worked that feedlot for about a year, then in 1997 we merged it with my father’s two yards to form Cattle Empire LLC.  Again at that point we covered all the financial and management details with a written agreement, and when my father moved his office from the feedlots to the town six months after that it was a clear indication that the transition was in place.

JDB:  It’s one thing to have written agreements, but quite another to actually have a successful transition of authority.  Why do you think it worked in this instance?

Brown:  Unlike some entrepreneurs, my father had already undertaken to share authority, by inviting my older brother to take over some farming operations several years before I joined the company.  The written agreement and trial management assignment were important keys to showing I could do the job.  And we really made an effort to communicate, hold regular owners meetings to get all our opinions out on the table.  We didn’t always agree, but my father did the one thing it took to make the transition work:  allow me to act on my authority, even if he might not agree with what I wanted to do.

JDB:  In the 10 years since you assumed leadership of Cattle Empire, how has the company grown and developed?

Brown:  Since I took over in 1997 we’ve doubled our feedlot capacity to nearly 170,000 head of cattle.  We have three different feedlots, all of which are within 20 miles of each other and within 50 miles of four major meat packers.  Our operations have continued to be strong despite the ban of U.S. beef exports over the mad cow scare.  In 2004 we added responsibility for Santa Fe Trail Dairy, LLC, which milks over 5,000 cows each day.  My main focus recently has been to get a better feel for the dairy operations, which I believe will expand as we integrate it more with our overall activities.

JDB:  As CEO you’re responsible for the day-to-day operations of the company.  What does that involve?  Have you found your experience as a lawyer to be helpful to you?

Brown:  My biggest focus is on the management of our 200 employees.  We’re very involved in quality teams and related activities that give everybody a role in the operations, and orchestrating that takes much of my time.  Otherwise, I do a lot of work on things that have direct application to my legal training:  review of contracts, coordinating real estate closings, working with our outside attorneys.  One new area of focus for me that has been quite interesting has been water law; I’ve had to learn a lot about water rights and the allocation of water resources during the past 10 years.  In all of this my former bankruptcy practice has been invaluable, because it has kept my eye firmly on managing overhead so that we don’t overextend ourselves as we expand.

JDB:  Your initial involvement with Cattle Empire was the result of a step-by-step, analytical process.  Have you given similar thought to what lies ahead for your future in the business?

Brown:  I’ve very much enjoyed my role in building this organization, and looking 10 to 15 years down the road I think we will have grown to the point where no one person will be able to run everything.  That may involve selling some operations, or perhaps creating a larger senior management group.  For now, given that I’m 48 years old, I’ve no immediate plans for involving anyone else in business succession.  My father currently acts as Chairman of the Board of the company and oversees the various construction projects at the feed yards, and I’ll continue to run operations as CEO.   Because I think it was so important for me to work for someone else before joining the family business, I am trying to impress the same lesson on my own children if they should ever want to return home to the family business.

JDB:  Based on your own experience, what advice would you give to a practicing lawyer who would like to pursue a business career?

Brown:  One thing I would say is to allow for almost a year of transition time to wind up your practice and position your clients with other attorneys.  Moving to business responsibilities is a big change, and you should only do it in the context of how best to utilize your own strengths and what you’re really good at.   My bankruptcy law experience convinced me that I would have the knowledge to make an organization better, and that has really been my greatest source of satisfaction.  I think anyone who has a law degree should realize how much security and confidence it can give you to step out and try something new.  You can take on some risk, because if all else fails you can always go back to practicing law.  But by trying something new, and doing everything you can beforehand to minimize risk, you might find that your new direction makes you happier than you could have imagined.

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