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For True Leaders, Anything is Possible

Feb 20th 2015, Legacy By Design

Chad Olsen, shown here with wife Pam and their family, has a can-do attitude that helped him restart his farm after a devastating fire left him with nothing but unpaid bills."Go ahead."

Yes, anything is possible for Chad Olsen

“Go ahead.” It’s a simple motto, and a very clear message for Chad, Pam, and the crew at Olsen Custom Farms. ‘Go ahead’ stems from their radio talk. It’s the way they commonly respond to inquiries on the CB radio. For these American farmers it also means, “Yes, anything is possible.”

Olsen’s Custom Farms is one of our nation’s largest custom harvest operations, running fifty combines and as many work crews.  It’s a family operation, owned by Chad and his wife, Pam. They employ his brothers---Travis, the company accountant, and Corey, a diesel mechanic. Olsen’s Custom Farms is home-based in Hendricks, Minn., where these agri-preneurs also have a rental division, offer other custom farming work, own/operate fifteen truck and trailer rigs, and personally farm 5,000 acres of grain.

Olsen’s operation custom harvests wheat, milo, canola, corn and soybeans. Their season starts in early spring with the wheat crop in Texas and winds up in southern Canada just before the family heads home for the Thanksgiving Holiday.

Starting from scratch

Keep in mind, Chad didn’t start out with several combines, multiple work teams, a home farm, and a trucking business. He started from scratch and, there were times when it may have been easier to give up than to go ahead.

He began farming in 1987, milking 15 cows in a barn he rented from his parents. As soon as he could afford it, he bought his own place, and built a new milking barn.

He expanded his herd to 60 cows and, for a time, the future looked very promising. That is, until the fire.

“Sixty-three days after I moved into my new barn, it burned down," Chad explains. "I lost everything - cows, calves, equipment, and feed stocks. Everything I’d worked so hard to build went up in smoke.”

Suddenly Chad was deep in debt, with no means to pay his loans; all collateral was lost.

But rather than an excuse to quit, the fire became a defining moment. It had cost him everything except his pride and the determination not to let this disaster define him.

“Bankruptcy wasn’t an option," he explains. "That scar [of unpaid obligations] would hang over my head for the rest of my life.”

To satisfy his debts and save enough to start over, he drove truck, took on a school bus route and did any odd jobs that might provide a paycheck. On the way back up, he started renting whatever pieces of ground were available. Chad purchased a combine and started doing some custom work for the neighboring farms---and the rest, as they say, is history.

So where does a person learn the fortitude and gather the strengths to carry-on through the ‘impossible’? This industrious farmer went from dairy farmer to custom operator, quite by accident. “I could drive a pretty good piece of equipment, and get paid for doing it,” he realized. “I started doing custom work, and the business just took off from there.”

Leadership is not a learned trait. The character of a leader and the ability to manage risk develops over time. Leaders are first learners. They develop the basics; learning about business development, money management and team building. They develop relationships and grow the foundation necessary to build something bigger than self. Then, they invest the time and hone their craft until it becomes second nature. Professional development includes active participation in learning experiences, mentor or protégé relationships, and delivering specific results.

In the corporate world, leaders are well seasoned before they assume a titled leadership role. They go through management development programs to earn the experience, education, and skills necessary to lead. For the family farm, professional development is no less important. In fact, there’s a lot more riding on the leader’s ability, and simple mistakes can have devastating effects for the entire family.

This monthly column will focus on leadership and leadership development as an integral part of a comprehensive succession plan. Topics will include leadership profiles, professional development, mentoring, assessments, and team building for the farm business.

For Chad the lessons continue. As a business owner, he is fully involved in the day-to-day. As a father, husband, son and brother, he’s family oriented and focused on the responsibilities that feed the soul.

Leadership is not something you do; it's who you are.


Published as ''For True Leaders, Anything is Possible", by Kevin Spafford for "Farm Futures" magazine, February 2015.

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