The Van Vleck family on the ranch
Photo: Brian Baer

The irony of the situation is not lost on Stan Van Vleck, president of Van Vleck Ranch in Rancho Murieta, just east of Sacramento.  One of the issues that they had hoped to address by joining the effort to form Family Business Center is the very thing that almost cost the Van Vleck family its business.

In 2000, Stan’s father was unexpectedly killed in an accident on the family’s property, leaving the family without its patriarch and the business without a leader.  Stan Sr. had been the fourth generation at the helm of Van Vleck Ranch, a leading sustainable producer of high-quality Angus and Wagyu beef served at such notable establishments as The French Laundry, but had not yet determined a final succession plan in the event of this death, which came too soon.

In 2005, understanding the need for family businesses to have a dedicated resource from where to learn about estate planning, taxes, engaging the next generation and succession, the Van Vlecks were one of the founding families of FBC.   They knew all too well the importance of having a good succession plan because, with the passing of Stan Sr. five years before, they were still battling to keep their business alive.

The next generation was left to pick up the pieces and battle through establishing a new leadership model at the company, most of which left the business in shambles and the family fragmented and communicating around non-disclosure agreements.  Stan, having since bought out his family members, will recount his journey, how he was able to take their generic beef to an ultra-premium product, and how he plans to reorganize the business to improve its chance for his children, who are set to succeed him, at FBC’s next Family Business Forum on April 17.

“One of the most valuable things I’ve learned to do through FBC is to have a good succession plan and to communicate well within the family.  I also have grown to appreciate that it’s much less painful to learn from the mistakes of others.  This is the time to share our experiences, including mistakes, to hopefully help FBC members avoid the serious challenges we faced,” commented Van Vleck.

At the event, Van Vleck will review the major turning points along his path to rebuilding, including growing the business tenfold, and advise on best practices to reinvent, diversify, or even transition, if that becomes necessary, your business.

Van Vleck acknowledges that conducting business in California can sometimes be economically challenging, especially for those like his that are operating off of California’s higher costs but selling at average national prices, which is why he urges FBC members to work towards changing rules that impede business.

To him, the toughest part of running a family business is actually keeping the business in the family.  He feels a responsibility to leave a company that has the potential for long-term success in an industry that is exciting and attractive to his children, Tori and Christian.  “Although it is the hardest aspect, it is also the most important.  Almost all of my energy right now is focused on that.”

He stresses the importance of the next generation, no matter the business, doing what they are passionate about.  That requires communication, emotional and psychological honesty, flexible thinking and a willingness to accept an outcome that may differ from your ideal. “Once you clarify that yourself, it becomes pretty easy to see the right decisions to make.”

In times of frustration, Van Vleck need look no further than the covered wagon that rests on the family ranch.  To him, it serves as a reminder of the work ethic, prudence, sacrifice, and desire to create something significant that drove his Dutch ancestors west from Wisconsin over 160 years ago.  As he prepares the sixth generation to take the reins of the evolving company, he knows he will be comforted by the work the family had done to establish an achievable succession plan.

To learn more about Van Vleck Ranch and the family’s story of succession and reinvention, attend FBC’s Family Business Forum on April 17, 2018.