Interview with Ian MacFarlane
IM- Ian MacFarlane | BM- Bill MacFarlane
IM: I’m honored to have Bill MacFarlane as my guest for today’s broadcast. Bill is president and owner of MacFarlane Pheasants. Welcome, Bill.
BM: Good morning.
IM: Now, our names, the coincidence, we spell them exactly the same way, and I can tell you, I’ve found 99 ways to spell MacFarlane, and we spell it the same way.
BM: Yeah. I found the same.
IM: And, I know that your family came to the states halfway through the 1800s. My family, my father ended up in Australia, but he was a first generation to Australia. But I know that both of our families were from Scotland and were probably in the Highlands, and we must be related.
BM: We must be related. Yes, I guess.
IM: No arguments to that. So, Bill you grew up in this area. Tell me about where you grew up, and what were some of the influences on you as you grew up.
BM: Well, I was born and raised in Janesville. I was the fifth child my parents had, and my father was in his fifties when I was born. So a lot of my influence came from my father, who was almost like a grandfather to me. He spent a lot of time with me, probably more than he would have if he was younger when I was born. So I had a lot of influence there. I also grew up working on our pheasant farm, which as a teenager I didn’t think was a very good influence. I wasn’t happy about having to work so hard everyday, afterschool, Saturdays, so forth. But the influence on me was that it taught me how to work, taught me a work ethic, and certainly kept me out of trouble because I was busy.
IM: In that sense you also grew up in an entrepreneurial environment.
BM: Very much so, yes.
IM: Did you really think at some point you would become a pheasant farmer?
BM: Absolutely not. There was no chance, there was really less than zero chance. I had no interest. I really wanted to get away. But I did grow up, for instance, answering the phone, when I was perhaps ten or twelve. My parents would have me answer the business phone, and perhaps even take an order for a customer. So I was doing it, but working outside, working with the birds was not something I enjoyed as a teenager at all.
IM: So when you went to high school, what did you think that was going to lead you to?
BM: Well I definitely wanted to go to college. My four older siblings all went to college and graduated by then. There’s a ten-year gap between me and the next member of my family, so there’s really not much choice for me, going to college. And when I was fifteen I said I wanted to be an actuary, of all things. But when I actually went off to college I had different thoughts. I actually thought I wanted to go to law school and become a lawyer.
IM: So what did you look for from college, you thought you were going to prepare yourself for law, so where did you go to college and how did that take you to the next level?
BM: Well I first went to college at Grinnell College, which is the liberal arts college in central Iowa. Went there for two years. My thought was to go to a smaller school; I don’t think I was really prepared to go to a school like UW-Madison. I think I would have got lost there. I also wanted to get just a liberal arts education. But after a couple years, at age 20, I didn’t ask, I informed my parents that I was driving my pick-up to Texas, and I moved to Texas at age 20. My mother especially was horrified that I would do such a thing. I did not understand until, I now have a daughter in her twenties, and if she would have up and left for Texas at age 20, I don’t think I would have let her do it. But I moved to Texas just to kind of find my own way, and I ended up, after working for a year at a firm in Texas, I ended up going back to school at University Houston, with more direction that time. I ended up with a degree in economics, which really fit for me, and my thought was to go to a law school then, and get a law degree.
IM: So what was the “ah-ha” moment that got you back to Janesville?
BM: The “ah-ha” moment for me was when my father, who was…when I was a senior in college I was planning to go to law school, and my father had been peppering me with letters and phone calls about coming home to work with him, and I had resisted all of his efforts. The “ah-ha” moment was, I had always read the Houston Post, the Houston newspaper, and right at a crucial time on the front page of the Houston Post was a poll about people’s happiness with their job, job satisfaction levels. Farming was very high on the list, and lawyers was quite low on the list, and that morning was the “ah-ha” moment.
IM: Well given your thoughts when you were growing up and through high school that you would never be back in the pheasant farming, there must have been something in those conversations that you had with your father that had an impact on you.
BM: Yeah, absolutely. Like many people, I wanted to please my father, there’s no doubt about that, but not to the point of getting into an avocation I really didn’t want to do. But there’s one thing about being seventeen or eighteen and not like your family’s business, it’s another thing to be 24, graduating from college not knowing what you’re going to do. And, so presented with the opportunity to get into a business with my father, he gave me an option to…he would incorporate the business to provide an orderly transition of ownership. With everything laid out in front of me, it was a mature decision to say I’m going to do this, because it was an opportunity. A good opportunity.
IM: And so why did you think you could be successful, as now a senior executive of a reasonable size company, immediately?
BM: I don’t think I really thought about that. I was interested in coming home and running the business, but as far as getting it into my mind that I was going to really create something in a short period of time, really wasn’t where I was at.
IM: When did you actually make that move? As you said, you came back to Houston after working it out with your father. When did you come back, and how soon after that did you get promoted to being president?
BM: Well I returned home in August of 1979, and my father’s brother-in-law, my mother’s father, was the manager of the farm. He left about nine months after I came home. He’d been there for 35 years, and he’d made the decision to leave. My father was not in really good health, so I became president of the company about a year after I returned home.
IM: Okay, and why did you think you would be successful at that time? You took over the business, why did you think you could be successful at that time, as a president running a significant company that was successful?
BM: You know, thinking about your question, looking back, I don’t really know that I was really…I was optimistic, and I was enthusiastic. I could say, one thing I could say was that my father was 100 percent behind me, that would be one reason. I felt that he had confidence in me, so I would think the reason is because of my father’s confidence in my ability. I was 24, I really didn’t know what I could or couldn’t do. But my father felt that I could.
IM: So you actually almost had a mentor as well.
BM: Oh I did have a mentor. Someone that really supported my new thoughts, new directions. I had ideas of doing some things differently, and rather than criticizing me, he was very very supportive of me.
IM: And then, just a few years later, I think you told me 1986 or 85, when your father passed away. You actually then took control of the company, beyond being president. You took control.
IM: So, at that stage did you step back and re-look at the business that, in fact, it’s your business, you’re the owner, you’ve got control. Did you try to say, what would you do the way you wanted to do it now?
BM: You know, I really don’t have any feeling that there was any stepping back. It’s more like I was relatively fearless. And I don’t mean fearless in a way, like an egotistical way, I mean fearless in like a naive way. We would just expand the business, and the markets would be there, and I, really there was no stepping back. Frankly, Ian, it was more plunge ahead without even looking.
IM: So I know that, in effect, your business has really changed over the time you’ve actually been running and been in control. What was it in those early days, and what is the business of MacFarlane Pheasants today?
BM: Well, back in the early 80s we were hatching a few hundred thousand baby pheasants a year, and raising twenty to thirty thousand pheasants of those up to maturity, selling the rest as baby chicks to other people. What began was, some of the things that happened was, we started marketing our ability to sell pheasants, and really expanded our advertising, and a lot of ways of promoting the farm. And what happened was we just grew quickly.
IM: So, Bill what are the categories of pheasant that you actually grow for your business today?
BM: Well we have three markets for our birds. One is for food, we sell processed pheasants to distributers, who sell them to restaurants. We sell them to Whole Foods, like the Whole Foods here in Madison. We sell them to cruise lines. And that’s about 20 percent of our business. Another aspect of our business is selling baby chicks, newly hatched, day-old pheasant chicks. And we sell over a million of those chicks a year to people all over the country, and actually in some other countries we ship to also. Primarily selling them by mailing them. We actually take the chicks and mail them to other people. And then 60 percent of our business is raising pheasants to mature size, grown size, and selling them to places that release the pheasants to either just have pheasants, or to provide hunting opportunities for people that want to come to their place.
IM: So that’s an interesting thing. You actually put day-old chicks in the mail. How do they survive?
BM: Very well. We don’t just take them to our local post office. We actually drive our truck to Minneapolis Post Office, the Minneapolis Airport Post Office, every week during the summer, and mail them from that facility. So most birds arrive the very next day.
IM: So, today how do you market the business? How do you promote, particularly with the explosion of social media, is that part of your mix in that different audiences you mentioned?
BM: Absolutely. The way we’re primarily advertising our business today is through the Internet. We have a number of sites. Pheasant.com is one of our websites, and that’s just been a boon for us. Social media, absolutely. We have a Facebook fan page for our farm. I have a blog that I write. We have many ways of advertising, but most of them are Internet based.
IM: But they’re also targeted audiences, you know how to reach those people.
BM: Absolutely. We do quite a lot of paper click advertising on Google and Yahoo, and we’re targeting certain keywords, certain demographics, yes.
IM: Bill, congratulations. The success you’ve had, and growth you’ve had in just 25 years has been tremendous, because I can tell you, just ten years, only four percent of businesses survive just ten years, so you’re doing a fantastic job. However, over 25 years, in hindsight, is there anything that you might have done differently?
BM: Oh yes. Absolutely. I think the biggest thing for myself, it’s more of a personal thing, but I really wish I would have had more balance in my life. Certainly the farm has been successful and a lot of that’s been do to, I put a lot of myself into it, a lot of drive, a lot of my time. But I wish I’d have had more balance.
IM: Okay, let’s go to the last two or three years, the economy’s been tough. You have a business which is probably discretionary, not a need. So how have you as a business dealt with the economy over the last two or three years?
BM: Well, Ian, it’s absolutely discretionary, and unfortunately a lot of people with their discretion, pheasants went off the table. White tablecloth, very high-end restaurants are suffering. Places that provide opportunities and places to hunt pheasants for people, people aren’t going there as much. So what we’ve done, we’ve cut production. But we’ve had several staff meetings, and talked about not wanting to lay off, or have to let people go that work for us. We’ve made some decisions to try and keep our staff employed. We cut capital expenditure to absolute zero for a several years. And just tried to gut ourselves through it, just hold on to what we could. But pheasant farming, like many agricultural enterprises, is very capital intensive, so we have a tremendous amount of overhead, so just cutting production can be very devastating if you don’t really think it through, what you’re going to do.
IM: But you said something really important, when you knew you had these tough times, that was very obvious, you actually pulled your team in. You worked it through with your team, and I think that is definitely a critical factor of success in tough times, get the support. You know people, they want a job, they’re also going to give that extra effort to help you get through those tough times.
BM: I felt like it was a team effort, so that would be, yes. That was a big part of it, that my employees knew what was going on, and they didn’t jump ship. They stayed on, and we got through it.
IM: Now, as a business owner, you carry a lot more weight on your shoulders than you do as an employee. So what might have been some of the emotional hurdles that you’ve had to deal with as a business owner over those years?
BM: Well the first one, foremost, is financial. Being a farmer, and the swings in the market, and just how much money it costs to be a farmer, to buy land, to buy equipment. Financial is number one, without a doubt. To be properly capitalized is really the issue. And I’ve tended to want to expand the business continually, so that stress has always been paramount. The other stress is, the business we’re in, agricultural, is how much we’re at the whim of the weather, or diseases, or other things that can occur. We’re right out there raising these birds, right out in the open, and certainly there’s been nights when there’s been violent storms, or snow storms that has caused a lot of stress.
IM: As you mentioned, you’re in the agriculture business. It’s 24/7, it’s pretty tough on you as the owner, because you feel as though you want to make sure that you can deal with any situation, and your leadership. So yes, it is a tough situation. So it raises the issue, how do you develop management to be able to come on, to let you start to move back out of it?
BM: Well, certainly when I came home in 1979 I had absolutely no clue on how to develop management, and as the 80s progressed it was more trial by error. I was not a good delegator, I certainly was a micromanager, and initially I didn’t develop management, and I took too much on myself. But eventually as the farm grew there was no way that I could continue in that model. So I began to delegate, and I would say the most critical aspect answer to your question is to hire the right people. If you get the right person, you can develop them. But you have to start with the right person.
IM: And successful entrepreneur, and successful people in almost any field, there’s a characteristic, they tend to be forward looking, they look for opportunities. So where do you see the opportunities to take MacFarlane Pheasants to it’s next level of success?
BM: Well certainly our in roads into using the Internet. We want to develop even more on the Internet, have even more of a presence. Get more information into people’s hands through the Internet, that’s one from the marketing end of it. From the area of what are we going to produce that people want, we continue to think that producing pheasants for food is the ultimate real way our business is going to go. And the key there is to get more pheasants produced at a more economical price. It’s kind of hard at this point to sell pheasants when our price is so much higher than other poultry products. But we’re working on getting the cost of production down, so that we can compete with some of those other products.
IM: Is there any way that you can differentiate your pheasants from other people growing pheasants?
BM: Well certainly branding our product is a big part of our drive. And part of that is me being here today, or trying through the Internet to be able to show what we do and how we do it. That we feed our pheasants differently, or we give them more room as we raise them….you know, absolutely differentiating the product is important.
IM: Thanks very much, Bill, for participating in today’s program. And I hope, at some stage, we have more time to go back into our past and work out how we’re related.