Seed World

All in the Family

One of the biggest defining features of many independent seed companies is their complex, beautiful, sometimes challenging intersection of business and family.

Jeffrey Renk’s great-grandfather, grandfather and granduncle started selling hybrid corn seed in 1934. The business was incorporated as William F. Renk and Sons in 1936, the first family farm corporation in the United States. His dad and uncles took over the late 1960s. In 2000, the next generation of Renks — Jeffrey, brother Brett and their cousin Alex — stepped into leadership of Renk Seed. Today, Renk Seed sells in 11 states but remains family-owned and operated. We sat down with Jeffrey to talk about how his family keeps their family business on course.

SW: What’s beneficial about working in a family business compared to a non-family business? 

Jeffrey Renk (JR): Not sure that I’m qualified to answer, I have virtually no experience outside our business!  In a recent conversation with a key employee who had extensive experience in the “corporate world” he shared that the biggest benefit was the lack of drama. From my perspective I think the pride and the purpose are huge benefits, at this point in my life it’s about the mental health for me.

SW: What challenges do you face in a family business that don’t exist in a non-family corporation? 

JR: The evolution of technical demands in our industry has meant a great deal of “soul searching” to get our level of participation right and more importantly, finding the talent with the technical expertise to keep our business relevant.

SW: Is how you measure success different in a family business? 

JR: At the end of the day every business has to be profitable. In a closely held business our path may not be as linear as that taken by a much larger entity. Ownership, management and a fraction of the labor force are one and the same.  Our group has a managerial bias, and the decision making is focused almost exclusively on our products, customers and processes.

Jeffrey Renk

SW: Do you feel a weight of responsibility to previous generations to uphold what they prioritized and their style of leadership/decision making, or do you feel freedom to lead in your personal way? 

JR: I feel the presence of my forefathers. I am the fifth generation on the Renk farm, mercifully I can say that it’s not a weight. I remember my great grandfather as a child, and I served on the Board of Directors at Renk Seed with the two previous generations. I’ll call it a good old fashioned “home schooling”.  Our business has thrived in the era of trait technology, so taking what they built and expanding on that certainly helps eliminate any sense of weight or being in the shadow of the previous generation.

After the business incorporated in 1936 the family board of directors became the decision-making body, and that model is how we conduct business today. We each have our areas of expertise and responsibility, but the board is the ultimate arbiter.  Somewhat different than an organization with a CEO or corporate president. The model is successful because it engages family members who elect to participate, and we are blessed with talent to build a business around.

SW: Given the opportunities and challenges of the seed industry today, how is succession planning today different compared to previous generations?

JR: Our business is organized as a C corporation because of issues unique to the business during the Great Depression. Stock ownership has eased transitions so that we are now the fourth-generation owners of the corporation, a rarity in family businesses. C corporations are not easy to sell, and I picture my grandfather with a wry smile every time the issue arises. In addition, we have resisted the temptation to reorganize Renk Seed. The current structure keeps everyone focused on the task at hand, Renk Seed, without the distraction of maximizing the value of specific assets.

To answer the question, the difference today is the complexity of our industry and the very specific skills we think necessary to thrive. The next generation is stepping up and I expect to spend the remaining active years of my career training, mentoring and ultimately enabling ownership for the next generation of the descendants of William F. Renk.