What makes top performers

Chris Garland has worked 40 years as an agribusiness consultant, has judged a number of farmer of the year competitions and has good credentials to identify the characteristics of top performers in the sheep and beef industry.

In Business11 Minutes

There are a number of common characteristics of the people who run these businesses that could make up a profile of a “top performer”. Top performers may not exhibit all these attributes, but definitely a good number of them. And they won’t necessarily be embodied in one person, but more likely spread across a husband and wife couple or a business team.

So don’t go eating yourself up if you can’t tick all the boxes in yourself.

Good instincts

There is no escaping that good instincts are important. There are so many facets in a farming business – livestock, people, weather, agronomy, economics, politics – that it’s like conducting an orchestra. Good instincts allow top performers to hear when something is out of tune and to respond quickly. Whether it’s a line of hoggets that have gone off the boil, a statement made by a politician or a drop in the flow of a creek, good operators will notice a change in the “music” before others do and respond earlier.

Some instincts, such as stockmanship – knowing how a mob will muster from a paddock and recognising unwell animals – appear to be inherited. Some kids just have it, and some don’t. But that’s not to say that these important instincts can’t be developed over time with experience and a conscious understanding of their value.

Managing people

I see a lot of businesses that successfully grow to a size that can be run by an owner and two or three staff but can’t grow any further. This is because the owner struggles to delegate management control to others. It’s the Achilles’ heel of many businesses.

Top performers understand that to grow their business they must “train and trust”. That is, invest in good training to have staff think and manage the way they want them to and then trust them to do their job.

Top performers often have a degree of charisma and mana with their staff. A respect that is earned from being fair, consistent, firm, generous and successful. These attributes don’t come easily. I would say that fewer than 20% of employers have these attributes naturally. The rest of us must learn them or employ people who have them.

Managing people is also about creating a safe and efficient working environment. I.e. having a working safety culture and having plant and equipment that works well and is well maintained.

The successful, modern employer now also understands what wellbeing means: an holistic approach to employees’ conditions, culture, need for feedback and the need for some sort of pastoral care.

Make decisions

Top performers are good at making decisions. They will say it’s better to make a bad decision than to make no decision. A top performer will recover from a bad decision quickly and learn from it. It is okay to make mistakes if you learn from them.

With decision-making, top performers are bold but not reckless. They will research the issue quickly by consulting with trusted sources and advisers. Top performers are usually very good at juggling numbers in their heads and have a keen sense of cost-benefit. They understand that you must spend money to make money. Top performers do not procrastinate; they take full ownership of their decisions and will take the rap if they are wrong.



One thing I have noticed about top performers is that they have a very keen sense of their place in the world. They see the big picture. Their terms of reference are well outside their farm boundaries. They play the long game. It surprises me how well informed some of these people are, even though they do not appear to be particularly computer literate or internet savvy. They talk a lot to the right people.

Top performers have a keen sense of where they come from and where their own strengths and weaknesses lie.

Top performers know what they don’t know. They will surround themselves with people who are good at the things that they’re not good at and readily take advice.

Top performers know what they can control and focus their attention on those things. They do not waste time and energy on things they cannot control.

They are not afraid to be different, to break the norm, to go against the tide. They often like playing “the pirate in the navy”. BakerAg produces a weekly management newsletter called the AgLetter. Many of these top performers have told me the only reason they subscribe to the AgLetter is so they can do the opposite to what we recommend everyone else should do!

No place for perfection

Top performers understand there is no place in farming for perfection. There are a surprising number of operators who do strive for perfection, but their noble plans are frustrated by weather, markets, people, bureaucrats, pests and disease.

For top performers, 95% is good enough. The law of diminishing returns tells you you’re better off spending that last 5% of your effort turning another rough idea into a good one.

Share their business

It is not uncommon in the industry for farmers to see their farm as their fortress. A dominion in which they do what they want and where they are unanswerable to anyone else.

Top performers tend to see their businesses as a stage that a whole lot of players can perform on. They see their trusted advisers, their shearing contractors, their rural professionals, their merchandise suppliers as being part of a team. They welcome interaction with community groups, schools, catchment groups and other organisations that make up the fabric of the community.

There will be a strong sense of social commitment, along with an understanding of responsibility around sustainable environmental management: e.g. what impact the farming operation is having on the wider catchment in which the property is located and on the integrity of the food and fibre they produce.

Know how to make a dollar

A universal trait of top performers is that they understand profit. Pita Alexander always says “production is for vanity and profit is for sanity”. Top performers get this.

They are keenly interested in benchmarking, knowing how they are performing relative to others and where they can perform better.

They understand that profit is made up of three components: production, sales and cost control and that they have to get all three of these things right to stay in business. They have a keen sense of the connection between each and every action they take in their business and the effect on their bottom line, whether it’s a change in genetics or the purchase of a new piece of plant. They will make conscious decisions to protect a profit and not accept that the eventual result is a consequence rather than a plan.

Understand a balance sheet

Top operators understand that wealth creation does not come from a good lambing percentage; it comes from improving property values. Typical returns on capital in this sector are 2 to 3%, yet equity growth over time is typically 7 to 8%. More than two-thirds of equity growth in this business comes from positive movement in property value. Top operators get this.

They focus on developing properties or changing their land use to add value. They may sell a property that is a “mature asset”, i.e. has limited potential to add further value. They may buy a property for a competitive price knowing they have an advantage in developing and adding value to that property.

The exception to this “clinical” approach is of course the family farm or land owned by mana whenua. Different rules and values apply to this land. It is never saleable. It sits at the core of the reason people farm. Their raison d’être.


There is no shortage of passion for the landscape, for livestock and for the way of life in this industry.

The passion found in the top performers has a slightly broader context in that it captures a sense of providing good quality food and fibre to the rest of the world. It captures responsibility for the people who are employed in and associated with their business and is defined by a strong sense of kaitiaki or guardianship of the land.

Chris Garland was a founding director and shareholder of BakerAg based in Masterton and has recently semi-retired.