What IS a corporate ranch, anyway? Part 1

For a long time now the masthead at the top of my blog page has suggested that my life is largely defined by this corporate ranch that’s always been my home.

But what is a corporate ranch, anyway?  I’ve been thinking that I ought to try to define it for readers who might be unfamiliar with the concept.  (And honestly, for new-to-the-game ranch employees, too, who tend to be totally flabbergasted by the setup around here.)  I don’t know if a business professor would consider my definition of “corporate” to be accurate, but I can offer a first-hand look at how this business runs.

First of all, this ranch wasn’t always what I would call a corporate outfit.  It was, instead, a century-old family ranch which grew from the ground up in the extremely capable hands of the Grierson family.  In the 1990s this ranch was named the second-oldest family ranch in Montana (within the next few days a part of this series will detail the history of the Grierson Ranch).

As many ranches are, this one was on and off the market for many years before Stan Kroenke bought it from the Grierson descendants in 2003.  A common public misconception is that “Walmart” owns the PV now.  While Kroenke is married to a Walmart heiress, they say he’s a self-made man who was successful before he met her.  He got his start as a real-estate developer and tends to build shopping centers near (go figure) Walmart stores.  But to those of us who have been watching for 17 years now, it’s pretty clear that he knows how to multiply his own money.  He owns several sports teams, including the L.A. Rams, the Denver Nuggets, the Colorado Avalanche, and more.  And he keeps on investing in ranches, too.  The PV was among the first working ranches he bought, and today it’s one of the smallest ranches he owns.  From the Waggoner in Texas to Q Creek in Wyoming, the Geronimo in Arizona to the Broken O here in Montana, even Douglas Lake in Canada, he’s built up an almost unbelievable working ranch empire — much of it in less than two decades.

Wikipedia says that Mr. Kroenke is known as “Silent Stan” amongst the press, as he rarely grants interviews.  It also says that “he rarely interferes in his teams’ day-to-day operations.”  Whoever wrote that might’ve been referring to the sports teams, but those of us on the ranches also find that he rarely interferes.  If he does, it’s via decisions that come down through the general manager of Kroenke Ranches.  Mr. Kroenke was in my parents’ house a time or two after he purchased the PV, but that was before there were so many ranches, before Wikipedia existed, and before the major newspapers had labeled him a billionaire.  I haven’t seen him for probably nine years now.  Every once in a while — maybe once a year — a black SUV might be seen driving through a pasture or down a feed alley in the feedlot here, and it’s most likely the general manager giving Mr. Kroenke a quick run-down on PV business operations. Their drive-throughs are almost always unannounced, they’re not always noticed, they don’t stop to visit, and they’re never on site for more than a couple hours.

So why does Mr. Kroenke buy ranches?  I have heard that he is fond of cowboy and ranching heritage.  And he’s a hunter; on a few of the more picturesque Kroenke ranches, employees separate from the ranching operation maintain private Kroenke hunting lodges.  But not on the PV.  Though I’m rather fond of the views here, I’ll admit that the word “picturesque” probably isn’t included in most descriptions of this Eastern Montana ranch.  And so the PV is a workhorse.  We make money for Mr. Kroenke here… but the way we do it isn’t real pretty.

I’m guessing that, to him, a ranch is an investment in the truest sense.  A place to put money that will almost surely gain value.  You know what they say:  There’s no better investment than land.  And beyond that initial long-term land investment, he also expects the business that operates on top of the land (i.e. the ranch) to turn a profit annually.

In our experience, Kroenke Ranches doesn’t sink much money into fixing up its properties, I would guess for a couple reasons:  1) Holistic management doesn’t seem to be on the agenda, and 2) tax consequences are always a top consideration.  New employees here at the PV sometimes struggle with why such a rich man wouldn’t put in nicer housing or buy better equipment for the employees to use.  Again, because he doesn’t much worry about making employees happy… and because every ranch’s expense is honestly pitted against that particular ranch’s income.  The whole point is turning a profit — the bigger, the better.

But what we must applaud him for is the fact that he keeps these big ranches intact.  He’s got enough money to come in and buy them whole, and for the most part always keeps existing management in place, and he lets these traditional cow outfits just keep doing their thing.  He’s not around much, and sometimes that feels like neglect… but you know what?  He’s also not looking over our shoulders, and that’s a good thing.

To be continued tomorrow!

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Today’s Weather:  High of 31.  Low of 22.  Clear and chilly with a layer of frozen slush on the ground.

 

Today On The Ranch:  Beau caked at The Creek Place this morning, picked up the water-belly calf at the vet this afternoon, met with a mechanic who thought it might cost $14,000 to repair the green loader… and juggled all sorts of ranch hats in between.  I’m very thankful that he took the two littlest Blake kids with him to cake (which gave me time to teach the two oldest at home), and he took all four of them to the vet (with four quarters in his pocket, because they all go hog-wild for the little turn-crank candy vendor in the lobby of the vet office).  Though he’s an awfully busy guy, he does his best to juggle the kids when it fits his schedule.  It’s a big help to me… and too, though we sometimes get caught up in “corporate ranch” responsibilities, we try not to lose sight of the reality that doing agriculture with our kids was the original intent.

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© Tami Blake

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