At Hayden Outdoors, father and sons Leo, Dax and Seth Hayden are building a legacy business on their shared passion for land—and the people who steward it.
For us, it all comes back to the land, whether it’s a ranch, a farm or a recreational property,” said Dax, who runs the day-to-day operations of the company headquartered in Windsor, Colorado. “When your roots run deep in agriculture as ours do, an appreciation for productive land gets in your blood and the people who care for it get in your heart.”
Today, the business, which Leo started in a single office in Goodland, Kansas, in 1976, has grown to not only include his sons, but 10 support staff members and 65 independent contracting brokers in 10 states stretching over an area from Kansas City to Salt Lake City and southeastern Oklahoma to northern South Dakota. Dax and Seth, who joined the business in 1998, work from the main service center office in Windsor. They also maintain five additional service center offices scattered between Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming.
According to Dax, the business’s growth can be attributed to several things. First on his list is their aforementioned agricultural roots.
“When I was five years old, my dad and my uncle let my cousin Matthew and me postpone kindergarten and spend a year with them on the ranch,” Dax said. “It’s amazing what you soak up as a little kid. Of course, my dad has forgotten more than I will ever know, but I saw first-hand what it took to make a living in the business. Thanks to that I have a foundational understanding and empathy for the challenges of a land-based life.”
It was the unpredictable nature of agriculture that led Leo to found the company. A 1975 blizzard killed 500 head of the cattle co-owned by Leo, his father and brother-in-law Mac Thompson as part of their joint ranching operation, decimating their herd. The catastrophic loss prompted Leo to move his young family to Hays, Kansas, and go to work with his father-in-law, a real estate veteran. Eventually, Leo opened his own brokerage.
“Farmers and ranchers are slow to trust and quick to smell b.s.,” Dax said. “Our clients know that we respect and understand them and their lifestyle. Unlike some people who get into rural real estate in the hope of a big commission, we got into the business because we really like spending time with people of the land and exploring the incredible holdings that they allow us to see.”
A passion for the land is a common thread among the diverse group of brokers who work with Hayden Outdoors. The other is personal integrity.
“We are selective when it comes to our hiring, but we don’t rely on a bunch of business school matrices or measures,” Dax said. “The main thing that matters to us is how someone treats other people. We expect our brokers to deliver on their promises with prompt honesty.”
Knowledge of their markets and properties is also tantamount, but telling the truth trumps an easy answer casually thrown out in a truck.
“It’s perfectly acceptable to say, ‘I don’t know,’ but then you darn well better find out,” Dax said.
Across the board, the Hayden Outdoors team brings expertise ranging from row crops and ranching to hunting and stream management.
“I’ll pit our team and their knowledge against anyone else’s team,” Dax said. “We’ve surrounded ourselves with exceptional people.”
Another key to their success is their team delivers consistently over the long term.
“Returning a retail item is easy, but ‘returning’ a real estate deal is not,” Dax said. “So we work to do everything right the first time—and every time. In this age of instant gratification it’s not always easy to move with deliberation, but as my grandpa used to say, ‘There’s no need to go at this [business] like you’re killing snakes.’ In the long-term, consistency pays off with a good reputation and satisfied customers.”
As the business grew, Dax began overseeing the day-to-day operations while Leo and Seth focused on selling. They continue to divide the labor along these lines, but come together to make the big decisions.
As a family business, we have the advantage of sharing the same core values and being able to come to decisions quickly—oftentimes in the same day,” Dax said.
These days the big decisions often include planning for the future. Dax’s children, who are 18 and 19, have expressed genuine interest in returning to the family business once they complete their educations.
“When the kids first started talking about joining the business, it scared the hell out of me,” Dax said. “These days, though, our business has grown to a level that can support more people. It’s an exciting prospect to be considering things from 20 years out.”
Past experience has shown them that success comes from embracing change inherent in the industry. When Dax entered real estate, bag phones were cutting-edge and the Internet was the domain of a handful of computer lovers. He oversaw the development of the company’s first website in 2006—and can’t imagine real estate without it now.
“The days of a teaser blurb are gone,” Dax said. “Rural real estate is an information driven business—and buyers and sellers both demand exceptional presentation.”
Hayden Outdoors has strengthened its national presence as one of the founding members of LandLeader. Started in 2014, LandLeader serves as a marketing company for select real estate brokerages in 35 states. Of the company’s 225 brokers nationwide, 75 of them are part of the Hayden Outdoors team.
“LandLeader helps us build our brand nationally, while our own marketing efforts build our brand regionally and locally,” Dax said. “Our marketing director Dan Brunk has an innate talent for telling our story in the way that captures who we are—and what we stand for—on paper and in every medium.”
Creating videos, aerial photography, maps, photographic portfolios, land descriptions can take a lot of man hours, but with more than 90 percent of real estate customers starting their search on the Internet it’s worth the effort.
“A perfect phone call starts with, ‘I’ve been looking at this property online—and I’m about ready to make an offer,” Dax said.
Recreation as an added value is another force of change, especially in areas that have been dedicated to agricultural production.
“In some places, recreational use has taken areas such as river and creek bottoms that once were problems for my grandfather and raised the value of those bottomlands higher than that of adjoining upland cropland,” Dax said. “Of course, the best practice is finding the highest and best use of each property—and then adding value to that.”
The most profound change may be looming on the proverbial horizon. With the population of agriculture producers rapidly aging to an average of 58, the nation is poised to see a transfer of landownership in the next 20 years that is unprecedented in our history.
“In earlier generations, parents often left their farms or ranches to the oldest son—and the others were sent out into the world to work in other fields,” Dax said. “In more recent times, parents have left the land to all of their children with one of them taking on the responsibility of running it.”
At Hayden Outdoors, they are seeing an emerging trend in which the other owners are wanting to cash in their equity in the land and the operating sibling isn’t in a position to purchase their interests, so the family is liquidating the operation.
There is also rising interest in land investment from investment groups, specialized agribusiness concerns such as large-scale commercial organic production companies and individuals, who are looking to a future driven by a growing population and a rising demand for the food and other staples. Investment groups have the luxury of strengthening the bottomline in a 25 to 30 year window unlike individual producers who generally have to become profitable in five years or less.
“If the ag industry changes as much as it appears it might, then things will definitely be interesting,” Dax said. “Plus, land has historically proven itself to be a good investment—and people like things they can touch and improve.”
Of course, looking long-term is something that the Hayden Outdoors team is intimately familiar with.
“Our friends and family are impressed with how far we’ve come in a relatively short time,” Dax said. “While we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished, we’re not close to done. We’ve earned our spot in the game and we’re in it for the long haul.”