When couples are companies


  • Business
  • Sunday, 29 Jun 2003

By AMY JOYCE

WASHINGTON: Marissa Levin has middle-of-the-night board meetings. That’s when she wakes her husband Adam to discuss whatever work-related stress is keeping her awake. Once it’s off her chest, she can fall asleep. Then he stays up to worry. 

Such is the life of couples who go into business together. 

But the Levins, who run Information Experts Inc in suburban Washington, have learned to keep those 2am “meetings” to a minimum, along with a few other rules, to make sure both their marriage and their business run as smoothly as possible. 

Marrying and going into business with someone can read disaster if not handled correctly. Doing something stupid at the office can bleed back into the marriage. And it’s not as easy to go home to complain about the boss if that boss is your spouse. 

Spending 24 hours a day with someone, no matter how much you might love them, can make problems grow like mould. So couples must come up with rules for each other before they come up with a business plan. Often they must get a third party involved to make sure they stay on track in both love and business. 

“It’s really tough, and it’s a rare couple that can survive going into business together,” said Wayne Rivers, president of the Family Business Institute Inc in Raleigh, North Carolina, a company that consults with family-run businesses. “That’s 24 hours a day. You’re lucky if you can find another human being you can do that with.” 

Marissa started Information Experts almost eight years ago. Adam was running an import-export company and sometimes helped her. But as the business grew, so did the responsibilities. 

“There was no way possible that I could have done it on my own,” she said. “And who else can you trust better than your spouse?” 

So about three years ago, Adam came on board as a partner. They brought in a third party – whom Marissa calls half strategic adviser, half marriage counsellor –when business began to grow. The adviser wisely told them they had to have very defined roles. That, said Adam, is probably the most important thing he learned. 

“We have job roles, and when certain decisions are made, it’s defined. That way it’s not personal, it’s just that this is my area of the organisation, and this is my decision,” he said. 

Marissa agrees because “I have to respect him and allow him to do his job, and he has to allow me to do the same.” 

The adviser also told them their company could not be a 50-50 partnership because there has to be a majority owner who makes the final decision. So Marissa owns 51%. That helps the Levins avoid unnecessary confrontation and helps employees know the company structure. 

In the beginning, part of Adam’s job was to thin out the staff and start over in some areas. “I led with my emotions, which was not always profitable,” Marissa said. “And Adam is a very logical, business-oriented person. That’s one of the reasons it was important for him to come in.” 

And that was one reason she put him in charge of cleaning out the business, something that nonetheless strained their relationship. 

“I was in an awkward position. I was loyal to my employees and had developed friendships with them,” she said.  

So if an employee asked to leave at 2pm every day to pick up her son, it was no problem – even if she got paid for a full day. 

Adam turned that part of the business back into a business, not a social club. 

“He elevated the level of the quality of some of the people there,” she said. “It was much easier for him, because he didn’t have the emotional connection, to cut the cord.” 

But it was hard, she admitted. “I felt like he came in and was destroying what I had built. We’ve never been stronger than now. But it took a lot of hard lessons to learn, a lot of talking through it.” 

Rivers said that successful couples learn to keep work and marriage separate – but total separation is nearly impossible. 

“There is this myth in the business world that we can be jerks during the business day, then turn it off in the evening and go home to the kids and family. But we cannot compartmentalise to that degree,” he said.  

“You can’t help but take home what you experienced at work that day.” 

That's why Tom Morris and Jann Bradley, who started Morris Associates Inc, a Washington career-counselling and outplacement firm, two years after their 1984 marriage, have rules about work chatter at home. 

One may want to talk about the office, while the other can say no. If the one who wants to talk thinks it’s an urgent matter, he or she has 15 minutes to talk. At the end, the other person can say either stop or continue. 

“Last night, he wanted to talk about work. I gave him 15 minutes. He talked, and I said I can’t do this anymore, my brain is fried,” Bradley said last week. Morris acquiesced, and they went on with their evening. 

They decided to take the subway to their downtown office at different times.  

“I told her I really liked going in alone,” Morris said. Bradley breathed a sigh of relief – she'd wanted to suggest that but had been afraid to bring it up. 

“When I want to go, I want to go. I don’t want to wait five minutes so we can leave together,” Morris said. 

“It gives you the freedom of coming and going, plus that not being together for 15 or 20 minutes is good. That’s my time. I can read, look around.” 

Douglas LaBier, a psychologist and psychotherapist with Washington-based Centre for Adult Development, said the success of a couple-owned business usually depends on what sort of relationship they have at home. 

“Issues they may not have worked through successfully in their relationship can manifest themselves in the business,” he said. 

“Where it is successful is where couples can validate and value each other, without feelings of competition or criticism.” 

Morris agrees. Because Bradley is his wife and business partner, he often forgets to compliment her as he would if she were any other employee. 

“We both have strength and weaknesses as a couple, as all couples do,” he said.  

“And I have to remember that. She’s not just my wife, she’s my co-worker. So some reactions and interactions that married couples might have has to be very different in the office.” 

Rivers has one final bit of advice for couples going into business together: “Go ahead and put into the operating budget marriage and relationship counselling.” – LAT-WP 

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