In any business, the road can be riddled with landmines. Cash flow goes stagnant, a client flees to a competitor, a new product is slow to roll out. But when a couple is in business together, the perils and pitfalls can be doubly jarring, if stress that hangs over the water cooler also follows them home.
“Couples who have not drawn boundaries that help them understand how to separate their personal lives from their business lives can have problems,” says Margaret Wilson of Baltimore-based CopreneurCPR, which helps couples in business together thrive. “This is a leading cause of friction.”
Add an unsteady business to the mix and that friction deepens. Janet Herrick and her husband Adam Hoyles, who together founded Jacksonville, Fla.-based Onsite Environmental Consulting, have felt the stresses of company ownership most keenly when business has dipped, as it did during the recession.
Herrick is president and CEO of Onsite, which assesses the readiness of building sites for owners and developers — for instance, whether an encroaching wetland imperils a builder’s plans — while Hoyles is vice president of operations.
During the downturn, “Adam was all in my stuff because he didn’t have anything to do,” Herrick says, recalling the lowest point in the firm’s history. “He was having an identity crisis because science is the one thing he’d done all his life [and it was integral to the business]. In contrast, I’ve been a hustler all my life and so I could just go back to being a cater-waiter,” if necessary.
A cash squeeze at that time compounded this personal challenge. Nevertheless, practicality prevailed when the couple decided that Herrick, as the top executive, would be paid when cash flow was under pressure, not Hoyles, even though the two collect equivalent salaries.
“The hardest part of being a two-income-from-one-source household is deciding who gets paid when money is tight. I was advised that the owner of the company should be drawing a salary consistently with employees to show healthy bottom line,” Herrick says.
Sometimes different communication styles, whether acquired or innate, can pose challenges in a couple’s joint venture.
Take Chris Phillips, who worked in oil and gas before co-founding Natural Evolution, an e-waste recycling firm based in Tulsa, Okla., with his wife Traci Phillips, the president. In that almost exclusively male domain, precision was paramount to avoiding catastrophes like spills. As such, the work environment tended to be one of blunt words and explosive tempers.
“Because I’ve worked for extremely aggressive people, I can seem to get very personal [in the office], when in fact I have no problem with any individual at any time,” he says. “I am always talking about the issue, not the person, but it can put some people off.”
In fact, for the first two or three years they were in business together, Chris, who serves as vice president of operations, and Traci had a difficult time communicating. It took years to develop a rapport in the workplace, even as they built a firm with 14 employees in Tulsa and Albuquerque that harvests and resells materials like lithium, palladium, aluminum and copper from electronics of all sizes.
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“Women are not raised in a fashion to receive information and depersonalize it,” says Traci. “This has been a learning experience. Historically, I did not have the same connection [I have with Chris] with other men I was working with, where we could bring up the hard stuff and be friends afterward.”
Traci’s observation squares with that of Pat Cole, professor emeritus of family therapy and family business at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale and an expert on entrepreneurial couples. She says that in addition to establishing boundaries, defining roles and carving out personal time, respect and friendship are the keys to successful ventures by couples.
These days the Phillipses use their strong personal connection as the foundation for communication that strengthens their company.
“We understand the importance of being united and not divisive,” Chris says. “When the confrontation is done, we don’t disintegrate. We tell our workers what the principle is behind the mistake and how this is where we ended up.”