Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a series on couples in business together. Learn about managing stressful times in part 2 and good communication in part 3.
Roughly 10 years ago, Teresa and Gary Meares retired from the Jacksonville, Fla., sheriff’s office, he as a lieutenant, she as a sergeant thrice snubbed for promotion, despite qualifications that surpassed those of male colleagues who did advance. The couple established DGG Tactical, a company that sells body armor, police uniforms, holsters and pepper spray to law-enforcement agencies throughout the Southeast United States.
But in their second career, it was Gary Meares who faced the bigger workplace challenge. “Gary came from a male-dominated world where, as a lieutenant and a man, he automatically got respect,” Teresa Meares says. “Then all of a sudden in the business world, he wasn’t getting this respect. He wanted to be president, but he recognized that I was better at making decisions. There was a bit of a struggle we weren’t prepared for.”
Ultimately the couple turned to their belief in a clear chain of command. Gary became vice president in charge of retail and new products, while Teresa became president, overseeing “everything else, including inside and outside sales.”
Examples of entrepreneurial couples abound, but it’s not so clear how many women are in business with their romantic partners, either as their bosses or as their co-pilots. According to the 2012 Survey of Business Owners conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau and released in December 2015, there were 9.9 million women-owned firms in the U.S. in 2012, up 26.8 percent from 7.8 million in 2007, and 2.5 million firms owned equally by men and women.
On the eve of Valentine’s Day, The Story Exchange set out to talk with women like Teresa Meares to hear about the pluses and minuses of getting your honey where you get your money.
“There’s a saying in family business. ‘When it’s good, it’s very, very good. When it’s bad, it’s divorce,’” says Patricia Cole, professor emeritus of family therapy and family business at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, who has studied “copreneurs,” or couples who run companies together, with Kit Johnson of Capella University in Minneapolis. “Business can smother the romance in a relationship.”
A decade after they obtained their small-business loan, the Meareses have reached an accord in the war of the sexes. With revenues approaching $7 million and a staff of more than 20, they leave town for a day or two each quarter to play golf and talk things out. And, any day they’re together in the office, Teresa serves Gary lunch in the kitchenette.
“We’re not good when we’re not together — we’re two halves of a brain, and he is the key to keeping me focused and motivated,” she says. “But I am still his wife, and I have respect for him.”
Women’s natural openness toward tools like counseling and the establishment of signals and safe zones — shielding one’s face with a newspaper, disallowing shop-talk beyond a designated landmark on the commute home — help to keep things transparent and harmonious, Cole says.
Clearly demarcated business domains can help too. Halfway around the world, in balmy Bangalore, Indrani Mukherjee is 15 employees and nearly six years into a business that converts India’s sustainable bamboo bounty into cottages, carports, gazebos and roofing. Her company recently began selling online bamboo furniture designed by her husband.
“We used to jump into each other’s shoes, and that created a lot of problems,” says the co-founder and managing director of Bamboooz. Her engineering and project-management credentials are nearly identical to those of her husband Samrat Saha, who is co-founder and head of operations. “But now we’ve matured as entrepreneurs, and we know who’s good at what. My hubby is a very good furniture designer, and I’m good at structures — and networking!”
They discuss business at home but settle any disagreements before they go to bed each night. “The matter must be cleared,” says Mukherjee.
Like her peers in Jacksonville, she has found a peaceful route to pillow talk.