This article appears in the July 2004 issue of Custom Homes Online.
By Bruce D. Snider
How do you succeed in business with your spouse?
The conventional wisdom has it that something like half of all new marriages will end in divorce. The failure rate for small business startups may be even worse. Given those odds, going into business with one’s spouse might seem to be asking for all kinds of trouble. In spite of the risks, however, many custom home builders have mixed love and work with excellent results, building both healthy businesses and strong marriages. At CUSTOM HOME we think of On Your Mind as a service to our readers, and we can think of no more valuable service than allowing some of these successful husband-and-wife teams to share their wisdom with those who might follow in their footsteps. The question we asked was simple: What is your advice to couples considering working together in a custom home building business? The responses varied, reflecting differing business types, personalities, and family histories, but they were anything but wishy-washy. Clearly, one does not spend a decade or more working with one’s spouse without developing some definite opinions about the matter.
When Lucy Katz joined her husband, Joel’s, company, Katz Builders, in 1995, she was aware of the pitfalls and proceeded accordingly. “It took me about two years before I printed business cards,” she says. Her caution was well founded. She had worked with her husband some years before, when he had a partner, and the experience was less than entirely positive. In the partner’s eyes, she says, “I was just a wife. I didn’t have the credentials. Joel couldn’t go to his partner and say, ‘Lucy thinks…’ I wound up leaving the company.” Lucy went into business for herself, becoming a successful human resource management consultant. When Joel split from his partner, he invited Lucy to rejoin the business. She would agree, she said, “If he listened to me the way my clients did.”
Now working full time in customer service and client development for the company, Lucy offers unequivocal advice for those considering joining a spouse’s company: “Come with experience” from outside the company or even outside the industry, “so that you have credibility. And then clearly define your job responsibilities, so you don’t overlap.” As a former H.R. professional, Lucy is big on job descriptions and job analyses, which help define those responsibilities. A spouse joining a business should be able to prove “that you’re the best person for the business,” that the reason for the hire “isn’t just ‘I love you.’ That’s good, but ‘I love you’ doesn’t bring respect or credibility.”
Such a professional approach can be important when a spouse joins an established company. But different criteria apply when a builder seeks a spouse’s help in getting a new operation off the ground. “Our business evolved that way,” says Rick Harwick, whose wife, Kathy, joined Harwick Homes when it was only two years old. “It was a matter of economics,” Rick says. “I needed a salesperson I could rely on and communicate with.” Kathy, a registered nurse, was interested. Some 15 years later the Harwicks have built a successful $25 million company, raised two children, and, Rick says, “We’re still married. Happily.”
The key has been working closely together, but not too closely. “We’re joined at the hip, but we’re easily detached,” Rick says. “She handles the sales and marketing end of it, and I handle the construction end,” an arrangement that affords the Harwicks plenty time apart during the workday. When they get home, however, they still confront the central issue of husband-and-wife business teams: drawing the line between work time and family time. “It’s hard to turn off work at the end of the day and not take it home,” Rick says. “We still talk business all the time. Our kids know the customers by name.” The Harwicks employ two lines of defense against overdoing the shoptalk, Rick says. “Kathy will say, ‘Can’t we talk about this later?’” Kathy adds that if both she and Rick let business encroach on family time, “The kids will remind us.” The bottom line, says Rick: “There’s got to be a balance between your marriage and your business.”
Striking the right balance can be difficult. “Early on, we had a problem with that,” says Bernie Drueding. Bernie started B.J. Drueding Builders in 1973, when he was in his early 20s and was joined by his wife, Pam, some three years later. During the early years, they ran the business out of their home, an arrangement that put a strain on the family. “The office was too close,” says Bernie, who still speaks with regret of leaving the dinner table and heading back to work. “I was a workaholic,” he says. To keep the business from taking over their lives, the Druedings had to draw a bright line between work and family. “We got an office outside the home,” Bernie says, “and we made a pact not to talk about business at the dinner table. It was a huge improvement in everything we did, including our business.” In the years since, Pam says, the family business has not strained their relationship. On the contrary, “That’s what makes it even better.” Working together gives each a better insight into the other’s life. “When Bernie is under some stress at work, I can sense that. We can make things more fun at home and try to alleviate that stress.” An active family life and shared hobbies give the couple ways to be together that have nothing to do with work. Bernie advises couples to cultivate common interests outside of the business: “You have to lead a balanced life, so you don’t become one-dimensional.”
Before you take that to the bank, though, you might want to talk with Andy and Emily Rosenthal, who happily live and breathe their work. “[Work] does come home with us,” Emily says cheerfully. “We’re on, like, 24-7. ” Having worked together for 20 years, the couple still runs Rosenthal Homes from a home office, with phones wired to ring throughout the house. With Emily out on sales calls and Andy at the jobsites, “We just don’t have that much time during the day [for client phone calls]. One of the things we offer our homeowners is that if we’re here, we’ll pick up the phone. ” Emily has perfected the art of doing business over the phone while she cooks, and she prides herself on sounding professional two seconds after waking from a deep sleep. “The workmen start calling very early,” she says. She enjoys the freedom to do family chores and personal errands during the day, knowing she can catch up on work in the evening. Blurring the line between work and family can work, she insists. “The biggest thing is to try to align your expectations for both spouses, so that one person is not always bringing it home and the other is wanting to leave it at the office.”
Having settled the work/home balance to their liking, however, the Rosenthals recently learned – the hard way – about another risk awaiting couples that double as business partners. Five years ago, Andy underwent back surgery and was laid up for several weeks. “It was tough, because I had to take care of him and do both of our jobs,” Emily says. Andy got his chance to return the favor earlier this year, when Emily had a health problem of her own and had to take more than three months off. Family members helped take up the slack, she says, but “I’m still catching up.” In an ordinary business, Emily explains, “If your partner goes down, your spouse takes over and you double up at work. What happens when you have to do both?” The answer for the Rosenthals is, you do what you have to do. The risks are real, but so are the rewards of sharing the work you love with the one you love. “For us, it has more advantages than disadvantages.”