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Husband & wife business

We’ve all heard the warnings – never go into business with family, it’ll end in tears. But nonetheless, plenty do. And while it has its inherent difficulties, for some it can be the best thing they ever do.

At one time I was certain that my husband and I could never work together. But now that we have young children and have completed a house renovation together, I can see what a great team we make. I am the planner, and he is the details man. He brews the coffee while I feed the baby. He mows the lawn while I weed the garden. When I’m worn out from a long day of work and toddler-wrangling, he knows it’s time to don the rubber gloves and finish off the dishes, while I sit on the couch. And, sometimes, vice versa.

We both have a strong work ethic born from an upbringing within entrepreneurial families. We want the same things from life. So I now think that we could work very well in business together. As long as he does what I tell him.

Carmel and Ross Jennings work very well together and have done since the 1970s. Briefly, they met when Carmel joined the New Zealand Broadcasting Company. Ross had recently returned from his OE where he worked in England as a professional actor. They married, and Carmel left the workforce to have five children, while Ross ran the company then called Communicado, now Screentime. Once the children were old enough, Carmel returned to work with her husband producing television programmes.

This continued until two and a half years ago when they both left Screentime with the intention of slowing down and making the odd programme under their own banner, ‘Just the Ticket’.

“We developed some ideas thinking that one might come off, but half a dozen came off,” says Carmel, who is currently in the process of editing a television feature for Sunday Theatre.

Until very recently, Just the Ticket’s head office has been at the couple’s rural home in Pukekohe – when a production was underway they would set up a temporary office in the city – but they are now resigned to the fact that slowing down is not likely to happen soon, and have shifted to permanent offices in Pukekohe.

Like the advertising industry, the TV world is one of ‘creatives’ and ‘suits’ – and fortunately with Carmel and Ross there is one of each.

“Ross is much more creative than I am,” says Carmel. “I am more the business head, and we complement each other. Sometimes he pulls me up on the business end, or my creativity will give him ideas he hasn’t thought about.”

She says their industry is full on, and the fact that they both understand the seven day nature of the business and the requirement to work long hours is great. “If somebody is late home you don’t worry about it, because you know the commitment that is required. That’s a real positive.”

Rick and Linda Whitlock have been married for 38 years and in business together for most of that time. Three times now they have started a restaurant together, made it successful, and sold it – twice in Taupo, and once in Devonport, Auckland. “It was long, hard work,” says Rick.

In 2003 they decided to make a ‘permanent’ move to Noosa, Queensland. They sold up their life in New Zealand, arriving in the land of sun and opportunity with no more than a rental car and a suitcase. Within a month they had found a house, and had once again embarked upon a business together – this time a mountain-biking and kayaking enterprise.

After an accident put Rick out of commission for several months they returned to New Zealand to build a luxury lodge. Acacia Cliffs Lodge, located approximately ten minutes from Taupo township, caters for up to eight guests in four suites and of course Rick and Linda run it together.

The secret of their long term success at working together? Says Rick of the years when they worked in the restaurant business: “Linda did the books, employed the staff and chose the décor while I did the food and ran the place on a daily basis. I would say that I am probably the big picture person. Linda is the person who fills in the gaps.”

Larnia and Adrian Pohio can also attribute their success at working together to the fact that they are different. They were dairy farming when two things happened to set them off in a new direction: Adrian discovered bee keeping, and they travelled to England and Europe, falling love with French markets and the fresh, home-grown products available in the local cottage industries.

Adrian had long fancied the idea of keeping hives, and bought 120 hives drenched in honey, which was duly tasted and pronounced to be particularly good by an elderly bee keeper acquaintance. When the Hamilton Farmers’ Market started the Pohios rushed to complete their branding, and began marketing their product as ‘Nature’s Country Gold’.

When their son Hayden returned to New Zealand looking for opportunities, he was added to the family business, and it proved a recipe with an excellent mix of ingredients. The combination of his entrepreneurial spark, his mother’s interest in healthy living and his father’s success at making honey led to the creation of a special Manuka honey health bar that is now stocked in a major Hamilton supermarket.

Typically, since the business took off, it has become more difficult. “When we first started at the farmers’ markets it was really easy,” says Larnia.  “But it’s a whole different phase now. There is a lot more decision making to do.”

Choosing who makes those decisions – or any decisions in a family business – is key to maintaining harmony. “The first thing that comes to mind if you’re talking about setting up business with a personal relationship is clarity of roles,” says Geoff Wake, who coaches people to perform at their best in a business environment.

He advises that roles be based on peoples’ strengths, and what they bring into the business. “We need to allow people to do more of what they do well, and stop trying to get them to do things they don’t do well. That just sucks the energy out.”

It’s important to go further than allocating general roles, he says. “Be specific. If you do the marketing, define what that actually means. If you produce a plan each year, do you do all of it, or some of it? Clarity over expectations is so important when there is a personal relationship.”

To aid the decision making process  and ensure the smoothest possible of business operations, clear cut roles are vital. Adrian Pohio’s role is very singular: He keeps the bees.

“It’s a good thing we have defined roles because we have very different personalities,” says Larnia. “Adrian is practical and hands on. I’m orderly and methodical. He’s a great bee-keeper. I’m really interested in the design and labels and have a bit of flair in that direction.”

When Hayden joined the business, further defining their roles was one of the keys to making everything gel.

“I think we have learnt a lot more about one another,” Larnia says. “We know how far we can go. When one gets grumpy you get out of the way and get busy with your own domain. The experts say when you’re in the office, take off the family hat and wear your business hat, but it’s easier said than done. It’s about communication – and you have to learn to accommodate!”

Geoff Wake says that business and personal relationships are very similar. “If you can work through things in business, you can work through things at home. If you have a strong relationship you can work through conflict constructively, and if you play to strengths and trust each other, that helps. But if you try to second guess each other or feel one partner is less, you will run into trouble.”

A shared vision for the future is also hugely important. Carmel and Ross Jennings want to create television that makes a difference to peoples’ lives. They also want to have fun. “We eat too much, we go out and have lunches and that sort of thing. You know what each other’s doing, and are involved in it.”

Rick Whitlock believes that married people have a special synergy when they work together. “You have an innate, instinctive understanding,” he explains. “You are able to laugh at what goes on.”

Tips for Starting Out

“It takes a special kind of relationship to be able to work together, live together and grow old together,” says Ngaire Molyneux from the economic development agency, Waitakere Enterprise. Here are some hints for making it work:

  • You might set up as a sole trader, partnership, informal partnership or limited liability company but much of this depends on your business, personal and legal situation and future plans. Most of the husband and wife owned small-medium sized enterprises that Ngaire sees are limited liability companies, but take counsel from a business advisor, lawyer or accountant.
  • Ensure there are clear boundaries and clearly established roles between husband and wife – you may need to have an expert advisor assist you in this area.
  • Being husband and wife doesn’t always make the decision making process easy – so draw up a plan, and weigh up decisions in a SWOT analysis.
  • Geoff Wake also suggests setting out some basic rules. For example, if something erupts at work, what’s the agreement around how far that is allowed to go? Will it pervade all areas of your life, or will you contain it within business hours? If you work from home, or even if you don’t, how will you switch off work mode, and go into couple mode?

Why Work Doesn’t Work

When the personal relationship between husband and wife business partners ends, it can’t be blamed solely on working together. But when those partnerships don’t work, it inevitably contributes to the breakdown of one, or both.

Tony and Jackie ran a small business together for four years, and it should have been idyllic. It involved overseas travel, plenty of down time and made a reasonable profit. Although both enjoyed some elements of working together, they acknowledge that it contributed significantly to the breakdown of their marriage.

Jackie believes one problem was that although their financial contribution was equal, the business was her brainchild and she held a superior role. While that didn’t bother Tony, it did bother her.

“I felt I had to take the major responsibility,” she says. “He just cruised along, did his part of the job and had fun, while I worried about growing the business, keeping the clients happy and paying the bills. I really resented it. But if I had my time over I don’t know how I would structure it differently because I guess I would still want to be the boss.”

Tony thoroughly enjoyed his role in the business and admits he didn’t take it as seriously as his wife did. “But I didn’t take anything as seriously as she did in any aspect of our lives,” he says. “She is a serious person and I’m not, and while that can work in a relationship, I don’t think it can in a business. There’s always going to be resentment that one person is working harder than the other.”

‘Boss’ issues also existed between Marg and Brent, who worked together for ten years. Both admit there were power struggles which simply couldn’t be resolved and while it didn’t cause major business problems, it just made life unpleasant.

“One of the hardest aspects is that when you’re bickering at work, it’s very difficult to sit down and share a sociable glass of wine together afterwards,” Marg says. “The person opposite you at 5 o’clock is the same person you’ve been sniping at all day.

Eventually the relationship unraveled on every level and she decided to leave, but both had to continue working in the business until their property settlement was finalised.

“That was incredibly difficult for me because I didn’t want the marriage to end,” Brent says. “Having to deal with her on the phone and by email on a daily basis was awful. Half the time I was heartbroken and the other half I was furious. It was a very unhealthy way to be.”

Brent wanted to keep the business and had to buy Marg out but says it was a very difficult transaction, and she concedes that is true.

“It wasn’t like a normal business transaction between two parties who just want to get the best deal,” she says. “There were all kinds of other issues in there – jealously, revenge, punishment and retribution, I guess. It ruined any chance of our being friends with one another afterwards.”

Their advice is to have an agreement, set up with the help of an accountant and a lawyer, in place in case you have to unravel the business if you divorce.


Courtesy of My Generation. Article By Zoe Hawkins