For Couples Working Together, Setting Ground Rules is a Must

For Couples Working Together,
Setting Ground Rules is a Must

by Carol Sorgen

You married your beloved for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer. But for profit or for loss?If you’re in business together, that’s about the size of it.

Take David and Sharon Nevins, for instance.

David Nevins credits much of Owings Mills-based Nevins and Associates’ success to his wife.Sharon Nevins joined the 10-year-old public relations, marketing, advertising and customer service firm two years ago and started the company’s advertising division. But David Nevins, whose firm had capitalized local billings of $6 million last year, admits the partnership–the business one–isn’t necessarily a “forever” thing.”It’s advantageous now, but we have no long-term plans,” he says.

That’s not because the two don’t work well together.They do, and it’s because they’ve established certain rules that they follow, he says.

“In our marriage, we’re equals, but in the office, we’re not.Sharon runs the advertising division here, she has a staff, and she works fairly independently, but I have to take the ultimate responsibility,” he says.”This was, and remains, my business.I’m the sole proprietor.Not because I don’t trust my wife, but because I was already the president and CEO and I want to remain so.”

Having individual lines of authority is essential for a successful business partnership, say family business experts.

“You need a clear definition of responsibility,” says William Ross Adams, president of Baltimore’s Baker-Meekins Co., financial advisers to owners of family and private businesses.

That advice is echoed by Harsha Desai, professor of management and director of the Loyola Center for Closely-Held Firms at Loyola College.

“A couple has to have different areas of expertise, so you don’t run into each other’s area,” Desai says.”One of you has to be a boss.You can take turns–one is boss for six months, then the other one is–but someone has to defer to someone else.One person has to have the final decision-making responsibility.”

Leaving Some Room

One tip Nevins offers other married business partners is to give each other space–literally.

“Sharon has an office down the hall.Other than the times we meet with a client together, she runs her division and we don’t see that much of each other.If we were in the same room or meeting together all the time, that would be too much of a good thing,” he says.

Another policy both Nevins and Susana V. Ptak, co-owner of Gascoyne Laboratories Inc., recommend is leaving work at the office. Ptak, who co-owns the Baltimore environmental testing lab with husband Francis, agrees:”Two things have helped us not to kill each other,” she says, laughing.”One is that we don’t do the same thing (Francis is a chemist and handles the analytic end of the company; Susana takes care of the business side), and the other is that we don’t talk business at home.In the car, yes, but once we’re actually at home, we just talk family stuff.

“Don’t confuse your business with your family,” Ptak continues.”If you do, you’ll go berserk.”

Handling Conflict

To make the business work, a couple must recognize that the company has specific needs, says Patrick O. Ring, Baker-Meekins’ managing director.”Make a plan, examine your goals, and build in some mechanism to achieve those goals and to resolve conflicts.” The overriding issue to be addressed is, “What makes sense for the business? How is the business going to grow?In which direction is it going to grow?How can you make it grow?” Ring adds.

“You need to explicitly talk about such issues,” says Desai.”You can’t wait until a crisis occurs to make a decision.”

In times of conflict, keep the argument between yourselves.”Don’t put the employee, or the business itself, in the middle,” Adams advises.

“It’s important to be fair to your workers,” agrees Susana Ptak, whose lab has 61 employees.”Be careful that your employees see you and your spouse as a united front.”

Of course, not all partnerships work out as successfully as the Nevins’ and the Ptaks’. Sometimes couples get divorces, just as sometimes business partnerships fail.That’s an eventuality couples should be prepared for, says Adams. He recommends that spouses make an agreement at the beginning that one partner can buy out the other in case of divorce.Without an agreement, you could spend time and money in litigation.

“Life’s too short to spend all that energy on disputes,” he says.

While arguments are bound to crop up, whether in a marriage or a business partnership, they don’t have to destroy either relationship.

“Money breeds all sorts of snarling snakes,” Adams says, “but you can work out your problems.It just requires discipline and a willingness not to let a disagreement destroy a marriage–or a business.”