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Families: My Boss, My Wife

7 minute read
Laura Koss-Feder

John Morris, 45, Chief Operating Officer of First Financial Network Inc., gets along well with his boss, Bliss, who is president and founder of the 12-person Oklahoma City firm, which helps banks sell their loans on the secondary market. The two acknowledge their differences–he is more methodical while she jumps quickly into projects and shoots from the hip–and their contrasting styles have made them a good team. “All eyes are on Bliss when she’s out there dealing with clients and I’m busy handling day-to-day operations,” John says. “And this just works out so well for our different personalities.” After a pause he adds, “Then we get to take these good feelings and positive energy home to our four children.”

Relationships at home and at work can be complicated enough when they are handled separately. But when a man’s boss is also his wife, the need to respect each other’s abilities and accept differences becomes critical–on many fronts.

Such situations are becoming more commonplace. Rudy Lewis, president of the National Association of Home Based Businesses, estimates that over the past five years he has seen an increase of about 50% in the number of husbands reporting to their wives or becoming partners with wives who are already in business. Overall, according to the IRS, the number of male-female jointly operated proprietorships jumped from 433,000 in 1986 to nearly 743,000 in 1997, the latest year for which figures are available. By now, the couples who launch these partnerships and the experts who advise them have worked out some guidelines for achieving harmony at the office and at home:

TEST THE WATERS Katherine Crowley, a New York City psychotherapist and co-owner of Small Business Strategy, a consultancy, suggests that couples who are thinking of going into a business in which the wife is the boss might first try putting her in charge of a shared household project like painting a room or organizing closets. Taking on a business-related project together before making it an official work relationship can also be instructive. Each partner will see how the other works, and can judge whether their differences are tolerable.

Scott Hinkle, a Greensboro, N.C., family therapist, says before couples work together they should explore their backgrounds and feelings through family therapy. “If a husband saw his father being completely in charge and is himself used to being more in control, he is fooling himself if he thinks that he is not going to have problems reporting to his wife,” Hinkle says.

GO WITH YOUR STRENGTHS Tom Mesereau, 42, joined his wife Mona, 40, in the public-relations business in 1997, after her nine-month-old company began booming and she needed a partner to help handle the workload. Both had experience in marketing and public relations, but Tom had more background in computers and graphics, so he took on those tasks. The two run their business out of the basement of their Parker, Colo., home, with their kids–Michael, 12, and Mariah, 10–never very far away. “I had enough security and confidence in myself to be able to sit back and let Mona take over on projects that she was more expert at,” Tom says.

RECOGNIZE YOUR WEAKNESSES “I’m a stickler for deadlines, and my husband isn’t,” says Laura Herring, 52, president and founder of the Impact Group, a 105-employee human-resources consulting firm in St. Louis, Mo. “If I really need something from him on July 15, I have to ask him to get it to me by July 1.” Mike Herring, 56, executive vice president of the company, just shrugs. “I work with the dates she gives me. If it’s not a real deadline, well, that’s O.K. since I’m not that great with deadlines.” Laura adds, “I’m the one out bringing in the business, and my husband is dealing with internal issues like insurance, employees and the computers. We rarely bump heads at work and sometimes don’t even see each other until we get home at night.”

FACTOR IN THE KIDS Most couples working together find that business disagreements inevitably spill over into family time. In such households, it’s especially important to reassure kids that they are “loved and protected,” says therapist Hinkle. “If your kids see you get into an argument about work, explain to them that everything is fine with Mommy and Daddy.”

John and Bliss Morris say their business arguments and reconciliations have helped their four children, ages 3 to 20, learn important lessons about relationships. “When our kids have seen us disagree over business, over a client or a project, we explain to them right away that we always love each other and that we love them too,” Bliss says. “Then they see us holding hands and hear us say we’re sorry to each other, and they learn the value of not holding a grudge.”

It can be helpful for kids, even those as young as three or four, to see their parents working together, says Ellen Galinsky, author of the 1999 book Ask the Children (Morrow) and president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute in New York City. Children of business partners, she says, learn a work ethic and the value of money at a very young age. “Our kids understand that it’s our clients who pay for their clothes and food,” Mona Mesereau says. “It allows them to appreciate what we do for a living.”

Some couples go a step further and actively involve their children in the business. “From getting manicures at two years old in my husband’s beauty shop to waiting on customers in my store at eight years old, our daughter has been a major part of our business throughout her life,” says Vera Moore, 49, founder and president of Vera Moore Cosmetics, which is based in Valley Stream, N.Y., and manufactures and sells cosmetics for women of color. Her husband Billy Helms, 59, a cosmetologist and former beauty-salon owner, joined her business five years after she launched it in 1979, and reports to her as vice president. “The experience of watching us grow the company was so positive for our daughter Consuella that she is now our marketing director,” says Moore.

Laura and Mike Herring’s daughter Lauren, 23 and a recent college graduate, has held a host of jobs in her parents’ business, from designing marketing brochures to assisting with research to critiquing her mother when she is rehearsing a speech.

The Mesereaus, whose p.r. firm has many clients in the travel business, credit their children with helping them land an account two years ago. “The client was so impressed with their politeness and general business savvy,” Mona says, “that they instantly liked us and decided to give us their business.”

Once spouses go into business together, they say, it’s more important than ever to schedule play time for the entire family. Despite their 60-hour workweeks, Bliss and John Morris take about four family vacations a year and join in weekend activities like movies, barbecues and fishing. “We’ve always taken time to enjoy each other and our children,” John says. “If you’re going to be in business with your spouse, you’d better keep things as much fun as you can, or it’s not going to work.” And that goes for the marriage as well as the business.

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