Husband and wife Ken Gilbert and Jean Santos have run a business together for 33 years. Photo: Joseph Nishimiya

Mixing Love and Business

10 rules to ensure that owning and operating a business with your spouse is rewarding, not a prescription for emotional and financial disaster

January, 2015

I grew up in a home where mom and dad successfully owned and worked together in a business for over 25 years. As a child, I helped in the business over the summers and learned some of the most enduring lessons about running a business.

It may have been inevitable, but now I am also in a business with my husband. We own and operate a management consulting company based in Honolulu, and have been in business for 33 years. I’ve learned that working with your spouse can be both rewarding and one of the most challenging things you can ever do.

While working together, my husband and I have been through the good, the bad and the ugly. In that process, we came up with 10 simple rules that help us continue to grow our company while we nurture and honor our personal relationship.

1. Respect each other no matter what. You came into this business partnership because you believed that each of you brought assets and skills that contribute to success. Hold that thought when you get frustrated with each other and are ready to make comments that will set each other off. Keep the business issues business and the personal issues personal. Treat each other professionally at all times.

 2. Clarify your individual and collective priorities. Make sure you agree on where you are taking the company and have a good idea of how to get there. In that conversation, talk about what each person will “own” in that effort and be responsible for. Give each other the space and freedom to deliver those results without micromanagement from the other. If family and children are in the picture, decide where they rank in your priorities. Will you both drop everything for a child in need? Who cares for a sick child? Who drives the kids everywhere? Will you miss special performances because you have to see a client? Who stays home to wait for the dryer to be delivered? His time is no more valuable than hers, so create a way to resolve these dilemmas and stick with them. If you don’t, resentment will build quickly.

3. Set limits. Set boundaries where work stops and the personal relationship takes over. Working with your spouse makes it easy to work 24/7. Not a good idea. Make rules about when work is done and don’t let anything break them. During your personal time, don’t talk about the company. And don’t bring business discussions into the bedroom!

4. Always take each other’s calls. Sometimes it really is the little things. Both of us are very busy, so when one of us calls the other, it’s not to talk story, but to share something important. Please take the call and don’t be sharp or dismissive when you answer. At least sound as if you are happy to hear from your spouse.

5. Each person’s role should allow for individual control and contribution. Ideally you have different and complimentary skill sets that can propel the business forward. Determine those contributions and create an operating structure that allows both to contribute their best work in their unique areas. In our own company, I am the operations and implementation person and my husband is the visionary and strategist. A great combination if we support each other. Push the visionary into being the implementation person and it won’t work.

6. Ensure both individuals can be productive on their own. This means making sure both of you could, if necessary, take on the whole business or step outside to do something else. In my opinion, this is the healthiest situation possible because it allows both of you to make your own way, professionally and financially.  It protects everyone’s financial independence and assures you that your spouse will be OK if something happened to you.

7. Decide beforehand who has the final call when you can’t agree. Many husband-and-wife partnerships are equal and, while that is admirable, it can create problems when disagreements can’t be resolved. Early in the game, choose who has the final say and no snide “I told you so” comments if the decision later turns bad.

8. Work as a team – it’s not a competition. Avoid becoming too competitive with each other; after all, you are on the same team, working toward the same goals. It’s also not about who works longer hours, brings in more money, has happier clients, etc. Shared risk, shared effort, shared success.

9. Make time for yourself and manage your health, both mental and physical. It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle of the company, the relationship, the kids, the household needs and everything else.  Do that and you’ll quickly resent the company, the relationship, the kids, the household – you get the picture. Your health demands that you make time for workouts, sleep, nutritious meals and other things that enrich and renew you.

10. Build your succession plan early and work on it often. You both have worked hard to help the business succeed. Don’t wait until you’re ready to retire to figure out what to do with it. Start thinking about your succession early and often. If you have children, consider if they will be the next generation. What about the employees? Could they take over the company when you choose to retire? And when will you retire and how much money do you need to support your retirement lifestyle? Big, juicy issues that take time to sort out, so start early.

Jean Santos and Ken Gilbert are co-owners of Business Consulting Resources.

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Author:

Jean Santos, Co-owner of Business Consulting Resources