By Brett Stephens
Venice has always represented an eclectic yet functional mix of business and commerce, attracting a diverse group of entrepreneurs. They offer products and services to meet most every need—and desire.
In our small, vibrant town, some of the folks behind the most successful and enduring businesses come in pairs. They are playing out the American Dream, living as well as working with their life partners. Although it may sound wonderful, it’s definitely not for everyone. Working with a spouse or partner can be a 24/7 proposition, and even the most romantic couples may find that constant togetherness has a way of wilting that loving feeling. But when it works, a dynamic business—and relationship—can grow.
The couples featured here have managed to get the formula right and build on their unions for the good of their pocketbooks and their marriages. They have learned how to co-exist at home as well as the office or the store, and make working together—well, work.
Have Spouse, Will Travel
For Bill and Debbie Whalen, proprietors of Vacation Travel on the Island of Venice, 28 years sums it all up. “We worked together all that time,” Bill proclaims. They had a couple of video stores, some travel offices, and a leasing company within an auto dealership prior to opening their travel business here in Venice.
From where Bill sits, a husband-and-wife-owned business has its advantages. “In a small professional office it’s very good, because after a period of time, we both know each other’s clients, inside and out. So it’s easy for me to help her and she can help me with the knowledge we both have. It’s a real big plus.”
But Bill and Debbie agree that it’s important to keep the relationship 24/7, not the work environment. “The downside can be the time you spend together,” he says. “You need to be able to go home together and turn it off. If you can’t turn it off and you bring it home, the kids can get involved. That’s not healthy.”
To get around that, Bill said, “I’ve learned to hold my tongue. Acquiesce to the other person. Learn how to give in. Take the ego out of the job.”
Certainly, when you literally spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year together as partners in life and business, things can get on your nerves.
For Bill, it’s an ongoing ritual. “Debbie keeps the books. So she’ll come in here and sit down and say, ‘Well, Mr. Whalen, the books look like you’re not doing what you should be doing.’”
Debbie points to the advantages of a husband-and-wife team. “I can do his job and he can do mine. It allows a lot of flexibility. But it’s very important to have your own clients, your own specialties, so you can carry your weight and one isn’t carrying all the workload.”
You can always tell good business partners by the frankness of their words. “Sure, I’ve got pet peeves. He schmoozes way too much. But it works to our advantage because schmoozing is a part of our business. Someone like me, who is too technical and detailed, needs to have someone with more personality. That’s where Bill’s strengths are. We balance each other.”
Bill and Debbie are clearly on the same page. Bill offers this advice to those considering a life and career together: “Make sure your personalities are suited to maintain your relationship. It’s the most wonderful thing in the world to work with your spouse. Just make sure that you can let it go when you walk out of the office and leave the work at work. You have to turn it off.”
“Hear” Since 1976
They haven’t always worked together, but in retrospect it was a business match made in heaven. As a couple, Patrick and Dr. Barbara Jaehne (sounds like Janie) can claim higher education and a track record of running successful businesses. Both are also polished professionals and speakers who know how to control a meeting and command attention in a room. Today, they are putting their collective talents to work as owners of Medical Gardens Hearing Center.
Patrick originally worked in commercial real estate, but the firm fell victim to the economy and he found himself in need of work. “I needed to find another way of pulling in the same amount of income we were both used to. I asked Barbara if I were able to improve her business enough to make my way, would she have me?”
Turns out, she would. “We’ve increased the business quite a bit,” Patrick points out, “growing from two offices to three and we have a more efficient operation. She has time to see more patients and do what she does best. I have all the time in the world to do the back office work and marketing, so I can get all that off her plate.”
A Good Hire
“Patrick has a lot of talent in marketing and growing businesses,” Barbara said, “So he was a natural fit. If the business was growing and I needed to hire somebody to do that job, why not hire my husband, who is always going to be on the lookout for the business? He could see how I was struggling to see patients, pay the bills, do some semblance of marketing, handle all the vendors, keep office staff happy and keep things working in the office. He has many talents and it works out very well for us.”
Home Work, Work Home
“When we get home from work, we’re still working,” said Patrick, “We take a little break and try to sit by the pool, but even when we’re sitting by the pool we’re talking about business. We’re talking about what we’re going to do next . . . what we should do about this situation or that situation.”
Patrick continues, “After about seven or eight o’clock at night, we decide we’re going to turn it off, we’re going to eat dinner, watch a little TV and go to bed. But it’s really always in the back of our minds. It’s even at home, even on the weekends.”
Barbara understands the challenge of turning it all off. “Whether you’re a husband-and-wife team or you own your own business, it’s hard to turn it off, period. Because the buck stops at you. But we do try to plan things where we don’t discuss business, so we can get our minds off work. And we do a lot of things socially together, as well. The real pitfall for me, now that Patrick is here, is that I don’t have Fridays off!”
“I crack the whip,” Patrick quips.
Patrick warns, “If you don’t get along with your spouse at home, you’re not going to get along with her at work. It’s going to get even worse. We have a good relationship at home and a good relationship at work.”
Barbara adds, “Common goals. Common values. That’s important. It’s not just one person in charge.”
When asked about the downside of their partnership, Patrick says, “I think she worries too much about things that haven’t come to pass. She worries about this patient or that patient coming in unsatisfied and they’re happy as a lark.”
Barbara struggles to find the downside, “I can’t think of anything, except that he’s very driven and if anything, he likes to keep me very busy. I could use a little more downtime.”
If the Shoe Fits
Kathy and Bruce Crisman are former Nebraskans who are now second-generation owners and operators of the Venice Avenue mainstay, Dick’s Shoes. Those who know them are familiar with Kathy’s calm demeanor and hard-nosed business sense, which is complemented well by Bruce’s affable and outgoing personality. He is the perfect salesman to her manager.
Working together is anything but new for them. They have been married 38 years, with 25 of them in the shoe business. “We have worked at different jobs before,” Kathy begins. “He had his work and I had my work. And then when you get home and you’ve got kids, and all the work, you don’t talk. Maybe that’s the one plus about having a business together; you’re talking all the time. Maybe you’re arguing more, but you are communicating.”
On the positive side, Kathy sees the virtues of having a spouse as a business partner. “It’s someone who knows everything about your business and yourself. I know what he can do. He knows what I can do. And we know what we can do together. If he wasn’t able to do what he needed to do, he knows I can step in and do it. The same with me. Your business partner is your life partner, so every aspect of your life is covered.”
The down side, says Bruce, is, “We’re so close together all the time. But there’s a remedy for that—running errands, splitting shifts, taking care of other matters outside the store.”
For Kathy, the down side is clear. “You can’t take a vacation! Who’s going to take care of your business when you’re gone?” Because of that, she says, “We don’t vacation a lot. But hey, we live in paradise. There’s no place nicer than here. So you can just go to the beach and be away. If we had this kind of business somewhere else, I don’t know how that would work. I mean, where would you go?” When it comes to giving advice to aspiring couples, Kathy doesn’t have to give it much thought. “Make sure that you make your plans together. Make your projections together, your business plan together. Don’t make it ‘his’ plan or ‘her’ plan. Do it together. Otherwise, there’s going to be misunderstandings somewhere along the road and it’s not going to work.”
“You have to have the same expectations, the same goals.” Kathy says. Over the years, she’s known couples where both partners were gung-ho about the business and those where one partner was gung-ho and the other could care less. There has to be equal levels of commitment. “One can’t just be a tagalong.”
If Bruce has any complaints about working together, it’s what he calls her “dirty desk.” Kathy’s desk is packed with action or to-do items and his looks nearly vacant. “It annoys me, but she knows where everything is. I can ask her for something and she’ll go right to it. So, I’ve learned to leave her alone about it. But that’s what gets me.”
What gets Kathy is Bruce’s need to take his lunch only at lunchtime. “It doesn’t matter if we’re too busy—he has to eat. I mean, he’ll come in late and if it’s lunchtime, he sits down to eat even if there’s work to be done. ‘I’m going to eat!’” she mocks.
In or Out?
So who’s the boss in the husband-and-wife partnership? The short answer is, no one. The health of the partnership is incumbent upon mastering the art of give and take. It requires the right mindset, attitude, personality and above all, understanding, to make working together work.