Running a business with a spouse: how easy is it?

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Running a business with a spouse: Husband and Wife businesses James Lohan and Tamara Heber-Percy Mr & Mrs Smith

Running a business with a spouse offers flexibility and financial rewards. But what happens when barriers between work and home life blur? Three successful couples give their verdict

Family firms account for 65 per cent or almost three million of the 4.6 million private sector businesses in the UK, says the Institute for Family Business. Exactly how many of these are husband-and-wife partnerships is unclear as there is little research into spouse-run companies. Åsa Björnberg, PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, points out that the figure for husband-and-wife partnerships in the US is approximately 30 per cent of family firms. Replicate that share in Britain and it would mean couples run almost 1.4 million businesses.

Even anecdotal evidence suggests running a business with your spouse is still a popular and successful way of working for many couples. In addition to financial rewards, the benefits of flexibility, trust and spending more time with a loved one are attractive. But although the experience can enhance a relationship for some couples, for others it can be a recipe for disaster.

Stephen Roper, professor of enterprise at Warwick Business School, warns couples to think hard about the downsides of working with a partner, not least because it can strain relationships.

Francesca Lagerberg, head of tax at Grant Thornton, says that when things go wrong in a husband and wife-run firm it tends to be over which direction to take the business. “It can be particularly painful if one member of that unit wants to grow the business quicker than the other. You need an agreed plan,” she says.

As part of her PhD, Björnberg has interviewed 18 copreneurs (husband-and-wife teams running businesses), looking into what makes them successful. An obvious benefit is the implicit trust that would be difficult to duplicate in a regular business partnership. Björnberg has found that couples in business become better at conflict resolution and communication. “It doesn’t necessarily mean the number of conflicts will be reduced but it means you have to deal with it because you can’t shove it under the carpet,” she says.

Roper says the strongest partnerships are where couples have complementary skills and clearly defined roles. Björnberg has found that a high level of complexity surrounds professional and private boundaries. Where many people assume a private relationship will disturb any professional link, she has found the opposite is true—the professional aspect takes over the personal life. “One wife felt she had lost her identity because the business was taking over everything,” she says.

Björnberg says it is possible to be lonely even if you are a spouse in a copreneurship. One wife said she and her husband had a business-related fight one weekend and she had no one else to talk to about it.

Lagerberg says copreneurs must make sure they don’t drag the business into other areas of their lives. “Having space is important,” she says. Björnberg advises bringing in other employees as soon as possible to help break the intensity of the marital dyad. Finally, don’t forget you are married, she says. “Nurture your relationship away from the business as husband and wife.” Here we talk to three couples successfully mixing love and business.

Case study: ‘The personal does not affect business’

Who James Lohan and Tamara Heber-Percy
Company Mr & Mrs Smith
Sector Travel

James Lohan and Tamara Heber-Percy started boutique hotel guide company Mr & Mrs Smith as a hobby. “It all began with me taking Tamara, who was my girlfriend then and not my wife, away on some pretty miserable dirty weekends in some dodgy hotels—thanks to a guidebook that shall remain nameless,” explains Lohan. “We decided we should do our own guidebook.”

The couple turned their spare bedroom into the Mr & Mrs Smith office and worked on the venture in their spare time. When the first guide was published in 2003 it was an instant success, selling 25,000 copies in the first three months. The business, which now also includes a hotel booking service, is looking to take £30m worth of bookings this year.

Heber-Percy admits the couple had no idea if they’d work well together before they set up the business. “It just took on a life of its own and we’ve been on a rollercoaster ever since,” she says.

Lohan says there’s a natural split in their skill set. As chief executive he looks after the overall business and brand while Heber-Percy deals with the technology side of the company. “Tamara has a patience and intelligence for certain aspects of the business that just don’t compute with me,” he says.

Heber-Percy enjoys seeing her husband’s professional side. “It’s amazing for me to see James in a meeting presenting the business. I don’t have that ability so I really admire that in him.” She says Lohan is more entrepreneurial. “James wants to crack on with an idea immediately whereas I like to think things through.”

With two young children, Heber-Percy says they are either “doing Smith stuff” or with the family. “Nothing else gets done,” she says. Although the couple hardly get away from the business, Lohan says they can support each other. “I can’t imagine if I was coming home with all the stresses and strains that I have if my wife didn’t understand what I was going through,” he says.

The couple both want to sell the company eventually. “It’s a brilliant thing but I’ve got other things I’d like to do and so has Tamara,” says Lohan.

But there is plenty still to do. As well as consolidating their position in the UK, the couple want to grow in the US and Asia-Pacific, including China, followed by Brazil, India and Europe. Mr & Mrs Smith adds around 200 hotels a year to its portfolio, which stands at around 750.

Heber-Percy puts their success down to sheer hard work. “And that means working hard at your relationship within that too,” she says.
Lohan agrees, adding that the business always come first. “You have other people relying on you, mouths to feed. We’ll always try to do what’s right for the business and not let anything personal affect the decision-making process,” he says.

Case study: ‘We don’t step on each other’s toes’

Who Adam Twidell and Carol Cork
Company PrivateFly
Sector Private jet hire

When Adam Twidell, chief executive of private jet hire network PrivateFly, started his business in 2005 he borrowed his wife’s office. “Carol had a [marketing] consultancy not far from where we lived,” he explains.

Twidell, a former RAF pilot, was flying for private aviation company NetJets, and had been working on a project with London City Airport to develop RAF Northolt into a private jet hub. Having seen the industry from both the perspective of the pilot and the airport, Twidell couldn’t believe the private jet industry was still operating offline. He integrated it into an online booking system, linking customers directly with aircraft operators. In between shifts he used wife Carol Cork’s office to set up PrivateFly, and he kept asking her advice.

“He kept bugging me across the desk, asking me what I thought,” explains Cork, now the company’s sales and marketing director. “I became involved bit by bit.”

The couple, who have two children, sold their house and used equity to fund the early stages of the business. In 2009, PrivateFly secured its first phase of funding at which point Cork joined the company full time.

The funding has helped to expand the business in Britain and it is fundraising again to reach into Europe. “We were very much a husband-and-wife team with a few part-time staff. Now we have a head count of 14 and it feels like an established company,” says Twidell. Last year’s turnover was £1.1m. The forecast for this year is over £2m. While Cork runs sales and marketing, Twidell manages the website and operations. “Adam and I have different background skills so we don’t step on each other’s toes,” says Cork.

Twidell admits his leadership style is quite military. “I have no hesitations telling people if I’m not happy with their performance. Likewise, if someone wants to criticise something I’ve done or make a suggestion, I’m up for listening,” he says.

Twidell is the risk-taker while Cork is the voice of reason. “I’m more gung-ho whereas Carol will say no, we don’t need another big screen in the office,” says Twidell.

Disagreements often centre on marketing. “We’re quite a disruptive business model so there aren’t any absolute rights or wrongs,” says Cork. Twidell adds: “We respect that the other is right in their area and go with it.”

Twidell believes there are numerous advantages to working with a spouse, not least the ability to walk out of the office at a moment’s notice if something has happened to one of the children. The disadvantage is that if they go on holiday, the business is left without a management team. “Taking holiday is a bigger company decision than a personal one,” says Cork.

Like most spouses working together, they talk shop at home. “Adam and I don’t divide work and our private life well but it works for us. If we didn’t have children, work would be much more dominating than it is,” says Cork.

Case study: ‘There’s no concern that who you’re working with is not aligned to your thinking’

Who Chris Parke and Jo Lyon
Company Talking Talent
Sector Coaching and consultancy

Chris Parke and Jo Lyon became close in 2004 when they worked for HR consultancy Cedar International. They were delivering executive coaching and found that many companies were doing a “lousy job” at managing women as they went through maternity and returned to work. In 2005, two months before the birth of their first child, they launched Talking Talent, a coaching and consulting company that helps organisations attract, retain and maximise the potential of their talented women.

“Jo and I knew we had complementary styles,” says Parke. While Lyon’s strengths lie in managing teams and delivering executive coaching, Parke’s forte is looking after client relationships and winning new business.

Parke and Lyon are equal partners in the business even though he works five days a week and she does three. “Since we’ve set up we’ve had three children so we’d like to think we’re practising what we preach,” says Lyon.

The couple share an outlook on values and strategy, although Parke admits he is the impatient one who wants to grow the business fast. “Once we set a strategy I want to get it done immediately. Jo is more measured,” he says.

The business has 60 clients with an annual turnover around £1m. Staff numbers have grown to a core team of nine. The couple have expanded into markets such as the US and Europe and new products, including executive coaching for senior women and new fathers.

Lyon says one benefit of running a business as a married couple is that both partners have the same aims both inside and outside work. “If something falls down in terms of childcare there is a mutual understanding and responsibility,” she explains. But work/life balance can be a double-edged sword. “We can do things around the working day that we might not otherwise be able to do [such as popping home to have lunch with the children],” she says. The challenge is when the highs and lows come at the same time. “When there’s a lot going on it’s not just one of us feeling that, it’s both of us.”

Parke likes the fact that they can be totally honest with each other. “We can tell it how it is,” he says. Another advantage is the implicit trust. “There’s no concern that who you’re working with is not aligned to your thinking.”

The biggest challenges the couple have faced have been around staffing rather their working relationship. “When you say to people you’re in a husband-and-wife business they have this perception that you spend all day together but our business is very client-facing so we’ll probably cross paths at work once a week, if that,” says Lyon.

Parke says the secret to their success is having a clear vision on what they want to achieve as well as clarity of roles and shared values. To this list Lyon adds respect and recognition for what each person brings. “But that’s the same for any business,” she says.

By Sarah Nicolas, April 2011: Director Magazine

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Director is the magazine for business leaders. Free to IoD members and available to purchase through subscription, each edition is full of insightful interviews with entrepreneurs and company directors.

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