Spouses Take Vow to Share Job--Till Work Do Them Part

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For two people who exude such an air of independence and quiet confidence, Betsy and Jerry Jones certainly seem to enjoy their time together.

They commute to and from work together. They eat lunch together. They shop together. They travel together--on business and for pleasure. They even work together. Not only do they work for the same company, but they share an office--and even share a job.

It's a degree of togetherness that would strain or even sink many relationships. But for the Joneses, who work as account executives with Exhibitree Three Dimensional Advertising in Irvine, the unique working partnership has proved not only to be good for business, but good for their marriage as well.

"I've had buddies ask me, 'How do you do it?' " says Jerry, 47, who has worked with his wife for nearly 10 of the 11 1/2 years they've been married. "One friend told me, 'If I spent as much time with my wife as you do with Betsy, I'd be in prison for murder.' And he probably would be. I don't know many couples who could do what we do. But for us, it works."

What helps, says Betsy, 38, is the fact they share a passion for the high-pressure business that brought them together.

"We both thrive on the creativity and intensity of the exhibit business," Betsy says. "You've got a deadline, and you've got to meet it. There's no such thing as a good excuse. Clients invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in a three-day trade show. If their booth isn't ready when the doors open, their reputation is down the tubes and so is ours."

Adds Jerry: "You can tell your husband or wife about your day, but they're never going to fully understand what it all means. They can't because they're only sharing part of your world. But when Betsy and I close a big deal, we share the rush. When we go to a major trade show and we complete a 50- by 110-foot exhibit hours before the doors open, we both feel the adrenaline pump."

*

When Betsy met Jerry in the mid-'70s, she was working in the public relations and marketing department for Varco International. Back then, their relationship was strictly business. But several years later, after both divorced and Betsy returned to Orange County after a brief stay in the East, their paths crossed.

"I was working for Smith International, and part of my job was buying our exhibit displays for trade shows," Betsy says. "It just happened that Smith was one of Jerry's clients, so we started working together again."

In late 1980, they began dating. Jerry, who assumed that Betsy's boss would consider their relationship a conflict of interest, took him to lunch and announced he was resigning the account.

"At that time she was spending about $100,000 a year with my company," Jerry recalls. "It seemed to me that even the appearance of a conflict of interest could be damaging to both of us, so I thought that what I was doing was the only solution."

But much to Jones' surprise, Betsy's boss saw their relationship as an asset rather than a liability.

"He just smiled and said, 'You're going to bust your butt making her look good, aren't you?' He was totally supportive. He told me he'd be checking my bids occasionally to make sure they were competitive, but he wished us nothing but the best. He knew that our personal relationship would only strengthen our business relationship."

Within a year, they were married. Their client/supplier relationship continued, but when the recession hit the oil industry, Betsy was laid off.

"I looked for a job for three or four months and would go to Jerry's office to use the computer and the copier," she says. "I started helping him out a little here and there. I found that I liked this end of the business even better, because no two days were ever the same. In the morning you're meeting with someone who makes heart valves. In the afternoon, you might be talking with a client about fighter jets."

The longer Betsy spent at Jerry's office, the less inclined she was to look for a job elsewhere.

"There came a point where we sort of looked at each other and said, 'Gee, this is working, isn't it?' " Betsy recalls. "Together, we were producing greater results than either of us were on our own. But even then, we were conscious of the potential for problems. We agreed up front that if it didn't work out, I'd be the one to leave the business."

*

Jerry says the reaction of his clients and employees to having "the boss' wife" so directly involved in the business was initially guarded.

"When we'd go into a new client presentation and introduce ourselves, they'd inevitably ask whether we were married," he says. "When we said yes, you could tell from their expressions that they had concerns. But once we explained how we worked together and how they would be getting a team that blends the best of both people, they were much more comfortable."

When the Joneses sold their $26 million business in 1991, they were weighing their options when they received a call from longtime competitor John Schumacher, president of Exhibitree.

"The minute I heard Jerry might be available for a sales position, I picked up the phone," Schumacher says. "I just assumed that he and Betsy would come as a team, and that was fine with me. As far as I was concerned, we were getting two terrific people to fill one position. They both had a great reputation in the business, and their track record spoke for itself. They brought a lot of happy clients along with them, so I knew that whatever they were doing was working for them. They're a great example of how the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts."

The relationship works, Betsy and Jerry Jones agree, because they both respect the boundaries that have evolved over time. While the couple has never actually sat down and written an agreement outlining their work relationship, they have established some basic ground rules over the years. Among them:

* Leave work at work.

"It's easier said than done, especially since so many of our closest friends are clients and people in the business," Betsy says. "But there are times when one of us--usually me--will be talking about work, and the other will say, 'I'm really not up for it--let's deal with it tomorrow at the office.' You have to respect the fact that just because you want to talk about work doesn't necessarily mean the other person is going to be in the mood to hear it."

* Establish clear priorities.

"As much as I love the exhibit business, relationships are ultimately much more important to me," Jerry says. "My relationships with some of my clients have developed into very close friendships. If I had to choose between their business and their friendship, it'd be simple. As far as I'm concerned, it's a lot easier to develop new business than it is to develop close friendships."

* Respect the differences in each other's styles.

"There's more than one right way to get the job done. I'm very organized and can reach for anything I need and find it," Betsy says. "Jerry has stacks of paper and files everywhere. His style sometimes makes me crazy, because it seems like a waste of time to have to hunt things down all the time. But it really works for him. I know that he sometimes thinks I take organization to extremes. More than once he's told me that you can't make money cleaning your desk."

* Give each other plenty of time and space to pursue separate interests.

"As much as Jerry and I enjoy being together, it's important to both of us to have time for ourselves," Betsy says. "When he and his buddies go off on a fishing trip, I love staying home and watching old black-and-white movies all by myself. I have a terrific time."

*

In nearly a decade of working together, the Joneses remember only one fight that interrupted their routine. Neither recalls what is was about, but it erupted at their Huntington Beach home one morning before work.

"It was pretty heated, because we ended up driving to work separately that day," Betsy says. "I had some meetings in the afternoon and went home early, so for me it was no big deal. But Jerry wasn't so lucky. Not only didn't he leave early, but he got stuck in nasty rush-hour traffic. It took him 40 minutes longer to get home than when we share the car pool lane."

On his way home, Jerry called Betsy on the the car phone.

"He told me that no argument was worth sitting in that traffic," Betsy recalls. "He apologized and wanted to make a deal--that no matter what kind of disagreement we might ever have, we'd resolve it before we left the house so that we could ride to work together."

These days, the Joneses are commuting two days a week from their Palm Springs condo to their Irvine office. The rest of the week they stay with a friend in Laguna Hills. It's a temporary arrangement, but it marks the beginning of what Jerry Jones sees as a permanent "change of lifestyle."

"We're getting out of California and moving to Arizona," he says. "We're building a home in Scottsdale, and we're going to take time to enjoy life. We'll still come to the office two or three times a month and continue to service some of our accounts. But we've reached a point in our lives where it's time to pull back. We're going to relax, travel and ride motorcycles."

Together, of course.

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