Advertisement

For Love or Money: The Profits and Perils of ‘Copreneur’ Couples

ASSOCIATED PRESS

For Lori and Steve Leveen, running a mail-order business has been a shared passion. They look for new products during vacations, talk business in bed at night, share their lives almost completely.

For Phil Picco and Samantha Koumanelis, opening a golf equipment store led to the end of their 15-year marriage.

In a sense, couples bet the house when they go into business together. Starting a business is risky enough. Starting a company with your spouse tests not only your financial acumen, but your marriage vows.

“There are days when you want to kill each other,” said Mary Duty, who has been running Poppa Rollo’s Pizza restaurant in Waco, Texas, for 18 years with her husband. “But there’s nothing better than working side by side with the man you love.”

Advertisement

Such teamwork is hardly new. Generations of stores have been minded by a mom and a pop. Farms have long been worked by both husband and wife.

Big businesses too are run by “copreneurs.” Estee Lauder launched her cosmetics empire with husband Joseph in 1946. Donna Karan has run her fashion company with her spouse, artist Stephan Weiss, for 13 years.

Joining one’s spouse in the shop seems to be growing more popular. Technology has made working from home feasible, while corporate turbulence--from downsizing to mergers--increases the allure of entrepreneurial work.

“More and more people are wanting a sense of independence and a sense of security, and feel they can’t trust the corporate world,” said Jane Hilburt-Davis, a Lexington, Mass.-based family-business consultant.

Advertisement

For Liz Curtis Higgs, working with her husband also meant time together--a rarity when she traveled to make motivational speeches and he worked 50-hour weeks as a computer systems specialist.

“One night I was looking at the Atlantic Ocean and he was looking at the Pacific Ocean and our children were with their grandparents in Kentucky,” Liz Higgs said. “We thought, ‘Is this any way to run a family?’ ”

Now, when she’s not traveling, she joins her husband and manager, Bill, in a converted garage behind their Louisville, Ky., home. Even their two children pitch in, earning their allowances by licking envelopes.

“It was the best thing we could have done,” Liz Higgs said.

Still, the Higgses are careful not to let the business overrun hearth and home--a danger especially common among entrepreneurial couples in the all-consuming early days of the enterprise.

The Higgses maintain separate offices to give each other breathing room and keep “trappings of work"--such as computers and Liz’s books--out of their house as much as possible, said Bill Higgs. At day’s end, they lock the office doors and try not to look back.

Steve and Lori Leveen, who started the Levenger catalog of reading lamps and other accessories in 1987, also try to keep the business from eclipsing their personal life.

“Sometimes it’ll be 11 at night, and we’ll say, ‘Time out! We have to stop talking business,’ ” Steve said, laughing.

Advertisement

Nonetheless, they are unapologetically passionate about their work, spending vacations and off-hours looking for antique reading tables or chairs that might be updated for modern production.

That devotion helped them through the grueling first days when they barely stepped outdoors for fear of losing a customer phone call. “We’re both doing something we love,” Lori Leveen said. “Having a common goal is very rewarding.”

A business partnership without that shared passion can be disastrous.

Koumanelis and Picco had been married for nine years when he opened a golfing range and golf equipment store in Peabody, Mass. Picco, a firefighter, planned to run the business during off-duty hours.

Although Koumanelis loathes golf, she reluctantly agreed to help run the store when her husband couldn’t be there. That arrangement didn’t suit anyone.

“I knew nothing about the business, and he was losing a lot of money because of that,” Koumanelis said.

“Samantha wasn’t into it,” agreed Picco. “She wasn’t as supportive as I wanted her to be.”

Their problems were compounded when Koumanelis tried to start her own business advising women on protecting themselves. She felt that Picco didn’t support her; he says he tried. Six years later, the golf shop closed and their marriage ended.

Advertisement

Not all businesses go bust when a marriage ends. Lou McLeod and Wayne Gustafson remain co-owners and operators of Julian’s restaurant in Santa Fe despite dissolving their marriage 15 years ago.

“The perfect marriage was the business, in terms of talent and energy,” said McLeod, who attributes their marital breakup to a failure to develop a life outside their restaurant.

Most divorces of copreneurs aren’t as amicable, said family law lawyer Violet Woodhouse. Both spouses often view the business as their “child,” and they tend to drag their personal conflicts into the workplace.

Before launching a business together, couples need to think ahead. Are they willing to invest just $3,000 or their life savings in their business? Do they want to work 40 hours a week or 80 hours?

“There is a certain need to give yourself a romantic vision of what being self-employed will be, to give yourself the courage to do it,” said Azriela Jaffe, who wrote “Honey, I Want To Start My Own Business,” a book on entrepreneurial couples. “But you must be prepared.”

Part of the planning involves a sensitive decision: Will there be one boss or two?

The Leveens initially asked employees to report to both of them. But eventually, they concluded that only one of them should be president.

Now, Steve has the title of president, but more of the company reports to Lori. “If there has to be one final say, he voices it,” Lori Leveen said. “But the two of us make final decisions together.”

A 1994 study by psychologist Kathy Marshack found that co-entrepreneurial couples opt for traditional gender roles, with the man in charge of the business and the woman shouldering most housework, more often than dual-career couples.

Yet family business consultant Hilburt-Davis believes that such divisions are changing, in part because more husbands are joining their wives’ businesses.

Dave Bruno started his business seven years ago after the medical bills from a near-fatal car accident bankrupted him. For years, their family of five survived on his wife’s earnings from baby-sitting and Tupperware sales while he built his business.

But two years ago, Marlene Bruno joined the business, which makes cards printed with inspirational sayings, and now it’s an equal partnership, Dave Bruno said.

The pair each do what they’re best at; she handles finance, he does the sales. And although they argue, they don’t carry grudges.


Advertisement