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TWO’S COMPANY
WORKING WITH YOUR SPOUSE OR PARTNER

by Simon Lord,
last updated 20/10/2011

What are the benefits and drawbacks of working together with your spouse? Simon Lord talks to three couples who are partners in life and work

Working with your spouse – for some people it’s a dream, for others it’s a nightmare. According to Nikki Kirsopp, ‘About nine out of ten people I speak to say, “I don’t know how you can work with your partner – it would drive me nuts!” But for us, we chose to buy a business because we actually wanted to work together. Our attitude is, “Why couldn’t you work with that person?” After all, if you choose to live with someone it’s because you get along together and have a lot in common. What better basis for running a business?’

But, as any couple will tell you, working together as well as living together has its ups and downs. We talked to three franchise couples to find out how they had learned to turn their marriage into a profitable business partnership, too. We also asked David Dovey, of Exceed Maintenance, for his perspective as a franchisor.

The Early Days

Every new business runs on a mixture of adrenalin and euphoria as its owners get to grips with new tasks and the freedom of being in total charge. If you are working with someone you love then the fun can be shared. But you can only run on that initial surge for so long.

When Nikki and Nick Kirsopp took over their Robert Harris Coffee Roasters café in Matamata two years ago, neither had been in the hospitality business before. Despite thorough training, they admit they found it stressful. ‘When we first took over, we had no routine, no structure and no time to do things,’ recalls Nikki. ‘We couldn’t get to bed before midnight and we worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week for the first eight months. We felt the business was our baby and that we needed to be there all the time. In hindsight, we could have done it differently.’

Antony Joll found different issues when he and his wife Toni took over their Speedy Signs franchise in Hamilton in 2003. ‘We didn’t have a lot of savings so we bought a business that wasn’t doing that well with the intention of turning it round. It was actually a very difficult time at first because our staff weren’t up to the job but we didn’t realise it. It’s not until you’ve learned all the facets of a business yourself that you know what to expect. After a year, Toni came into the business because she is very strong on systems and accuracy.’ Toni admits that it was hard to put their children, both under four, into daycare, ‘but it was our business so we had to run it. We were fortunate to find a fantastic carer who looked after them for quite a few years after that.’

In Christchurch, Paul and Pip Macfarlane’s daughters were also just infants when Paul escaped corporate life in his mid-30s to become a lawnmowing franchisee with Green Acres 13 years ago. ‘I was used to having a husband who went to work in a suit and tie – suddenly he was out there mowing lawns,’ laughs Pip. But after two years, Paul’s managerial instincts came to the fore and he took on the role of master franchisee. He and Pip now support 61 lawnmowing franchisees in their area.

‘Recruiting, training and supporting franchisees all takes time, some of it out of normal business hours,’ Paul says. ‘After three or four years we realised that without creating some boundaries it wasn’t going to work for us as a family– we’d get too frazzled.’

David Dovey says that it does take time to get used to running your own business, and that time management is an issue for many couples initially. ‘People often have unrealistic expectations about how much work it takes to run a business, and when a husband and wife aren’t in harmony as to what those expectations are, it can lead to problems. If both spouses are actively involved in some way, they have a much better understanding of what the business takes and can look for solutions together.’

Splitting the Roles

One of the techniques that our couples used was to have clearly-defined roles. ‘In our case, Nikki tends to do the paperwork, the GST, the rosters and so on while I do business proposals and liaising with other businesses,’ says Nick. ‘In the café, I am front of house while Nikki takes control of the kitchen, although we can both do enough to get by in the other’s area.’

Paul and Pip divided the roles right from the start. ‘We had actually worked together before in a distribution franchise so we knew our strengths,’ Pip says. ‘Paul loves sales and I took on the financial side.’ Paul says that while Pip is by far the better systems person, ‘we are both “people people”. I think you have to work out what your job descriptions will be and then try not to dabble in the other’s area too much.’

So how do staff cope with having two bosses in the business? Nikki laughs, ‘When we first took over, the feedback from the team was that every time I asked them to do something I would get told “Nick has just asked me to do that.” Each of us could see what needed to be done so we would both mention it. That caused some problems. We tried having one of us in charge one day and another the next, but that didn’t work because whoever wasn’t in charge got frustrated. Our staff have just had to learn to put up with us now. What I tell them is that if they don’t wait for us to ask but just go and do whatever needs to be done, they won’t be asked twice!’

Antony feels that this is another area where a clear split between roles helps. ‘We went through a period when Toni came into the business where the staff would go to either of us and get different answers. Now the staff report to me on operational matters and Toni for payroll.’

Keep Talking

Any business partners will have their disagreements from time to time and married couples are no different. Does being married make solving problems easier or worse?

‘Each of us definitely thinks we have the better idea sometimes, and we are both very competitive – we’re a nightmare when we play sports together, or even Monopoly,’ says Nikki. ‘But we’re very professional at work and if we have a disagreement we just keep out of each other’s way for half an hour or so.’ Nick says, ‘What we try and do is recognise that each person has their own area of expertise in the business and that person gets the final say if we disagree about something. You have to learn to agree to disagree and move on – always for the good of the business.’

Toni Joll agrees that, although she and Antony have always worked well together and rarely argue, ‘If we do disagree on something it’s better to leave it to the next day and discuss it constructively.’ As Antony says, ‘Disagreements are most likely when you’re sick, or tired, or have too much on your plate. You have to get over it through talking and communication.’

Franchisor David Dovey says that, ‘When you see disagreements, the reason is usually only superficially about the business; there’s usually some undercurrent that is carrying over into business life. We have had situations where franchisees’ marriages have ended and I think that often any underlying problems in a relationship are brought to the fore by the pressures of being in business. You need to go out for dinner and talk about what’s going on – communicate and share. If the pressure goes on – whether it’s a job gone wrong or a money worry – don’t hold it in. Without sharing it, it can be a lonely world.’

Getting Away From It

How do our couples manage to avoid taking business home? This could be a big issue for Paul and Pip, as they work from home. ‘Actually, what we have now is a separate office attached to the house,’ says Paul. ‘When it’s that close, you have to establish clear boundaries. For example, we have put in a telephone system so that if a call is work-related we won’t even hear the phone ring after five. We get the odd cellphone call during the evening, of course, but with 61 franchisees that’s only to be expected.’

For Antony and Toni, too, family time comes first. ‘Toni does four or five hours a day at work and takes accounts home sometimes; I start early but I’m usually home by six too. We will work the occasional weekend but that’s a rarity. People need their time off and weekends  – if you or your staff work more than 45 hours a week you make mistakes easily. We go to a gym 3 times a week, which is good for stress, but the best way to switch off from the business is to spend time with the kids.’

Nikki and Nick confess that they haven’t had more than two to three days off at a time, ‘Although we are getting ready for a break now,’ says Nikki. ‘When we won the Robert Harris Franchisee of the Year award, the prize was a travel voucher – we thought that was really funny, but maybe they were trying to tell us something! We have found that it’s good to get away from town on your days off so you can’t be on hand or go to the rescue. It makes you let go.’

Paul and Pip both lead busy lives away from work. ‘We do hosting for overseas students through the AFS scheme and I was support co-ordinator for 15 kids locally. I’m also involved with Rotary, while Pip is involved with all sorts of things including parish work. Life is reasonably compartmentalised. We bought a small holiday home five years ago – that’s a godsend – and these days we have a housekeeper for four hours a week. You have to put value on your time out.’

One of the issues raised by the Franchise Relationships Institute (see table) is the potential impact on children of owning a business. Both the Macfarlanes and the Jolls believe that their children have benefitted from the experience.

‘Our children are now six and eight, and they actually enjoy getting involved,’ says Antony. ‘They take away the excess vinyl from the graphics, vacuum, clean up floors and they get paid for it. It teaches them the value of money – it’s about rewarding endeavour rather than just giving.’

Paul comments that, ‘I often see new franchisees after hours. That’s the cost of running your own business but the children understand that’s what provides the rewards as well. For example, when we got to 50 franchisees we woke them up one morning and told them they weren’t going to school today – instead we got on a plane and went to Thailand. We’d packed all their bags secretly, so it was a total surprise. Now one of them is working with us a couple of hours a week doing filing and getting the mail out, so they are learning about business all the time.’

Two Heads Are Better Than One

While some franchises are marketed on the basis that they allow flexible working hours and are ideal for the couple who want to work together, the reality is that any business is hard work at first. Nikki and Nick Kirsopp are just coming to the end of that first manic stage where they live and breathe the business, while the more experienced Paul and Pip have learned to set and respect the boundaries necessary for them to enjoy both work and leisure time.

Working together can create pressures but it can also help a lot of couples develop a closeness. As David Dovey says, ‘I think for a lot of people it’s good to integrate their personal and business life a bit – it gives them something to talk about and helps them appreciate each other’s abilities.’

And he says there is another reason why he is a big fan of couples working together – results. ‘Every single one of our top-performing franchisees has strong support from a spouse involved in the business somehow. That’s a powerful endorsement of just how good a husband-and-wife team can be if they combine their skills.’ Truly a case that two heads can be better than one.

Things to Think About

Being in business with your partner raises a number of exciting opportunities and challenges. Research by Greg Nathan and his team at the Franchise Relationships Institute (FRI) shows that the personal relationship between partners can have a significant impact on the performance of a franchisee’s business. Although some of these will vary for different couples, many of the stresses on working relationships are likely to come from similar areas.

Here are some tips and questions you may like to discuss with your partner, courtesy of FRI:

Vision – A vision is simply how you see things working out. What is your vision of how you want your business and your family to function? It helps to have specific written goals in both these areas. When setting goals, consider what is of real importance in your life – what you won’t compromise on.

Financial goals - How much money do you need in order to support your family? Work out the revenues and profit targets the business needs to achieve so you can have the lifestyle you want.

Security - How much financial risk can you both live with? While it’s not a comfortable topic, you need to talk about the possibility that the business could fail and what this would mean for your family and your lifestyle. How much security are you prepared to give up?

Hours - How many hours are you each prepared to put into the business and what sacrifices are you not prepared to make? Also consider who will attend to the household chores, as this can become a source of resentment.

Children - How might the business impact on your kids and what can you do to ensure their needs are being met? If you don't put aside time to do the things they want to do, they will also get resentful. And don’t use the excuse, ‘I am doing this for you!’ if you are not spending enough time with them. It won’t wash.

Authority - Consider your strengths and areas of expertise. Who will have the final say on important decisions or key areas in the business? And who ultimately is the boss? Also ensure there are guidelines on how money will be spent in the business and the family, and who needs to be consulted.

Flexibility - Things seldom go exactly to plan, so flexibility is vital. How often will you review and talk about how things are progressing in the business and the family? It is likely that you will need to adjust and accommodate to changing circumstances.

Tolerance - Working and living together is likely to magnify your differences as well as your strengths and weaknesses. What quirks do you each have that may get on each other’s nerves under pressure? You probably got together with your partner because they complemented you. Remember this.

Support - You may need to cover for each other when one of you is under extra pressure or feeling under the weather. If you are married, a refreshing process is to go back through your wedding vows and reflect on the commitments you made!

Care – Don’t take your relationship for granted. See if you can really understand what your partner values and needs from you. A great book to read on how to do this is The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman. When people feel loved and cared for, every area of their life performs better.

Conflict – Don’t let things fester and don't push too hard to get your own way if you think this will create resentment. Where there are serious frustrations that you don’t seem to be able to resolve, seek outside support. Talk with a friend to get a fresh perspective, or book a few sessions with a relationship counsellor.

Fun – There is no reason why running a business can’t be a lot of fun. There is nothing worse than working and living with someone who always has a frown on their face. Lighten up. Look for the ridiculous in everyday problems. Have a laugh at your own expense. Your bonus will be more energy, creativity and productivity.

Well-being – Speaking of energy, it is important to stay well. Talk about what you both can do to stay healthy, especially in the face of pressure. Schedule time to do something you enjoy each week - individually and as a couple. And build a personal health programme into your weekly schedule.

Outside support - Encourage your extended family to take a positive interest in what you are doing, and cultivate friends who are supportive of your business. If you find that family members are being negative about the business, you may need to ask them to mind their own business!

This article first appeared in Franchise New Zealand magazine Volume 19 Issue 2

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