Children are known for playing one parent off the other to get what they want. But Jochen and Sabine Schleese certainly didn’t expect to see that behavior in a client. The couple own Schleese Saddlery Service Ltd., a manufacturer of custom English riding saddles in Holland Landing, Ont. The company works with independent distributors, who sell Schleese products in some 40 countries worldwide. “We have one agent who consistently played us against each other,” says Sabine. In one instance, the agent cut a deal on some saddles with Sabine. Unhappy with his agreed-upon cut, he approached Jochen and negotiated higher terms. When the couple discovered the underhanded tactic, Jochen still felt obliged to keep his end of the bargain. “We allowed him to sell our product in one European country at Canadian-dollar prices,” recalls Sabine, “although our export price list is in U.S. dollars. We lost money with that deal.”
The incident spearheaded a new policy between the two partners. “Now we don’t commit to anything up-front with anybody,” says Sabine. “We tell them we’ll get back to them, which allows us to touch base with each other.”
After 17 years in marriage and business, the Schleeses have navigated many such challenges to grow their business from a tiny two-person shop into a profitable company with 34 employees and 2002 revenue of $4.7 million. “We made a lot of mistakes,” says Sabine, “whether it was hiring too fast, firing too slow, not planning properly or poor investment decisions.” And that, she says, has led to many heated discussions between the partners.
But for every difficulty they face, there’s an advantage to being an entrepreneurial couple. For example, the Schleeses’ intimacy allows them to communicate without saying a word. “We can read each other very well,” says Sabine. “I know Jochen is perturbed when he raises his eyebrows and smiles a lot. When I’m upset, he knows my voice goes lower and more monotone.” That shorthand gives them a negotiating advantage. “If we see that the direction of a conversation is agitating the other person, these signals help us present a united front.” And when the couple is able to form an alliance quickly on an issue, it is easier to impart specific values and policies to their staff.
If being married in the business can bring big rewards, it also presents special challenges. Running a business with your spouse can breed discontent in the office and at home. When you need only to roll over in bed to talk shop, separating your business and personal life can be a constant struggle. And since couples in business together tend to work more hours than they would if they weren’t co-owners, eking out family time can be doubly hard.
When the partnership clicks, the personal and business advantages outweigh the challenges. Couples in business know they have a partner they can trust, who shares their vision and is equally invested in the company’s success. Couples also have a real understanding of their respective spouses and can counterbalance each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Of course, managing this delicate relationship is not easy. But PROFIT found five couples who have made it work. Here’s how they create synergy, cover their shortcomings and share power 24 hours a day. If you can learn from their extreme examples, you can make any partnership work.
The Schleeses are one of a quarter-million Canadian couples operating a business together, according to Statistics Canada. While researchers are just starting to collect data on couple-run companies, there’s some indication these partnerships may have a leg up on the competition. They’re likely to stick it out longer than other partners and work harder at finding solutions to problems, says Judi Cunningham, founding director of the Business Families Centre at the University of British Columbia. “These businesses tend to have more longevity,” she says, “possibly because they want to bring in kids eventually.”
© 2003 Rhea Seymour