College of Business

Partners in business, partners in marriage

By: Debbie Kelley, The Gazette
February 12, 2017
Image by: Stacie Scott, The Gazette
The same ingredients that make up a good marriage - trust, respect, kind words, forgiveness and don't forget humor - also are essential when husband and wife are business partners.

The thought of working together is beyond fingernail-on-chalkboard annoying and root-canal painful for some married couples.

But for those who tie the knot at home and the office, it seems as natural as breathing.

"I didn't think it was a big deal because I was raised on a farm, and you always worked together," said Darlene Bruner, who has run Apex Sports beside her husband, Doyne Bruner, for more than three decades.

Besides, "Working with your spouse can be very fulfilling," said Paul Miller, who owns Miller's Chicago Dogs restaurant with his wife, Heather. "It can bring a lot of joy and strengthen your marriage."

The same ingredients that make up a good marriage - trust, respect, kind words, forgiveness and don't forget humor - also are essential when husband and wife are business partners.

"We both get a vote; only hers counts and mine doesn't," jokes Tim Taylor, who owns Kelly's Office Connection with his wife, Gail.

"I listen to his opinions," Gail said, "but they don't always win out."

While it's not all rosy, couples who live, play and work together say it's not as hard as it might seem. Plus, it can be good for business.

"You can boast that you're family owned and operated," said Mike Stokes, the Bruners' son-in-law who also works at Apex Sports along with his wife, Dana Stokes.

The family feeling of the store spills over to employees and customers, Dana said. "The customers tell us they appreciate the atmosphere," she said. "It's rare today."

She'll still date me

The Taylors have owned their office supply and service shop in the heart of Woodland Park for 12 years. Before that, they did remodeling projects as a team.

"It's a nice, steady business," Gail said about their store, "and we get to meet friendly, local people." Although they've been married for 28 years, they're as in love as they were when they met in 1985.

"She'll still date me," Tim said, with a sideways look at Gail.

They set aside every Wednesday for "date night" and go out to eat or see a movie. It helps them reconnect and get their mind off work.

Gail's license plates on her new Camaro read "Tim's Girl." Not the car, her.

They've renewed their wedding vows three times.

"We had so much fun the first time, we said, 'Let's do it again,' " Tim said.

The first renewal was in Las Vegas where they were married, the second at a NASCAR race at Texas Motor Speedway and the third at the Renaissance Festival in Larkspur, where a double rainbow appeared afterward.

It was so loud at the Raceway Ministries booth, Tim told Gail he couldn't hear a thing. "I said, 'Just nod your head,' " Gail replied.

Photos of each event sit atop Gail's workstation.

Gail and Tim know their customers' names and personally deliver supplies to major clients. Gail makes sure everybody's happy, and Tim handles all the management and finances.

One advantage of being married is that customers know they'll get the same friendly service from either of them, Gail said.

Respect for each other is paramount, the Taylors believe.

"We know what we're capable of doing, we don't have insecurities, we know each other well," Gail said. "That's half the battle."

They have sometimes "spat back and forth and pick on each other and tease," she said.

"It is work, and you've got to know that going into it, but we wouldn't have it any other way."

Who really is boss

Doyne and Darlene Bruner's daughter, Dana, started working at Apex Sports when she was young and met her future husband, Mike Stokes, there. All four now own the company.

Each heads a different department of the store, which sells and repairs motorcycles, ATVs, scooters and utility vehicles. Doyne builds trikes, three-wheel motorcycles, Mike's the general manager, Dana handles finances and office operations, and Darlene is in charge of parts and accessories.

"It's not like someone is supervising the other," Dana said.

Doyne opened the business in 1960. His wife was a schoolteacher, then joined him at the store in the mid-80s. Dana and Mike Stokes have worked there as a married couple for 25 years.

"It just seems like the thing to do," Doyne said.

The best part?

"She brings me lunch," Doyne said, looking at his wife.

Both couples say they frequently get asked how they do it. "It's been great for us," Darlene said.

"We don't really know anything different," Dana said.

Laughter helps reduce the stress, Doyne said.

"We all know who really is boss," Mike said, glancing at the two ladies in the family. And they don't talk about work at home, Dana said.

"We try to leave it; it's healthier that way," she said.

Mike agrees: "Work is work, and play is play. We shut it off."

They also go riding. All four are avid motorcyclists, which they say also helps the business because they know what they're talking about.

The couples said they typically don't fight: "It's rare to have a true disagreement," Mike said. They've had some tough times, during the recession and even afterward.

"We're half of what we were before, and it seems like the new normal," Mike said.

They've adjusted staff and products, Dana said, and are trying to stand tough in the face of internet competition, Darlene said.

"We're trying to keep up by taking care of our customers," Darlene said.

"That's our No. 1 goal," Doyne added. "It's so much easier to take care of a customer than find another one."

'Together, we're strong'

The Millers describe themselves as "serial entrepreneurs," having owned a bakery, a construction company, a restoration business and, for the past two years, their restaurant off North Powers Boulevard.

Paul and Heather have been BFFs since they were 12 and now have six children ranging in age from 23 to 3. They also run a small hobby farm with chickens, goats and gardens.

"It helps knowing she's beside me every day," Paul said.

"When we're together, we're strong; when we're apart, we're not," Heather said.

When they have days they don't know if they can do it, they have each other to turn to.

"Her weaknesses are my strengths, and my weaknesses are her strengths," Paul said.

They use their opposite personalities - he's quiet and she's not - to benefit the business. She is the public face of the restaurant, taking orders, doing marketing, and he works behind the scenes in the kitchen and with daily operations.

The Millers say they treat their customers as extended family, to the point that if they don't see the regulars, they worry. Heather recently went to the house of one weekly diner, who had had surgery.

"He said it was nice to be missed," she said.

Business owners often don't know if they can count on employees, but the Millers said they know the other is reliable and trustworthy.

They've agreed to not complain about each other or say negative words to each other. And if there is a disagreement, "We know we have to go home together, so we better take care of the problem before we leave," Paul said. "Part of a strong marriage is having resolution to conflict, and loving and respecting one another through it.

"Running a business is very difficult, and you need that support."

Personal, professional boundaries

Selecting a business partner is as crucial as picking the person you're going to marry, said Thomas Duening, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and the El Pomar Chair of Business and Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

"Having it all rolled into one amplifies the complexities," he said.

Couples who own businesses can be so caught up in each other that they run the risk of isolating employees, he said.

"The familiarity and comfort in their marital relationship oftentimes is not the same kind of way people would talk to one another in a professional relationship," he said.

And that can be uncomfortable for staff or customers, Duening said. UCCS College of Business Professor, Dr. Tom Duening

Also, couples in business can have an "unspoken understanding between one another" and use passive communication that shuts out other employees.

Bringing relationship issues to the workplace can be detrimental, Duening said. 

"It sometimes spills over because they have difficulties separating the marital issues from the business issues, and it becomes awkward," he said.

While couples who don't work together can vent to one another about job concerns, a husband and wife who are in business may not be able to be honest with each other regarding workplace matters, he said.

"Especially if it's a tense situation around performance, you don't notice all the implications for the team," Duening said. "So it has to be carefully managed; you have to demonstrate transparency and forthrightly address issues."  

UCCS people mentioned in this article
 
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