The trials of running a business can be more difficult when your business partner is also your life partner, requiring specific skill sets to maintain good relations both at home and at work.
Struggling to find a work/life balance, letting emotions cloud business decisions, taking business disagreements home at night are all part of the course for running a family business. But how do people unload about their day when the very person they work with is also the person they live with?
As we mark Valentine’s Day for another year, My Business spoke with several couples about their experience, what works and what doesn’t, and their advice for the plethora of other businesses operated by people who are most than just colleagues.
Industry: Financial services
Owners: Aaron and Bernadette Christie-David (main image)
Having met at the Boxing Day sales in 2010, Aaron and Bernadette quickly hit it off. And, according to Aaron, the pair always knew they wanted to be partners in business as well as in life.
“We had a dream to work and study in New York but on our honeymoon in Vietnam, we spoke openly if that was going to be the best move for us and what we really wanted from our lives together,” says Aaron.
“I had a background in financial services having worked at Wizard Home Loans and Commonwealth Bank in marketing for home loans. Bernadette had a background in tax having worked for an accounting practice and also working in Human Resources for Electrolux and Cricket NSW.
“Using our combined knowledge and along with our own experience of getting a home loan, we thought there was a real opportunity to build a business that would allow us to work side by side.”
The couple went on to own a Mortgage Choice franchise for several years, before going out on their own and establishing Atelier Wealth.
Like many couples, they struggled in the early days with cash flow putting a strain not just on the fledgling business but also on their relationship.
“You spend a large amount of cash building and growing your business initially, and there is a lag before you see the income, particularly in mortgage broking,” says Aaron.
In a bid to survive the challenge, Aaron and Bernadette relied heavily on their extended family and friends as a support network to see their relationship through, and also set clear boundaries to ensure the business didn’t consume them.
“Setting and maintaining boundaries was another challenge as it can consume you – we would constantly discuss client scenarios at home or keep working on the weekends. This turns your marriage into a business partnership and if you’re not careful, it can dissolve the romance,” he says.
“We’ve been really mindful to set clear boundaries personally and not bringing our work challenges home, but this is all part of the evolution within your business growth.”
Owners: Adam and Deb Drexler
“You could have bowled me over with a feather when … Debra entered our business,” explains Adam.
“[But] we just go on so well.”
“It’s another adventure that we enjoy together,” adds Deb.
Matt Blatt started as Adam’s small business brainchild, but as it found success and grew strongly, the couple found that Deb’s alternate skill set and point of view would be a useful addition to the business. And so, despite it never being planned, Deb eventually joined the business full-time.
“It's like our third child, but it's our more challenging third child. Our other two kids are really easy,” laughs Deb.
“This child doesn't sleep at night,” adds Adam.
They key to making it work for them, like so many other couples, is to not physically spend all day everyday together at work.
“We don't spend all day together… That's probably partly why it works now because we [are] just different, totally different areas. We don't sit together or anything,” Deb explains.
“It's like in the evening when we get together again and we talk about it all then. So it's nice we've got a lot of space.”
The couple also try their best not to “take anything too seriously”, and enjoy a laugh with one another whenever the opportunity arises.
“I think that's the thing in business too, you can't take things seriously. You can't take your business … too seriously,” says Deb.
“We sit in meetings together sometimes, especially board meetings and I look over at Debra and I see this frown on her face, she looks as if she's totally disgusted with what's going on. She hasn't got a poker face and I look at her and I pull a smile, get her attention and smile,” Adam adds with a grin.
Industry: Financial and legal services
Owners: Dominique and Kevin Grubisa
In many ways, Dominique and Kevin epitomise the typical business owners. Having met in 1999, the two pursued separate careers – Dominique as a barrister and Kevin who ran a chain of coffee shops – until circumstances led them to launch a business of their own together.
“The whole business grew completely from circumstances. We built quite a large property empire together in the 2000s and then when the GFC hit, we lost everything. It was absolutely terrifying – we were literally homeless, out on the street with three young children,” Dominique recalls.
“We took stock and began rebuilding and then to earn income and educate others, I began writing books on handling debt. I was featured on national television and subsequently we had 3,000 people write to us asking for help. So, we rolled up our sleeves around the dining room table and looked at how we could effectively help everyone, and that’s how we started the business.”
As Kevin reveals, one of their earliest and biggest challenges was the invasion of the business on family life.
“In the early days, we were still operating around the dining room table and we had clients around the country who we needed to speak to at all hours. We were giving the kids microwave dinners and putting them in front of the tele so we could answer emails,” he says.
“Slowly, we realised that we had to separate work and home. We got separate business premises and staff, and now we’re very clear on dividing our work and home lives. For example, we now book every school holidays off together. That’s non-negotiable.”
The couple also relied on Dominique’s legal background to develop a formal structure around dispute resolution, so that they had a charter when and if disagreements about the business arise.
“Things can get emotional when projects don’t go as planned – which happens quite often – but we seem to have the yin and yang in our relationship and the right balance to be able to deal with challenges.”
Emperor Champagne / The Champagne Dame
Owners: Kyla Kirkpatrick and Kyri Christodoulou
It was a love (and knowledge) of wine that brought Kyla and Kyri together, and the couple have since developed complementary businesses that entwine their lives and passions together.
Kyla built herself up as a connoisseur of all things champagne (and Champagne, the French region from which the sparkling drink derives its name).
“[I] built my career as a presenter specialising in Champagne, going by the name ‘Champagne Dame’, which is also the name of one of our businesses. We have a champagne education arm along with hosting amazing, bespoke trips to France. I travel a lot hosting masterclasses and events in Champagne,” says Kyla.
“With Australia having the largest growing market for champagne sales in the world, we know we are not alone in our passion for champagne. Recognising an opportunity to share our knowledge with a captive market, we recently launched our second business, Emperor, which is the largest dedicated online retailer for champagne in Australia.”
However, she reached a point where the business was too big for her to manage solo. And given fiancé Kyri’s skills as a winemaker by trade, having him join the business full-time quickly made sense.
“Up until three years ago I was going to work everyday and expending energy creating wealth for someone else,” he says.
“This didn’t add up after a while as there was so much opportunity in Kyla’s business and she didn’t have time to do it all on her own.
The couple admit that while having different roles within the business – with Kyla being the face of both brands and Kyri managing the everyday operations – allowing both to capitalise on their individual skills, it can be a challenge to align their visions.
“Just because you aspire to something in your life doesn’t mean it’s going to be a priority in your partner’s life even if you work in the same business,” they admit.
Fish & Fowl
Owners: Sara and Conrad Lodewyke
After close to 16 years in business together, the Lodewykes feel they have a fairly good rhythm in place. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing, admits Sara.
“It’s nice now because we’re all established and settled into it. It was harder when my daughter was small and I worked only at home in the office and wasn’t really involved in the shop,” she says.
“While we were still establishing it and finding our feet with it all and it wasn’t as profitable, that was a lot harder and a lot more stressful for my husband. And I didn’t really know what was going on, so I didn’t really feel like I was a part of it, but I kind of was, so I was trying to make suggestions and he was saying I didn’t understand and it doesn’t work like that… that was all a bit tense.”
The clincher, admits Sara, is her becoming fully involved in the business as an equal partner.
“Once I stopped doing other things and committed myself to the business, he realised he wasn’t alone and he had a lot more moral support and a lot more practical support as well – it’s worked a lot more harmoniously.”
Making it all work, she says, has been not only complementary skill sets but also personalities.
“Certainly neither of us could do it on our own. He has the skill to be able to go out and haggle in the marketplace and buy the product, which is quite challenging; it’s not just put in an order and get what you want, it’s quite a complex business buying the product. So my husband is quite good at [that] side of it, but couldn’t possibly manage his accounts or his admin or anything like that, whereas I’m quite good at that,” says Sara.
And the differing personalities come in handy when managing staff, she adds.
“We’re able to bounce off each other a bit and with different personalities between us, we manage to keep things running smoothly.”
Sara admits that she and Conrad enjoy working together given it keeps them together rather than working apart. However, she confesses the line between work and home life has definitely become blurred.
“The relationship comes first, but our whole life is completely integrated with the business, so it’s a bit hard to say in a way!” she laughs.
Owners: Barbora Sterbova and Arron Choi
For university sweethearts Barbora and Arron, the idea of going into business floated as an idea from the very early days of their relationship. However, it only became a reality some five years later when they opened their bar/restaurant in the second half of 2017.
“We were both working in the corporate world in Sydney, but weren’t really satisfied by it,” Barbora recalls, which led to Moominn.
The venue features quirky, eclectic décor and a menu that is “a mixture of us completely”.
“We have a menu that is half Asian and half Czech … because they’re so different, it actually works,” says Barbora.
“Arron is quite passionate about mixology and cocktails, whereas being of European descent I’m passionate about wine.”
While the couple feel that being business owners suits them really well, Barbora admits the tension in their relationship was more strongly felt in the lead up to opening day.
“The stress of planning and setting it up while we both still had jobs was quite stressful and took a toll,” she says.
“It was more an issue of us needing to stay balanced and not take it out on each other as the pressure built up.”
Unlike many couples who fall into business together as needs or circumstances demand, planning from their joint venture from the outset allowed Barbora and Arron to focus on what matters most to them.
“We made it clear from the outset that if it ever became an issue, the bar would have to close for the sake of the relationship,” says Barbora.
Her advice to other couples in business together is to remember precisely why you are doing it together.
“Don’t let it ever cloud what the relationship is built on. You’re not only dealing with each other as biz partners [with] romantic attachment; [you] need to maintain that balance and a bit of a divide.
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.