Couples in business – for richer or poorer
An important segment of family businesses is spouses in business or ‘copreneurs’, who share the ownership and management of a business and represent an evolving area within family firms.
Setting up a business together as a couple requires planning, constant communication and a great deal of hard work. The business must be formalised and this includes deciding on start-up funds, creating a team (even if only made up of two people) and dividing roles and responsibilities.
The result of a well-thought business plan can be emotionally and financially rewarding. Spousal support is a source of competitive advantage in this type of family business.
Couples may decide to start a business venture together for myriad reasons. The drain on quality time at home and the lack of stability in a shifting global economy may be some of the drivers. Other reasons for setting up are the ‘glass ceiling effect’ that stops women from reaching managerial positions, downsizing, redundancy, extended working hours and travel demands in the business world. Joint ventures offer the couple the freedom to run an enterprise and the flexibility to do so on their own terms.
Running a business together can put a marriage to one of the greatest tests. Copreneurs have their own unique set of challenges as they attempt to combine loving, intimate lives and business lives focused on the bottom line. When not addressed, these dual relationships negatively affect the marriage and business. Keys to success are equality, independence, trust, commitment, compromise, confidence in each other’s work ethic, managing working and family conflict, role priorities and role clarity.
The issue of equality within the couple business venture has drawn the interest of researchers. Females in copreneurships have equal needs for achievement as their partners – they bring drive to the business and also manage the household.
Some research suggests that the sharing of tasks and responsibilities between spouses in this kind of firm is not necessarily equal. It was found that women, apart from their central role within the business, also assume the traditional role of household manager, while men are mainly engaged in the firm and are responsible for the decision-making process.
A family business of this type cannot afford to overlook half of its potential talent. One cannot make generalisations about all spousal ventures but research has shown that there are scenarios where the venture works most smoothly when the wife takes a behind-the-scene role.
When considering starting up a copreneurship the basic recommendation is to communicate at length and listen to each other’s concerns. This decision may be approached similarly to any new job and entails careful consideration of the pros and cons.
Couples will need to decide if their marriage can bear the added physical and emotional load of running a business together. Trying to anticipate the critical issues helps, as couples working together have a greater potential for tension and conflict. An adaptive response to this complex reality is to have specific and clearly defined roles.
Planning for the future is an important consideration and task for the couple in business. It is never too early to plan for succession and think about one’s retirement as a couple. Children of copreneurs are exposed to the business at a very young age and are well-informed before deciding whether or not to enter the family business. This decision affects plans for the future of the business. Copreneurs reap the benefits of early succession planning ensuring the continuity of the business with minimal disruptions.
An eventuality couples may not be prepared for is the disability or death of one of the owners. Preparing for this dreaded circumstance is emotionally very difficult to do, however if the time comes to put the plan into practice, the surviving spouse will be in a better position to cope with the personal crisis without having to address a business crisis as well.
Another reality for some couples in business is separation or divorce. The impact of divorce is complicated, difficult and painful with the assumption that the business will be divided or sold. Divorce may end a marriage but does not necessarily end a business or lead to a family dissolution. The ability of the couple to resolve differences and heal the pain of separation or divorce has both an immediate and a long-term impact on the health and prosperity of their business and the well-being of their family. Notwithstanding all the difficulties and emotional hardship, some couples continue to work together even after their marriage ends.
Post-divorce business relationships stand a better chance when there is trust in the business rapport, the ability to compartmentalise, synergy, a commitment to the business, and when positive gender issues interact. Strategies for helping family businesses survive a divorce include specific legal contracts such as prenuptial agreements.
The practical recommendations made by couples who own and run a business together are to clearly define each person’s duties and decide who will make the final decision in critical areas, as well as to invest in and find time to communicate as a couple with dignity and respect. Finally, the benefits of working together are to be enjoyed and valorised.
Roberta Fenech is an occupational psychologist currently reading for a PhD at the University of London.