Often, business partners will reach a level of comfort with each other after working together. But what happens when you open up shop with someone you already know well—your spouse?
Running a business together might put a strain on your love life; if it doesn’t work out, you could jeopardize both relationships.
“You’d wind up with a mix of matters to deal with,” says David Shlagbaum, a Toronto family business lawyer and senior partner at Robins Appleby & Taub LLP. “This includes a combination of family-related and business issues.”
He suggests creating a partnership agreement to reduce such hassles (see “What to consider before going into business,” next page).
To find out how partners make their relationships work in the office and at home, we spoke to three advisor couples. They offered the following tips:
- Respect the other person’s skills;
- Shut up and listen;
- Try not to take work problems home;
- Communicate regularly and provide feedback;
- Apologize when you’re wrong; and
- Give credit when it’s deserved.
So whether you work with your spouse, relative or friend, the lessons these couples have learned throughout the years apply.
Melanie Ferrandi and Doug Leard
Assante Financial Management Ltd.Vancouver, BC
AUM: $115 million
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Melanie Ferrandi and Doug Leard met while working as financial planners at Assante Financial Management, and married in 1997. But it wasn’t until 2000 that they combined practices.
“We realized we knew a lot of each other’s clients,” explains Ferrandi. “We thought it’d be easier to work together because clients were familiar with both of us and we have similar work styles.”
We can put ourselves in the other’s shoes. it’s nice to talk to somebody who knows instantly what you’re feeling.”
Melanie Ferrandi and Doug Leard
For instance, both eschew stock picking, focusing instead on comprehensive planning and tax issues.
All of their 250 households, most of which are wealthy families, know they’re married. Many have been clients for years and remember they had a daughter in 1999. With new clients they’re up front, telling them the team includes the couple and their two assistants.
Most of the time they serve clients independently, although all marketing material has both their names on it. This way, when one is away clients know they can turn to the other.
But they do take vacations together. “We book during down time and our assistants take over,” says Leard. “If you work in separate industries, you might not have the same slow periods, so it’s harder to have this luxury.”
Although many say they’d never work with their spouse, says Leard, the key is to keep business and personal lives separate. The two specialize in different areas. While he handles retiree clients, Ferrandi, a certified divorce planner, assists those going through a divorce or separation. Meanwhile, they rarely talk about work at home—plus, their daughter keeps them busy.
Ferrandi notes there’s the added benefit of a spouse who can sympathize when there’s a rough day at work. “We can put ourselves in the other’s shoes. It’s nice to talk to somebody who knows instantly what you’re feeling.”
The biggest challenge occurs when the couple disagrees on business ideas.
“It’s easy to step over that line of becoming unprofessional because you’re so comfortable with the person,” says Ferrandi.
Leard agrees. “You may not have the same patience as you do with other co-workers. It’s easier to get irritated, be more open and blunt because we know each other’s personalities.”
The couple tries to be conscious of their tone of voice, especially when their assistants are around. Also, if they disagree, they get staff to provide third-party input.
Leard and Ferrandi are in their 50s, and say succession is top of mind. “We might have a couple of people take over our books, but we don’t have anything planned yet.”
What they do know is that neither will stop working within the next five years, and the transition won’t happen at the same time.
Susan Nardi and David Yurich
Sound Financial Strategies Inc. Sudbury, Ont.
A chance meeting through a mutual friend in university turned into 18 years of marriage (17.5 of which have also been as business partners) for Susan Nardi and David Yurich.
When they were newlyweds, Nardi was laid off from her job as a nuclear medicine technologist. Yurich offered a solution, saying he needed help with his business. But she responded cautiously.
“I said, ‘You’re going to end this marriage before it even starts,’ ” Nardi recalls.
But Yurich was convincing and she has no regrets.
“There weren’t a lot of job offers for her,” says Yurich. “It was a gamble, but I saw that she had incredible skills, including attention to detail and analytical thinking.”
The pair defined business roles early on. While Yurich loves selling, Nardi prefers handling back-office tasks, including processing paperwork and dealing with compliance issues. She says he may be the front man, but she’s the jack-of-all-trades who keeps the business running. “If we were both identical, I don’t think it would work,” adds Nardi.
They also have different ways of dealing with clients. In meetings, Yurich focuses on financial planning and investments. Nardi, who is a financial divorce specialist, gets to know them on a more personal level, asking about their jobs and kids.
Their clients are mostly families with combined annual incomes of $150,000 to $200,000, and $350,000 in assets. About 5% are parents who have kids with disabilities. Yurich says that seven years ago, his nephews were diagnosed—one with autism, another with Asperger syndrome—and he wanted to help.
When the pair disagrees, Nardi admits it can be stressful. Also, it’s hard not to talk about work after leaving the office. A little humour helps. For instance, she says if Yurich asks her how her day was, she’ll joke about what a jerk her boss was. This lightens the mood.
To keep their work and personal lives separate, at dinnertime the couple turns the conversation to their two young kids. “We ask about their days—if anything interesting or funny happened and who they played with,” she says.
Nardi adds that from the moment they enter the office, they’re professional and business-minded. While most clients know they’re married, the couple usually doesn’t bring it up unless asked.
“Some of our partners (i.e., MGAs) don’t know. One of them thought I was having an affair with Dave, but we had a good laugh when I told her it was allowed because he’s my husband.”
The couple is in their mid-40s and hasn’t worked out a plan yet, but say their 13-year-old daughter has expressed an interest in the business. Nardi adds they likely won’t ever retire, but will eventually scale down to working three days a week.
Nancy and Clark Shewfelt
National Bank Financial Whiterock, BC
AUM: More than $400 million
You don’t need a written agreement
Not true. Spouses who are also business partners should have a formal partnership agreement, and also outline the arrangement in their marriage contract.
In 1985, Nancy met Clark while working at McLeod, Young, Weir (now Scotia McLeod) and they married in 1989. The term “opposites attract” rings true for this couple. Though they both came from previous marriages, that’s where the similarities ended.
“We’re polar opposites,” says Nancy, adding it took them years to combine businesses because they didn’t see eye-to-eye often.
“We realized it would work because we’re so different,” she says. “I would be the front person, dealing with clients and getting involved in the community, and Clark would be the strategist.”
The couple manages a team of nine, five of whom are advisors, and help clients in BC’s lower mainland.
She says having separate clients makes their partnership work. While most of Nancy’s are female, many of Clark’s are engineers and other detail-oriented individuals. Together they serve about 1,000 households.
“Each client has a primary and secondary contact, and we aren’t the two contacts for any client account because we’re often away together,” she adds. “About 65% of my clients, he doesn’t even know because we specialize in different areas.”
The pair aims to be professional at work, leaving the husband-wife relationship at home. “At the office, I don’t think of him as my husband,” she says. “I don’t look at him with googly eyes. When I’m at work, I’m on the phone and have a job to do.”
But she admits it’s hard not to talk shop at home, especially now that their daughter works with them. Clark is better at turning off, she says, because he doesn’t own a BlackBerry.
And not letting work affect their personal relationship can be difficult.
For instance, Clark decides which stocks to buy and sell. His strength is finding undiscovered gems, she says, but he’s often early in buying—they might hold a stock for years, waiting for interest rates to rise so they can make money.
“I’ll be quick to point that out,” she says. “If he makes a bad call I can be a lot tougher on him because we’re so open and know each other.”
She adds Clark often internalizes work stress, which can “sometimes put a strain on our relationship because he might take it out on me.”
The couple deals with this through humour. “We’ve been doing this for years, so we know bad markets will go away with time. We try to keep a positive outlook, but I don’t pretend it’s easy.”
Nancy aims to gradually fade out of the business in the next five years, and their daughter will take over. The rest of the advisor team will take on additional responsibilities. Meanwhile, Clark will minimize his hours but remain indefinitely.
Suzanne Sharma is the associate editor of Advisor Group.