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Spouses in jointly-owned businesses

Francis Ewherido (17/08/2017)

Marriage can be a minefield and needs careful navigation. Running a business with your spouse brings added risks. It is a double-edged sword.

It can be so wonderful on the one hand and on the other hand it can put enormous strain on the marriage and even cripple it. One major advantage of jointly running a business with your spouse is synergy. Whereas, alone you could only achieve 50 per cent, together you can achieve 80 per cent. Another great advantage is when you are not around; the business is in safe hands.

You might not appreciate this if you have not run a small or medium-scale business. Spouses also complement each other’s strength and make up for each other’s weaknesses in the office.

One might be good in marketing while the other is good in accounting. Together, they form a formidable duo.

Another major advantage of working together is that it helps in marital fidelity, because you are virtually together all the time. So each person’s presence keeps temptation at bay. Moreover, both of you know about your finances, so where do you get the money to finance your extramarital affairs?

Also, running a business with your spouse helps to build trust. Trust is a very major ingredient for a successful marriage. Couples who have successfully run jointly-owned businesses often have enormous trust in each other. On the other hand, a major drawback of working together is that if the business runs into turbulent weather, both economies that make up the family economy are affected. I experienced it sometime ago and it was very unpleasant. One solution is diversification, especially in a volatile environment like ours.

Working together can also lead to conflicts in the office which, if not well managed, can spill over to the home front. Clearly defined roles can help to reduce conflict between spouses in the office, but the problem is even in the office, some wives/husbands see “my husband/wife” not the chief executive or colleague.

When you have such a situation, the office has become an extension of your home. You are no longer his/her superior but his/her equal. Any attempt to assert yourself as a chief executive can have ripple effect down to your home.

If you love your marriage, you must back down and explore other ways of working together or apart. Marriage is supreme and sacrosanct and that is a small price to pay to keep it going.

Although some people say that their career or business takes precedence over their marriage and by extension family, for most people, including very successful ones, family comes first.

Peter’s wife joined him in his business when he got distracted with other pursuits. The office was falling apart and his staff did not help matters. They set up six parallel companies rendering similar services to his company’s – using his accommodation, energy supplies and other facilities. So she actually came on a rescue mission.

But first she had to learn the ropes of the business, but she was impatient. Moreover, as expected, her presence was a stumbling block to some staff and there was resentment and latent rebellion. Peter told her to take her time and also act with a lot of guile, but that is not her style.

Her style is open and direct (call a spade a spade) and it just did not work in the circumstances. Their relationship deteriorated and spilled over to the home front.

“At the height, she accused him of taking sides with one of my female staff against her. If not that trust had been built in our marriage, it would become another matter… Over time, she learnt the ropes of the business, reason prevailed and the situation normalised. Most of the old staff also left and new ones came on board.”

Peter is one of the many people running successful businesses with their spouses. Victor’s case is even more profound; he not only runs a business with his wife, they share the same office space. Victor is not exactly the easiest human being to deal with and I asked him how he has been able to successfully run a business with his wife for over 20 years.

He readily agrees that he is a difficult person, “but once you understand me, it is smooth sailing. Moreover, I don’t really have anything to hide.”

One area the couples I spoke with acknowledged to have failed is keeping office and home matters in watertight compartments.

That was why I was pleasantly surprised while listening to a radio programme when the guest, a lady, said she and her husband have succeeded in shielding the office from house squabbles and vice versa. Please if the person is reading this column or if any other person has been able to achieve that miracle, send me an email so we can learn from your experience.

Another pitfall of working with your spouse is boredom. Normally when couples get back from work, they ask each other, “how was your day?” In this case, you already know how his/her day was. Such couples therefore need to come up with ways to keep their marital and official relationships hot.

Another major disadvantage of jointly running a business is if one of the spouses is involved in a major infraction: marital or official or anything that fundamentally breaches the other’s trust. If it is not properly managed, it can ruin both the marriage and the business.

From my personal experience, working with my wife has brought a lot of good both to the office and the home front. We have also had our difficult moments.

So should spouses work together? Hmmm, yes, if they want to and it enhances their marriage. But those whose marriages are fragile or who have fundamentally different business philosophies really need to do some soul searching before taking such a decision.

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