I gripped the steering wheel and muttered under my breath, “You know, God, I never want to work with my husband again! He is a big pain to work with, and I don’t want to anymore! Let someone else try to get him organized!” That was my attempt at a prayer after a frustrating day about 12 years ago, and it would appear that God has a strange sense of humor because here I am still working with my husband!
I was excited to get this assignment since my husband and I do work together, although not in the auto recycling industry. I thought it would be interesting to see what I could learn and I was not disappointed. I interviewed five industry couples who have successfully worked together for years and prove to be great inspirations if you find yourself in business with your spouse.
It is common to find family-run businesses in automotive recycling, yet we are still surprised when we learn that both the husband and wife are actively involved in the daily running of the business. Newsweek recently reported that one in five small businesses is run by a couple. Just like a marriage, running a business together is hard work and not everyone succeeds.
So what is the key to a successful partnership with your spouse? According to Sleeping with Your Business Partner: A Communication Toolkit for Couples in Business Together, there are several key things that make the difference.
TIP #1: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!
Dennis Roberts of County Line Auto Parts agrees wholeheartedly. “A business partnership is like a marriage – without being candid and communicating it won’t make it. We do step on each other’s toes sometimes, but we’re comfortable enough with each other to talk about the tough stuff and get it dealt with.”
Krystyn, Dennis’ wife, chimed in, “We say what we have to say behind closed doors, but outside in the office we have set good boundaries and respect them.”
Another couple who feel their success in business is due to excellent communication is Randy and Fran Reitman of Reitman Auto Parts. “Communication is everything!” said Randy, who is currently ARA’s First Vice President.
“It takes two to do it,” agreed Fran. “We’ve made mistakes along the way, Lord knows that. But, when we see a mistake one of us has made, we talk it through and try to give each other room. Our saving grace is called ‘Friday dinner’ and by the time we’re done with our first drink, we are more relaxed and ready to talk about the mistake more calmly. In all of our 27 years of working together, we’ve only had to throw up our arms and walk away twice.”
“One of those times was when we first went into business together, and Fran started paying off people that I owed every month,” said Randy. “I mean if you asked me if I had $1,000 dollars in my checkbook that was a lot back then! I’d get irate, but Fran just said, ‘Randy, it’s not right to owe people money; we have to pay these bills off.’ The business got more lucrative, and she paid all of our bills. We had to really communicate through that issue.
“The other time we had a major disagreement was when I wanted to take out a full page ad in the phonebook. We were already on an aggressive Yellow Page ad campaign that hadn’t quite proven it was paying off. The phone book company had switched to using salespeople that seemed very aggressive.
“In the end, we kept the ad the same size, re-addressed the print copy, and changed a few items in the text part to freshen it up a bit. The ad for the most part is still the same. One of the recent changes has been the addition of four-part color to it.
“Sometimes, you just have to respect what each other is doing, listen to one another, and keep an open mind, and you can work your way through any challenge.”
“That’s right,” agreed Fran. “You have to remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. Is it worth throwing up your arms and walking away? Remember it’s a business, but you still have a life. Remember why you married that person in the first place. Why did you embark on this adventure to work together? Keeping that in mind will help you to count to 10 and relax because the challenge or situation you are facing will change.”
Dawn Givens of West Side Auto Parts in Delaware says it’s important to not hold something in if it’s bothering you. “You have to have broad shoulders to work together,” she said. “We don’t step on each other’s toes. We have good boundaries. Neither one of us discusses problems in front of our employees nor our customers. If something is bothering us, we let it out behind closed doors so that our employees still respect us. This way we can perform as if we were one and not build barriers between us. “
Tip #2: Plan, Plan, Plan – Have a vision!
“The best part of working together is that we both understand each other and have common business and personal goals,” said Krystyn Roberts. “My advice to anyone just starting to work together would be to establish goals, bound-
aries, roles, and expectations as much as you can upfront. Planning and communicating
Dawn Givens agrees. “My husband is fantastic! I don’t know where we’d be without this company because we love being together and sharing the same ideas and dreams. We work together because we’re one, and it’s nice to work with your best friend. We try to follow through on our dreams, and they haven’t changed. We try to help each other’s vision to come true.
“Through teamwork we better the business. I don’t know if it’s because we are so close in age – just a few months apart – or what, but we manage to stay on the same page. That makes it easy to stay focused on our vision for the business.”
Tip #3: Establish boundaries and define roles
Many times in the automotive recycling industry, the husband handles the customers, the yard, buying, and inventory while the wife handles the financial side, office management, personnel, and computer work. This definition of roles seems to be working well for most and most agree that it is important to respect each other’s roles even if they do overlap from time to time.
“You have to learn what you’re in charge of and have designated areas you’re responsible for,” said David Jordan of Jordan Auto Parts. His wife, Lisa, agrees, “You must define your roles, and ours usually don’t cross each other very often. The only time they cross is if we have an employee issue or there is a business challenge that needs both of our input.”
“We pretty much do our own jobs at work, but it is nice to have each other in the same building in case something does come up that we need to discuss right away,” said Krystyn. “There are many projects and strategic planning issues that need both of our involvement, so we do work together closely on things like that but day to day we each have our role and stick to that.”
Randy and Fran Reitman feel that although they have clear roles, they don’t have boundaries.
“There are no boundaries – we do everything together. We’re not threatened by each other. Every-
thing I do she can do too. When my wife speaks, people listen. She is well-respected in the community. I wouldn’t be where I am today without her. I owe everything to her.”
Kathy Masterson of Masterson Auto Parts and Salvage says the key to their success working together as a couple is giving each other room to do their job.
“We’ve been working together for 10 years now, and the key strategy for David and I is for me to do my job and let him do his,” said Kathy. “We discuss new procedures that will be taking place but other than that we allow each other to do what each one is responsible for.”
Tip #4: Identify your personality strengths
Tip #5: Identify your spouse’s strengths
Tip #6: Use your strengths to complement your spouse’s weaknesses and vice versa
Kathy feels her and David’s role complement each other. “While one is doing the buying, one has to stay in constant contact with the banking accounts and be able to advise what is feasible and what is not.”
David Jordan agrees that clear defined roles allow each one to complement the other. “We know the boundaries of each other’s roles so if someone asks me a question and I don’t know and it’s her area, I tell them to ask my wife. We have found that by sticking to areas that we want to be responsible for benefits not only us but our employees and the business.”
“We’re a hands-on couple,” added wife Lisa. “We’re involved in the day-to-day routine and the running of the business. Our personalities are completely different, and we have different management styles. Dave is more excitable and vocal and my approach is more here’s what went wrong, now how can we fix it?”
Dennis and Krystyn Roberts also find that their roles greatly complement each other’s.
“Dennis handles more of the day-to-day operations, and I support him in that with planning, implementing, and being his sounding board,” said Krys-
tyn. “We balance each other out. Each one of us has strengths that cover the other’s weaknesses.”
Tip #7: Support each other
Sure this is an easy thing to do when everything is going the way you want it to go, but what happens when someone steps on your toes? It would seem that many of the couples feel that supporting each other is an area that they do very well. In hearing their stories, it became apparent that in order to support each other, even when a decision is made that you don’t agree with, you discuss what you didn’t agree with or like. It all goes back to Tip #1 – Communication.
“One thing we do really well is support each other in our decisions once they are made even if we question each other until we reach the best solution,” said Krystyn. “Ultimately though, we support each other through thick and thin.”
Fran Reitman adds, “If you’re the kind of person who always has to be right and make every decision, then it might be better to not work together. When you go into it like you would if you were a partner then you realize that each of you has good qualities. When you disagree it’s better to get it out there for discussion, not dwell on it, and move on. That way you can support each other in any crisis, no matter what.”
Tip #8: Establish boundaries between home and work as much as you can
This is easier said than done, and it seems to be one of the greatest challenges for couples who work together. For the Givens, they have established a system that works very well, and for the most part they manage to keep their business and home life separate.
“We’ve established a rule, and we don’t discuss home at work or work at home,” said Dawn. “If we have a work problem we leave it at the door. We also drive separately to work, which gives us each some time alone. We do everything together except shopping and flying R/C airplanes. We work together around the house, we fish and camp, and we take a lot of vacations together. We take Sundays off, and I go shopping and he does his thing, then we always have dinner together. It works very well. After 25 years of marriage, I feel lucky to be married to him. I know he’s still the one for me.”
David and Lisa Jordan find that separating family and business life isn’t always that clear cut for them.
“We don’t set up conferences,” Lisa said. “We discuss everything 24/7. But if we have a personal issue we don’t discuss it at work, we leave it for home to discuss.”
“The business is always there – it’s not an eight to five job,” said David. “When husbands and wives run and manage a business together they are continually thinking about it and dealing with the issues involved. If Lisa wasn’t involved, then I’d have to turn it off when I got home.”
Kathy adds, “There is really no way to separate family life from the business life. We are together every day at work. We have several family members who work with us. The only time we get away from it all is twice a year when we take a cruise and get away from the phones. We have learned if you travel where the phone lines still reach, there will always be work involved with vacation.” n
Michelle Keadle-Taylor is a freelance writer in Northern Virginia. Michelle says: “I would like to express great gratitude to the couples I interviewed – you have reminded me of some important lessons for working with my spouse. So after a few “ouch” moments and some reflection, I feel better equipped to further my journey with him by my side.”
Randy and Fran Reitman, Reitman Auto Parts
Randy and Fran have been married for 35 years and working together since 1982. Randy started working at Reitman Auto Parts in high school. As soon as he got home from school he would go to work and his Dad would go home. Unfortunately, Randy’s dad died when he was young, and Randy found himself growing up quickly. Even before his Dad died, Randy was running the business by age 16. He and Fran got married when he was 20 and Fran was 17 years old, and they had their first child and lost his Dad all in the same year. By the 1980’s business started booming, and Fran decided to start working in the business to help handle the growth. They have been working together ever since.
Dennis and Krystyn Roberts,County Line Auto
Dennis and Krystyn have been married for eight years and have three children – ages 14, 13, and 6 years old. The couple has worked together all but eight months of their marriage. Dennis and Krystyn Roberts met in 2000 when Dennis was the General Manager of his family’s business that had been recently purchased by Green Leaf. Krystyn was hired from out of town as the financial controller and that is how they met. On November 1, 2003, Dennis and Krystyn officially purchased County Line Auto from Dennis’s uncle. At the time the business had 10 employees. They felt that as a team, using their vision and background experience, they could build something special. County Line has grown substantially and now employs 35 people.
David and Kathy Masterson, Masterson Auto Parts and Salvage LLC
David and Kathy Masterson have been married for 13 years and have three children. They have five grandchildren, which includes four-year-old triplet boys. Masterson Auto Parts and Salvage LLC employs eight people that include a son, a son-in-law, a brother, and son’s girlfriend. David started the business in 1998, and Kathy worked at a civil service position in Ft. Knox, Kentucky. Her job was contracted out, and she didn’t want to switch to another job. They had been discussing her coming into the business to handle bookkeeping so this provided the perfect opportunity.
Bret and Dawn Givens, West Side Auto Parts
Bret and Dawn have known each other for 26 years and have been married 25 years. They have worked together successfully for 23 out of the 26 years. West Side Auto Parts was established in 1972 by Bret’s father, Minos Givens. Bret started working there when he was 15 years old and has worked in various positions in the business before becoming president and then owner. Dawn started working as a data entry clerk then went on to eventually become Vice President and co-owner.
Dave and Lisa Jordan, Jordan Auto Parts
Jordan Auto Parts was established in Pennsylvania in 1986 when Dave started it from bare ground. It has grown over the years to employ almost 40 people. Dave and Lisa started working together in 1988 and then got married in 1989. Lisa was working as a dental hygienist and eventually quit to work with Dave as his business started to grow. They have three children – ages 20, 18, and 14 years old.
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