The Agency Business: Spouses who run firms together face special challenges

The bonds of marriage can strengthen the business relationship of a husband-and-wife team, though keeping work and home life separate can be that much more difficult.

The bonds of marriage can strengthen the business relationship of a husband-and-wife team, though keeping work and home life separate can be that much more difficult.

Lois Whitman and Eliot Hess were both married to other people while working as editor and art director at Consumer Electronics Monthly. But they developed a friendship - and ultimately a romance. After Eliot had a disagreement with their boss, he asked Lois to join him in starting the agency that would become New York-based HWH PR. Two years later, they were married. "It's a wavelength you can't explain to other people," Lois says. "The bond between you for this business becomes greater than anything else in life." Married couples who run PR agencies together - and there are dozens - say the benefits of the union can make for a stronger business and a stronger relationship. But at the same time, running an agency with your spouse can put strains on the company - as well as the marriage. "If you have a good relationship, then you really have a partner you can trust," says Steve Schwartz, who recently celebrated his 25th wedding anniversary with business partner Paula Mae Schwartz. Steve and Paula Mae, the president and COO, respectively, of Waltham, MA-based Schwartz Communications, didn't meet on the job; they met in college and spent the first 11 years of their relationship on separate career paths. Steve worked as a speechwriter for GE CEO Jack Welch; Paula Mae started her career at Newsweek before opening her own boutique agency. But as the technology industry began to open up in Boston, Paula Mae knew she needed a partner. "I realized that I had strengths and weaknesses," she said. "Steve really fits in perfectly with all the things I don't do - and want to do." For spouses to be successful business partners, they must have similar career goals but different skill sets, says Kathy Lynch, president of Chicago-based HLB Communications, which she runs with her husband, Kevin. "You need to sit down and really look at how your personal styles are going to meld," she says. At HLB, Kathy handles administrative responsibilities while Kevin concentrates on business development. They both realized they had similar career goals while working as special investigators on welfare fraud at the Illinois Department of Public Aid. That interest was PR. They opened HLB 30 years ago - and have been married for 25. But these professionals don't deny that there are challenges to being a husband-and-wife business team. "Everyone thought we were crazy," says Carrie Zimmerman, who went into business with her husband, Curtis, 17 years ago. "You do want to kill each other, quite frankly," she adds. "We're both very strong-willed. You really have to remember that you can't always be the one that's right." At the Zimmerman Agency, based in Tallahassee, FL, the challenge is eased by the fact that Carrie runs PR while Curtis heads up advertising. At Schwartz Communications, Steve, as president, makes most executive decisions, but he defers to his wife when she feels more strongly about an issue. "We trust each other's judgment," he says. Each also has clearly different responsibilities and offices in separate parts of the building. Lois Whitman admits that she worries about how clients perceive the agency. "I try to downplay the husband-and-wife team as much as possible," she says. "I don't want anyone thinking this is a mom-and-pop shop." Although it is possible to have both a successful marriage and a successful business, doing either over the long term requires patience and compromise, Steve Schwartz notes. He points to statistics that show that 80% of businesses fail within the first five years, and nearly half of all marriages fail. "I think difficulties crop up when there are problems in the company," Kathy Lynch says, adding that she and Kevin take the highs and lows in stride. Being in business together also means taking a greater financial gamble. "I do think everything is at risk here," says Marilyn Shank, who runs Shank PR in Indianapolis with her husband of 33 years, David. "It really puts an extra incentive to make the business work and make the relationship work." She and David had been married for 16 years before opening the agency. "It's best to have the marriage good and solid first. I wouldn't want to try out both of those relationships" at the same time, she says. Tips for balancing home and work Couples who run a PR firm together note that the biggest challenge is keeping the business out of the marriage - and vice versa. Below are tips to help make it work.
  • Consciously stop each other from discussing business outside the office. Create a signal to cut off work-related discussion that crops up at the dinner table.
  • Create a clear division of responsibilities at work. Cement it by giving each spouse his or her own equipment and workspace. Consider handling different accounts.
  • Don't fight in front of employees. Create an aligned response to problems before bringing them to the team.
  • Develop separate hobbies and interests outside of work. It helps to network in different circles.

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