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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Practical and Theoretical Approaches to Making Marriage Work in a Family Business

by Shel Horowitz

For three couples who've done it, working closely with their spouse has advantages and disadvantages. Dick and Janet Haas of Hillside Plastics, Jean and Stan Frank of Gem Jewelers, and Joji Robertson and Tad Schrantz of Cheshire Oil all shared their insights with the Family Business Center May 26 at the Log Cabin.

Dick Haas, originally a dairy farmer, put his life savings on the table to buy Hillside. The business was in trouble, and Haas had to work long and hard to make it viable. While working with Janet in the business was never a problem, the sheer intensity of the workload was; if offered the chance to do it again, he's not sure he would. "When I had open heart surgery, it was a vacation!"

For Janet, knowing what was on her husband's mind helped her feel comfortable, and complementary skills made it work. "It's been very helpful to our relationship for me to understand what's going on. He listens to me in my areas of strength: people and quality. He'll offend someone," and she'll have him apologize. "And his strengths-on the phone, customers will lambaste him. I couldn't handle that."

But Janet was the planner and people person, according to Dick. "She'd set up quality systems that made us what we are today. When he fired someone, they'd always leave smiling, saying, 'what I've learned at Hillside, I can get a job anywhere!'"

Stan Frank started his business in his home, after a few previous business failures. He began buying jewelry at auction, learned how to be an auctioneer, and-at Jean's urging-gave up the auctions to start the first of three stores around 1977.

Their road, according to Jean Frank, was also not always smooth. "Somehow, he always got me involved in all his endeavors. There were times we didn't get along very well; there are still times. So I went in on Mondays [when Stan was on buying trips]-but it ended up being more than Mondays." Still, he even fired her once, then begged her to come back.

During a rush to sell gold and silver around 1980, both Franks put in lots of overtime. "There was a line around the block with people selling. We were getting $30,000 a day, but my children suffered for it." Now, both her sons work in the business, and she works a shorter week, enjoying the time off.

Joji Robertson is the fourth generation in her family business. She met Tad while they were both in graduate school in Colorado. Her brother had been working there for 10 years, but when she and Tad came back east, there was no warm-up period. "It was boot camp: here are the keys to the store, you open tomorrow without any employees-and we had a 2 month old daughter. We came in together into an existing organization and culture. It was us against the old guard." She expects that there may be more conflict once the senior generation passes the torch-a transition that's already beginning.

Robertson and Schrantz are much younger than the Haases and the Franks, and they share both business and housework chores.

Partners in Bedroom and Boardroom

Continuing the theme after dinner, therapist Michele Bograd presented successful communication strategies for couples working together. Her presentation actively engaged attenders in a lively and far-ranging discussion.

Bograd believes conflict is a natural part of a marriage-but the conflict will be more useful if it's focused toward accomplishing goals, rather than putting the other partner down. "Be as strategic in intimacy as you are in business," and aim for honest, respectful conflict.

For family business couples, especially among the older generation, changing expectations of social roles for women and men can add extra tension-for example, if a stay-at-home mom later becomes crucially involved in running her husband's business. Often, in these situations, a move toward a more egalitarian relationship can renew intimacy.

Certain behavior should be off limits: dumping, withdrawal, contempt, defensiveness-these are marriage destroyers. Get agreement to have the conversation in the first place, take issues one at a time and not all at once, respect boundaries-if an area doesn't feel safe for your "opponent," don't go there until your spouse is ready.

Bograd is a firm believer in non-confrontive "I messages"; rather than assess blame, tell your partner how you felt as a result of their actions. And take responsibility for your own part in the conflict; admitting error is not a weakness, but a strength.

Something Bograd emphasized that's often missing from other analyses: the danger of a false compromise. Both parties appear to give ground, but actually, the amount of "give" is skewed-and the person who gives more (or more often) is still resentful.

One way of getting more acknowledgment for a true compromise is to point out the sacrifice you're making: "For you, I'll do it." And the other person should acknowledge that sacrifice as a gift of love. In fact, appreciations in general are vital to a successful marriage. One researcher reported that successful marriages have at least five times as many verbally expressed appreciations as negative comments.

Also, being right isn't always the most important. Being right is a poor outcome if it destroys your marriage!

A heartfelt, sincere apology can go a long way. For men, especially, learning to apologize can be a challenge; men are trained to win, and may see apologies as a failure. But actually, "apology starts repair," while refusal to apologize creates resentment and destroys intimacy. But both parties need to understand the apology in context. Partners should say, "'Let me be clear what I'm apologizing for.' Just 'I'm sorry' doesn't feel like an apology. If you're not sure why, clarify." And the apology has to be about yourself, not the other person. If you were rude, don't say, "I'm sorry you're so sensitive" but apologize for your rudeness.

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