Berkshire Business | Making it work at home ... and on the job: Running a business is challenging, rewarding for married couples

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Editor's note: This article was updated on Dec. 5, 2017, to change $90.7 million to $90.7 billion.

PITTSFIELD  — We all know that marriage is work but, for some, work is also marriage. Therefore, for those spouses who also own and run a business together, the normal ups and downs of married life and business ownership can have a multiplier effect that gives new meaning to the marriage vow "for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer."


There is no local data on how many married couple business owners there are in Berkshire County, according to the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, but nationally 976,212 firms operated in this manner, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2012 Survey of Business Owners. Although that figure represents only 3.5 percent of the total number of U.S. companies, the country's spousal-owned and run businesses employed more than 3 million workers with a combined annual payroll of $90.7 billion that generated over $475 billion in sales, receipts or value of shipments.

That's a lot of money.

In the Berkshires, one of the places to start looking for married couple/ business owners is literally down on the farm.

SHARING CHORES

Ioka Valley Farm, in Hancock, is the quintessential modern family farm. It specializes in pumpkins, Christmas trees, natural beef, maple syrup and specialty maple products, and also offers "agri-entertainment" in the form of pedal carts, a 40-foot pipeline slide and a farm-themed playground. The farm was established in 1936 by Robert and Dorothy Leab, who passed it down to their son Donald and his wife Judy, who still run the farm with their son Robert and his wife Melissa.

The younger Leabs, both 46, have been married for half of those years, and have an 18-year old son and a 14-year old daughter. They have been slowly taking over operation of the farm since 1996, although Missy has only worked at the farm full-time for the last three years. The farm now supports three households and 25 part-time and seasonal employees from surrounding towns, she said.

When asked about the challenges of working with a spouse, Missy dispenses a nugget of wisdom that she heard from another farmer, who shared his secret of a long marriage to his wife.

"I have my chores in the barn, and she has her chores in the house and vegetable garden and, as long as she doesn't help me too often in the barn and, as long as I don't help her too often in the house or garden, we do very well," Missy said.

Rob does the outside chores while Missy, performs most of the "traditional" housework at home.

"I think that is true here with the multi-generation we all have certain tasks we oversee and/or do and, as long as we respect those boundaries and have constructive discussions, we do well," Missy said.

Judy and Missy also share the office work. Don focuses on beef, and the hay and corn crops. Rob is in charge of the Christmas trees, pumpkins and blueberries although, according to Missy "his favorite place is with his maple trees." During maple sugaring season, "Rob will take his crew to work in the morning, and I may not see him again until they come out of the woods with their headlamps on," she said.

This aspect of the division of labor as a minus might also be a hidden plus, Missy said, especially when it comes to the inevitable disagreements that come up in any jointly run business.

"When we do disagree, there are times that it is fine to agree to disagree, but the one in charge of that task or oversight must be given the okay to proceed (and sometimes be ready for the `I told you that wasn't going to work' and be nice when it did work out.)" she said via email. "Some `disagreements' go on for years, and some are resolved after the first time a choice is tried."

ORGANIC PARTNERSHIP

Aleisha and Brian Gibbons have owned Berkshire Organics Market & Delivery Service in Dalton together since 2009, although Aleisha started the organic delivery part of the business in 2007. She was the only employee then, working from home. Now, the market occupies over 6,000 square feet at the former Burgner's Market. The company employs just under 20 people, depending on the season. Eight to 10 of their employees work full time.

Aleisha, 38, readily admits that the business was her baby and that, when Brian, 47, came on board, it was hard to let her baby go. Married for 12 years, the couple welcomed their daughter, Grace, a year and a half ago, and both of them acknowledge that having a child together has balanced them more.

"It's gotten better since we had our daughter," Brian says. "Now I'm excited to get home."

"Thanks," Aleisha says, "that doesn't sound good."

And they both share a laugh.

At the business, Aleisha tends to handle the marketing, sales, and delivery service, while Brian is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the store. She does most of the hiring and scheduling. He does most of the managing of the facilities and people.

"He's the extrovert," says Aleisha. "I'm the introvert." Although both are quick to point out that they trust the other to handle any aspect of the business.

"We know each other's strengths and weaknesses," Brian says, "but the other one can take care of it just as well [although] it might be less comfortable."

There's less agreement on the division of labor at home.

"I do most of the cooking," says Brian.

Aleisha shoots him a quick look. She eventually yields that Brian does most of the cooking, while she does the laundry, and most of the pet stuff.

"You do brush them," Brian says.

Aleisha makes a milder version of her earlier look and points out that she also walks and feeds them.

"I don't like to talk about the home because it gets into this," she says. "We still struggle. We've tried to define our roles, but it's ongoing."

When asked how they handle the inevitable disagreements like this, Brian says " I don't like to go to bed angry. I will usually realize I made a mistake and apologize."

Brian also credits meditating together, which they've been doing nightly for the last couple of months, as helping to clear their heads and make their bond stronger.

For Aleisha, the biggest plus of owning the business together is "having that person by your side who you can count on and trust more than anything." Although she cautions "if you can keep your office out of home, it would be helpful."

BY DESIGN

Michael Alper and Bruce Moore, on the other hand, wouldn't have it any other way. Alper, a 60-year old interior designer, and Moore, a 56-year old architect, co-own Red House Design in Great Barrington, a full service architecture and design firm, that handles everything from kitchen and bath renovation and full scale remodeling to additions and custom-designed and built new construction homes.

They've been together for 25 years — married for five — and opened the business 17 years ago, after long careers in the New York corporate world. Their commute is much shorter these days.

"About 10 feet from the house to the office," Michael laughs. And their distance from each other in the office is half of that.

"We sit facing each other all day long," Bruce says, "literally five feet from each other, and I get to look at my best friend all day long, and my husband, and my business partner, and I would say 99 percent of the time that's a really good thing. That one percent comes and goes with us very quickly and is usually about stupid things like `I like this shower head better than that'."

Michael attributes their success, in large part, to putting their partnership — business and personal — above self.

"Our personalities, our marriage and our work style are not about ego," he says.

"It's a yes-and relationship as opposed to a no-but," Bruce adds. "A lot of married couples and a lot of business partnerships start with the premise that if you're going come to conflict, you're going to agree to disagree and leave it at that. I think our premise is that we're going to agree to agree, and getting to that point takes a lot of work."

At work, Bruce routinely takes care of all of the nuts and bolts technical stuff and construction documentation, while Michael is much more involved in the visual aspects of projects and materials selections. However, in terms of the actual design process, both are quick to point out that it's much more collaborative and fluid. And, speaking of fluid, they have a very interesting division of labor at home.

"I do all the wet stuff," Bruce says — citing dishes, toilets and laundry — "and Michael does all the dry stuff" including dusting, vacuuming and cooking.

They also readily admit to taking work home with them — but, almost always in a good way. They found inspiration for some of their current projects during a recent three-week trip to Norway and Iceland,

"For years we made an effort to separate our work life from our personal life," Bruce says. "That has completely flipped. It has enhanced our personal life."

Michael cites the fact that clients have become friends, and that most of their clients are married couples, some of whom also own a business together.

"We get up close and personal with other peoples' relationships and marriages," Michael says "[and so] we get to see ourselves compared to how other people interact."

And the comparison is often favorable.

Asked if clients try to use them as marriage counselors, they both laugh.

"It happens often," Michael said.

Their advice for married couples who are thinking about going into business together?

"Check your baggage at the door," Bruce said, "and, if you haven't, then don't go into business together."

"It's not necessarily a bad thing," Michael adds. "Just know that, and don't go into business together."

But Michael adds, "I don't think it's something to be afraid of. It can take your married life and business life to fantastic places. We work at all of it all the time."




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