Mixing Business and Bliss

© 2008 Door & Access Systems
Publish Date: Summer 2008
Author: Carla Rautenberg
Pages 72-74

Mixing Business and Bliss
The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Couples in the Door Business

By Carla Rautenberg, DAS Special Correspondent

It’s a trend. The number of companies headed by married couples—now dubbed “copreneurs”—has more than tripled since 1990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

DAS decided to get the straight scoop on the pleasures and pitfalls of all this togetherness by speaking directly with the married co-owners of several garage door businesses.

The five couples we interviewed are located in five different states; two on the East Coast, one on the West, and two in the Midwest. Marriage counselors may be interested in this finding: all ten individuals reported that working together had strengthened their relationships.

Avoiding Common Pitfalls

“To be successful (as a couple in business), you have to do more than just place an ‘Open’ sign in the window,” says business consultant Zelda Fraden. She offers several guidelines for copreneurs:

  • Write a business plan to delineate goals and responsibilities.
  • Determine together who should handle each responsibility.
  • Communicate effectively—and when you disagree, do so in private.
  • Curb those egos to create a harmonious working environment.
  • Hold regular business meetings.
  • Create and consult an outside board of advisors.

Ready for Whatever Comes

Jay and Amy Yoder started J&A Overhead Door in Delmar, Del., on Valentine’s Day 2003. Since Jay previously was a long-distance trucker, the Yoders especially appreciate the benefits of working together.

“When he was on the truck,” Amy says, “I didn’t get to see him at all.”

Now the company runs two trucks with four full-time employees (including Amy and Jay) and one part-timer. Although they were the only couple we spoke with who have yet to write up a business plan, they have been flexible and responsive to the needs of the local market.

“At the beginning, I just wanted to do repair work,” admits Jay, “but people kept calling me to do installations. … Now, even though the housing market has slowed down, we’ve kind of improvised and picked up some other good accounts.”

“You’ve got to be ready for whatever comes,” echoes Amy. “In ’05 we doubled what we did in ’04. The past two years we’ve maintained where we want to be.”

Wedding Bells

Jim and Jennifer Willis were dating when they started working in the garage door business of a mutual friend who wanted to expand his operations. With Jim working in the field and Jen handling the office, they opened and managed a store in Ventura, Calif., for five years, until the owner offered to sell the location to them.

In January 1997, they took over the ownership of what is now Ventura County Overhead Door, and they were married in May of that year. “That was the beginning of this exciting adventure,” recalls Jen.

“Jen is a huge support to me. She’s great at bringing my visions to life to make them real and tangible,” says Jim. “I don’t have to be the only one responsible for decisions. I can share any situation with her and get another highly trusted perspective.”

With three children, ages 8, 6, and 4 months, the Willises also cite an advantage mentioned by several other couples: being able to bring their children to work. And Ventura County Overhead Door has grown right along with their family. The company now has 16 employees.

Who’s the Boss?

Among our five couples, the husbands all either work in the field or run that part of the business while the wives all take care of the financials and manage the office operations. But when it came to the question, “Who’s the boss?” the answers varied.

“From 9 to 5, he’s the boss,” maintains Bettse Dodge of Dodge Overhead Door in Easton, Md. Her husband, Gary, counters with: “If something happened to me suddenly, they could certainly figure out a way to cover for what I do here and be successful. If something happened to my wife, I think I would just crawl into a cocoon.”

The Dodges, whose company employs Gary’s brother Tom, the couple’s sons, James and Luke, and a young man “we’ve sort of adopted,” have just added their daughter Carrie to the payroll. She will work in the office, learning to do what her mother does, as part of a conscious effort at “succession planning.”

Other couples say they prefer a partnership model. “When it comes to leadership and presence in the company, I would say Jen and I are equal,” maintains Jim Willis. Jay Yoder seconds that, saying, “Amy and I go at it together.”

And with reference to her “copreneur,” Craig, Brenda Newby of Premier Door in Almond, Wis., says, “Neither one of us is the boss. We are partners. It has made our marriage stronger.”

Deciding Who Does What

·Armed with a business plan and a bank, the Newbys started Premier Door seven years ago. Since it is just the two of them, Brenda helps with installation.

“I have learned how to diagnose and fix openers, but Craig handles the doors more because of the springs,” she says, pointing out that they have divided business responsibilities according to their strengths. “I am good at book work, and he is good at installing and repairing doors, [but] we both do what we have to do to make the business work.”

“I thought we’d have one or two employees by now,” admits Craig. “But I’d hate to hire somebody and then have to lay them off.”

In terms of dividing responsibilities, our five couples tend to follow the way Bettse Dodge sums it up:

“He handles the outside, and I handle the inside.”

The Hardest Part

It’s unanimous. Everyone we interviewed says the biggest drawback of running a business as a married couple is the difficulty of separating work life and home life.

“Sometimes it’s hard to punch out when you leave at night,” says Pat Sullivan of Sullivan Door in Kewanee, Ill. His wife, Eileen, agrees: “I think that’s one of the hardest [challenges]. As much as possible, things need to stay at the showroom because we need to have a family life.”

Pat, who started out working as an installer for a door manufacturer, began his own business in 1985, and Eileen joined the company full-time seven years later. Now they employ 11 full time, including themselves, and they also have four part-timers.

Amy Yoder feels the most difficult part of being in business with her husband is “Sunday calls and having to be available to the public all the time.” Jay Yoder adds, “When you go out for dinner, it’s hard to get away from talking about the business.”

Communication and R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Again and again, our couples stressed the importance of communication and mutual respect. All agree it is essential for couples to refrain from airing differences in front of others, particularly employees.

“I find that after a storm blows through the business, I check Jen’s countenance as an indicator of how well I handled things,” says Jim Willis, and then he advises, “Men: when partnering with your spouse, a needed apology goes much further to gain respect than not.”

“Know that sometimes it won’t be his way or your way, it’s just going to be,” is Brenda Newby’s philosophy.

“My wife and are very good friends,” notes Gary Dodge. “At times, when a part of our relationship may be stretched to its limit, we always have that friendship.”

Bettse Dodge adds, “Whenever we need to go out of our way for a customer, Gary and I are in agreement 95 percent of the time. As far as our customers are concerned, we have the same standards.”

Regular Meetings

Most of our respondents do hold regular business meetings, although the frequency varies from company to company. For example, the Yoders meet with their employees briefly every morning at the start of the workday. At the other extreme, the Willises hold meetings with their workforce of 16 every six weeks to discuss sales goals and, as Jen says, “celebrate our employees’ accomplishments.”

Pat and Eileen Sullivan sit down together “in a closed office” twice a week. The Dodges try to meet every Wednesday morning, although Gary admits, “It’s hard to do.” Brenda and Craig Newby hold informal business meetings over lunch or driving together to a job.

Help From the Outside

Asked if they ever consulted a formal or informal outside group of advisors, our interviewees gave a variety of responses. The Dodges say that their primary supplier fulfills that role for them. In addition to turning to their supplier for advice, Craig and Brenda Newby count on networking with friends and members of several builders’ associations to which they belong.

Jennifer Willis feels her husband’s involvement with a group of CEOs that meets monthly provides valuable time for him to “work ‘on’ the business, rather than ‘in’ the business.”

The Sullivans and the Yoders say they really don’t have ongoing relationships with outside advisors as such.

However, several respondents credit faith and prayer with carrying them through the inevitable rough spots of juggling their family, business, and marital lives.

Copreneurship—Is It for Everyone?

These successful couples believe that only a fundamentally strong marriage can survive the stresses created by running a business together. But by the same token, most say that their business relationship actually has strengthened the marriage bond. Brenda Newby offers these words of wisdom to couples considering taking the leap:

“Be forewarned, it is hard. Respect each other. Make sure you have a plan and some assets behind you … and be able to admit when you’re wrong.” Her husband, Craig, stresses that planning time off is important, and Jay Yoder concurs.

Amy Yoder’s advice is to “Really think about it and put everything down on paper. You’ve got to know that that’s really what you want to do.”

Pat Sullivan emphasizes, “Boundaries are always the biggest thing.” Eileen seconds that: “Keep the business and the home life as separate as you can … and enjoy what you’re doing!”

“Always remember, put the marriage relationship first. Business comes second,” advises Jim Willis. “With Jen by my side here in the business, I have a lot more confidence running this company. Our mantra is, there’s nothing that we can’t accomplish together.”

The Last Word

Bettse Dodge describes the true value added by all the dedicated copreneurs operating small businesses across the country:

“What makes us unique is my husband’s standards for the quality of the installation. And he’s good to the employees. We may not be the richest door company, but we’re the happiest!”