Laura Herring

(WOMENSENEWS)–A tough-minded businesswoman runs the show and brings in clients; her easygoing husband provides the staff’s emotional support and shoulder to cry on. For women who run their own businesses these days, this sounds like a match made in heaven.

Laura Herring, 52, is president and founder of The Impact Group, a St. Louis firm that assists companies in relocating employees and their spouses; her husband Mike Herring, 56, executive senior vice president, provides the “shoulder to cry on” for their 110 employees. She is known as the hard-edged businesswoman who drives the firm and goes out and gets clients. Herring said her husband balances her in many other ways as well, always respecting the fact that she runs the show and has been the force behind the company.

“My employees respect me and listen to me, but would never throw their arms around me and confide in me,” said Laura, whose husband joined the business one year after she started it in 1988. “Mike is much more approachable and easy to talk to; in that way, we really complement each other and our employees understand our relationship quite well.”

For spouses like the Herrings who work in business together, the quirks and foibles of married life are magnified when husbands join their wives in business or report to them. This new arrangement breaks the traditional small-business mold, in which men ran the show and women were assistants or bookkeepers.

Because of this new configuration and different spousal roles, it takes a special kind of relationship in and out of the office for both the business and the marriage to succeed. And, this is true even more so these days. The number of husbands becoming partners with their wives who are already in business, or reporting to their wives, has grown by as much as 50 percent over the last five years alone, estimated Rudy Lewis, president of the National Association of Home-Based Businesses.

It Takes a Secure Man to Report to His Wife in Their Joint Business

“The days of the wives supporting and propping up their husbands in business have really changed,” Lewis said. “Now, the wives are running the show and making the decisions and often doing a better job than their husbands ever could.”

The growth in financing resources for women-owned businesses and the greater acceptance of women at the helm has contributed to this burgeoning entrepreneurial phenomenon. And, the number of male/female jointly operated proprietorships in general has jumped from 433,000 to nearly 743,000 from 1986 to 1997 alone, according to the latest numbers from the Internal Revenue Service.

But, if husbands and wives are going to operate a business together successfully, particularly with the men following the women’s leads, they must trust and respect each other’s abilities and opinions, said Gene Fairbrother, lead small-business consultant for the National Association for the Self-Employed.

They should make a list of each other’s pros and cons before deciding to work together. If the cons outweigh the pros, then maybe a business partnership is not the way to go. Fairbrother even recommended a few months of marriage counseling, even for the best relationship, before spouses become office mates.

“Spouses have to get along very well outside of the business if they are going to make it in business together, and men, in particular, have to avoid the natural inclination to want to take control,” Fairbrother said. “Men have to have a very secure sense of self to be in business at all and especially to be working for their wives.”

When Tom Mesereau, 42, joined his wife, Mona, 40, in her growing public relations firm out of their home in Parker, Colo., he understood that he would be taking direction from her until he got up to speed. He also was willing to divide up projects and responsibilities equally and allow each of them to operate in their own areas of strength.

Embarrassed Salesman Mistook Woman for Secretary, Husband for President

“I have enough security and confidence in myself to be able to sit back and let Mona take over on projects that she is more expert at,” said Tom Mesereau, who is co-owner of the four-and-a-half-year-old company. “That’s so critical for any husband that is going to join his wife in business.”

Couples need to be able to accept each other’s habits, differences, and even shortcomings in the office, without taking them home.

For Patricia Pitts, 62, president of Alpha Mechanical Inc., a Livonia, Mich., mechanical contractor, a tremendous amount of patience and confidence in her husband’s abilities make the two a successful match–despite her own extreme neatness and attention to detail and Joseph Pitts’ much more relaxed attitude. The two started the business together 18 years ago, with Joseph, 69, chief estimator, reporting to Patricia. While the two share many responsibilities, Patricia is clearly the one in charge.

“I will get things done immediately, while Joe will let piles and piles of ‘to do’ notes build up on his desk,” said Patricia Pitts, whose company employs 20. “But, I always trust his business sense, mess and all.”

She points out how a few years ago, a salesman visited the business and assumed that she was a secretary. He insisted on seeing her husband and wouldn’t speak to her.

“When Joe came out, he proudly introduced me as the president of the company and said that if you want to speak to whomever is in charge, that would be my wife,” Pitts said. “I think that speaks volumes for my husband.”

Laura Koss-Feder is a free-lance business writer in Oceanside, N.Y. She is an expert on small businesses and career and workplace topics. She has written for The New York Times, Business Week, Money, Time and Family Circle.

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