Melissa English and Sonia English

(WOMENSENEWS)–Once, their biggest concern may have been how to share bedrooms. But today, as adults, a number of sisters are sharing executive business suites, relishing a track record of rising revenue and their special partnerships.

“I couldn’t think of working with anyone else in a co-position,” says Bonnie Schaefer, who, along with her sister Marla Schaefer, runs Claire’s Stores, the publicly traded New York-based specialty retailer of costume jewelry to the 11- to 20-year-old set. “Marla and I completely trust each other. We put the good of the company before anything.”

Sister duos are no longer a rarity on the entrepreneurial front. While for many generations brothers joined forces, sisters are emerging at the helm of a number of U.S. companies too.

While some say a sense of closeness helps make their partnership work, others say a spirit of sibling rivalry helps fuel their joint ventures.

“We’re on the same team now,” says Sonia English, who says she and sister Melissa English were highly competitive as kids.

The duo spent their childhoods growing up in various parts of the world: Scotland, England, the East Coast of the United States and finally California. “When one of us would accomplish something that got attention and praise it would motivate the other to accomplish something even more amazing. We were competitive over everything as siblings are,” Sonia says.

Today Sonia is CEO and Melissa is chief operations officer of 5 Minute Networking, a Newport Beach, Calif., host of high-speed business networking events that they started in 1994. “Instead of being jealous, when she does something good, it’s like ‘go girl,’ because I benefit too.”

The pair briefly had a Web site development business but Melissa kept coming away from speed dating events with more business contacts than dates. Sonia, meanwhile, was going to conventional networking events–such as chamber of commerce meetings–and feeling that something was missing. The two put two and two together and came up with 5 Minute Networking, a private company for which they decline to reveal revenue figures.

Taking Over From Dad

A look at some other executive sister pairs shows how they make their partnerships work.

Starting in the 1980s the Schaefer sisters began working in various positions for their father, Rowland Schaefer, who in 1973 bought Claire’s Stores predecessor, then-named FT Industries. In 1983 Schaefer changed the name to Claire’s Stores. When Schaefer suffered a stroke in 2002, the board made the two daughters acting co-chairs and co-CEOs.

“The board probably didn’t think we would get the job done. But after a strong first year, they kept us in the position,” says Bonnie Schaefer, 53, who shares the co-chair and co-CEO titles with Marla Schaefer, 57.

Since the sisters have been at the helm, sales of the 16,000-employee firm have grown from over $918 million for the year ended February 2002 to $1.37 billion in fiscal year ended February 2006.

Marla warns that a business partnership isn’t for all sisters. If they don’t get along personally, going into business could be disastrous, she says, since even the closest of sister co-CEOs can have serious disagreements.

Very Different Start Dates

The Jallad sisters are also running a family business started by their father, but the two joined the company at very different points.

More than a decade ago, Sharon Jallad was a middle school history teacher, but after her father Hardy Snow Jr. suffered a stroke in 1994, her sister Deborah Jallad, who had worked in the business since she was 13, asked her–along with both of their husbands, who are brothers–to join the family business.

Their company, Accredited Surety and Casualty, a $100 million bail bond underwriting business based in Orlando, Fla., has seen revenues grow almost fourfold between 1994 and 2005. The sisters each own 50 percent of the company.

The sisters say they help each other to stay positive in a male-dominated industry where competitors, Deborah says, initially didn’t think they had the backbone to compete in the male-dominated industry without their dad.

“Because it was going to take a lot to transition from the classroom to the corporate world we made a decision to share an office, which we still do,” says Sharon. “Strategically it was the best way to learn, to hear and watch Deb closely.”

Deborah says Sharon’s teaching background is an asset. “Her teaching skills have come in handy. She knows how to share her knowledge and is organized. If something were to happen to me, Sharon could handle everything.”

The sisters say they have also helped each other out with child care over the years; Sharon has children aged 23 and 21, and Deborah has a 17-year-old. “Sharon would cover for me if my son had something that I needed to attend and vice versa. We didn’t have to have nannies, we were able to have normal lives,” says Deborah.

Joining Forces at the Start

Raleigh Lang and Katheigh Degen

Identical twins Raleigh Lang and Katheigh Degen had a different start. Twenty years ago they became business partners when they joined forces to start Twin Financial of Kansas City, a financial services and planning firm that today has annual revenues of more than $1 million.

When they started out they were drawn together by a shared goal: They both wanted to be working mothers without giving up motherhood.

“Running a business can be overwhelming, but when you have an incredibly close relationship with your partner you don’t feel alone,” says Lang. They each have three children, four of the six are teenagers. Both try to leave the office by 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. to get home to their families.

“Neither one of us could imagine ourselves in business by ourselves, so we did it together,” says Degen.

The sisters live three blocks from each other. The two families usually take two trips together a year. However, they have their children in different schools and they belong to different churches. “Our husbands and children wanted some separation,” says Raleigh.

Sisters Lisa Brandau and Becky Wright also started a business together. In 1982 they co-founded AtHome America, a direct seller of home goods and furnishings based in Alsip, Ill.

“We started this business together from the very beginning and subsequently as it has grown,” says Brandau of the company, which had annual revenues of $50 million in 2005. “Becky and I have developed our own unique points of view. Fortunately, we always seem to come together in the end when it comes to making those big decisions.”

Sheryl Nance-Nash is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, N.Y., specializing in personal finance, business and small business.

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