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Couples take bliss to work with them

Unique couples find they can be partners at home and work, but only if they set boundaries and stick to them.

By JENNIFER GOLDBLATT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 13, 2002


NEW PORT RICHEY -- Each day, Robyn and Steve Doran wake up together, eat breakfast, drive to the office together and plan the day together. Then they work side by side for 10 to 12 hours at a time.

For many couples, this would take togetherness too far.

But Steve, a personal injury attorney, and Robyn, his paralegal and business manager, say it's professional and marital bliss.

"It's a well-oiled machine," Robyn explains. "During the day, I'm checking on client files; he's meeting with the clients. We know our jobs. He's the lawyer; I'm the business person."

They've worked together for seven years, been married for four.

"I've found my soul mate," Steve, 49, gushes to strangers. "She walks on water, she's a brilliant woman and I wouldn't be here without her."

Robyn shyly blushes and grins.

"He's just so kind and understanding, and genuinely cares," she says. "He's just such a good person."

* * *

Given that half of all marriages end in divorce, and half of all new businesses flop within four years, it's a wonder that anyone would want to try both simultaneously.

But increasingly, couples are willing to take those chances. About 80 percent of America's 22 million businesses are run by a family in some way. A much rarer breed -- including World Wrestling Federation Entertainment, The Gap, and Estee Lauder -- have been run by husband and wife teams.

"It's a unique couple that can work as equity partners in a business," said Mike McGrann, assistant director for the Wharton School's Enterprising Families Initiative.

"(Working together) doesn't necessarily have to be the death knell to a relationship; the key question is: In reality, how emotionally healthy are the two people?"

The biggest bonus to mixing work and marriage -- the intimacy and commitment -- can also be the biggest obstacle. For the business side of the relationship, it gives the couple an edge over their competitors with a less-committed staff. But the effects of spending so much time together combined with on-the-job pressures can add to the normal strains on a marriage.

"If the couple has good chemistry, there's a lot of planning and decision making that they don't have to go through," said Dan Rottenberg, editor in chief of Family Business magazine.

"Husbands and wives do walk out on each other," he said. "And sometimes they walk out because of the pressures of working together. But by and large, there's more stability and commitment."

Nevertheless, there are significant risks:

If something goes wrong with the business, both spouses' finances are in jeopardy. There's more room for arguments and power struggles. The weight of business concerns can drench the romantic fire and force a couple apart.

The keys to success are different for every couple. But the people who study this phenomenon and couples around Pasco County who live it say they thrive by honoring a few sacred vows: to find a leader, to have individual lives and to learn how to operate the "off switch."

The off switch

Given that the Dorans spend nearly every moment of their lives together, it's remarkable that their relationship appears to be as tranquil as the Norman Rockwell scenes that hang in the office.

The key to keeping the peace, they say, is by switching off home concerns once they reach the office threshold.

"You cannot have a family argument in here," said Steve, 49. "No fighting at work."

One might think that would cause the tension to tighten over the course of the day -- during the scores of times they have to interact. Both insist that it's just the opposite. "It's like a 10-hour timeout," said Robyn, 51. "It diffuses things. At the end of the day, it's like, 'Now, what was I mad about again?' "

Perhaps it's because their working relationship was firmly in place before the friendship and the romance bloomed. Both are divorced. Steve went to work for his previous wife at a real estate office. That didn't work out.

"There are so many pitfalls," he said. "You can't take your spouse for granted, and it's so easy to."

Robyn and Steve do talk business at home, but they also make time for dates at least once a week. Steve warns:

"It's a real tightrope you have to walk."

Finding the leader -- and following her

After 35 years of marriage and four years of running Davis Hardware, Ed and Gay Lyn Hancock have learned this much about working together:

"Someone has got to be the boss," said Gay Lyn, 53. "You can't have two."

They bought the hardware store in New Port Richey in 1998. Ed, 57, had spent more than two decades in banking. Gay Lyn had owned a hair salon, sold real estate and worked at the Chamber of Commerce. As a kid, she loved helping her dad fix things. Now, she runs the store, helping customers and managing the employees. Ed used to do the accounting and payroll.

"We said, 'You run the front, and I'll run the business end,' " Ed recalled. "That's how we kept it even-keeled."

Nevertheless, there was a learning curve. They had to discipline themselves not to blur marriage and work concerns. They had to go out of town to mentally get away. Nerves got frayed. Sometimes one would have to take a ride around the block.

Ed left the store in 1999, when Mercantile Bank made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

That left Gay Lyn to take over his payroll and accounting duties. She leased out the payroll and accounting duties, and took over managing the office and the employees.

"I'm proud of her, and what she did," he said. "She's a really good businesswoman."

When he retires from banking, he said, he'll try to get his job back at Davis Hardware.

"Not with her," he cautions. "But for her."

Staying together -- separately

For Greg and Cynthia Armstrong, their separate lives seem to keep them together.

They share an office at Prudential Tropical Realty in New Port Richey, but because they are out with clients, many days go by when they don't see each other at work. They have also mapped out their own personal lives.

"You have to have a life outside of work individually because there has to be some time that's yours and some time that's hers," said Greg, 47.

To blow off steam, he heads to the golf course and she sets off with her inline skates. They joined separate rotary clubs.

"We both support each other in those activities," said Cynthia, 46, his college sweetheart and wife of 25 years. "We both wanted to do our own thing."

Both say that's the only way they function in tandem. They look at listings together. Sometimes he works with the clients and she handles the closings. Sometimes it will take both of them to tackle a problem in order to save the deal.

Sometimes, when they're firming up contracts, and don't agree on a counteroffer, says Greg, "we have to bring out our negotiating skills, hash it out together, to present a unified front to the client."

But they learned how to do this the hard way.

About 14 years ago they ran a retail print shop together. She had previously owned two computer stores. He had previously supervised 500 employees at Winn-Dixie. Both were accustomed to being in charge.

"We learned that you do have to give each other some room," said Cynthia. "We each liked to be really involved and have take-charge personalities. So it was important that we each had an outlet where we could exercise that independently."

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