Couples who chose each other as business partners
The Census Department bean counters say America is home to 5.5 million family-owned businesses. Near as anyone has been able to ascertain, about one-fourth of those are a unique subset of family concerns: Those owned and operated by married partners.
For all the things that can complicate any business partnership—differing communication standards, conflicting expectations, incompatible management styles—the Friction knob can get turned up to 11 when you can’t unplug after work because you see that partner’s face first thing in the morning, and last thing at night.
And then there are those couples who, through trial and error, have found a way to mesh their respective talents and hitch them to a commercial enterprise that fires on all cylinders. They don’t all do that the same way, of course. Some work side-by-side throughout the day and make decisions jointly on virtually everything. Some have clearly defined lanes that lead to organizational success. Some take it to the operational extreme with entirely separate operating units—you manage yours, I’ll manage mine.
No matter which approach, if you ask them what makes it work and why, you get some answers that might be food for thought if your own partnership includes a spouse.
How do we know? We asked a few of them . . .
Jeanette and Kevin Prenger
More than 25 years after its founding, ECCO Select continues to set a standard for consistent, rapid growth, working its way up the all-time honor roll of Ingram’s Corporate Report 100 with a 10th appearance last year, with revenues topping $63 million. Jeanette and Kevin Prenger have been at it so long they’ve been able to bring their sons on board in key roles, making it a true family affair.
How did they get to this point?
“He knows whose boss (ha-ha),” Jeanette says. “Actually, we’re very different in how we approach problems and challenges. He has accepted that I’m very competitive in what I do, and he works well with my business style.” Kevin, with a wit drier than a magnum of Brut Zero, offers his formula for smooth collaboration: “ ‘Yes, dear, I do believe you’re right.’ And, then, I do what I want.”
Kidding aside, the company has made its presence felt in IT services and staffing under Jeanette’s watch as founder and CEO; Kevin’s duties come as vice president of facilities. “I am strategic, and he is more tactical,” she says. “I also tend to be intuitive and wanting to move quickly—opposite of how he works.”
There are no strict rules on when business will be discussed, but there tends to be one on when it won’t be: “We work with our boys,” Jeanette says, “and the only time we don’t purposely talk about business is when it’s truly family time.” Says Kevin: “None. If we need to discuss, we do it when we have time.”
That time can come at a premium when a CEO is as civically engaged as Jeanette is—she keeps one of the region’s most complete calendars with work with the Missouri Tourism Commission, the 15 and Mahomes Foundation, Junior Achievement, the Police Foundation of Kansas City, the Taubman Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Business—and more. A lot more. It’s a level of engagement that keeps both of them hopping.
Wedded harmony and corporate success are products of respecting each other’s swim lane within the business, and Jeanette’s advice to others trying to sort out such working relationships is simply to “understand your roles and respect your differences. Never go to bed mad at each other.”
“Yes, dear,” Kevin wryly replies. “I do believe you’re right. …”
Anita and Gary Robb
Robb & Robb law firm
Arguably the most prominent husband-and-wife legal team in Kansas City—and generally regarded as the most successful aviation-law trial attorney duet in America—Anita and Gary Robb have been champions of litigation since founding their personal-injury firm in 1984. If there’s a liability issue involved in air transportation (particularly with helicopter accidents), you can bet your lunch money that they’ll be sought out for representation.
They do other work, of course—a lot of it. Cases of small-plane crashes, fatal DUIs, school-bus collisions, and more are standard fare. Their success roster includes a $350 million verdict stemming from one fatal helicopter crash and a separate $70 million verdict from another.
The pressures on any lawyer in that space can be enormous. On a married couple? That’s another level. What makes it work?
“First and foremost, Gary is a brilliant, world-class lawyer,” says Anita. “At this point in his career, there is nothing he has not seen or been through before in a case—nothing can throw him. I love to see him in his element at trial, in depositions, or at a hearing. Watching him is art in action—it makes me feel like I am watching a thoroughbred dominate at the Kentucky Derby.”
Gary, returning the compliment, says, “Anita is so passionate about her work that it is infectious. Because we both love what we do, it makes it such a joy to share ideas and thoughts on an almost constant basis.”
Gary, Anita says, “is more willing to try new things. He is the idea guy, and I am the naysayer. That yin and yang has worked well for us.” Meanwhile, he’s inspired by the determination she brings to their work. “Anita is simply relentless. She once took 78 depositions in a case to find the pivotal testimony, and she did—in the 78th deposition.”
Unlike some couples who insist that business conversations stop at the end of the work day, “we have absolutely no separation of business from our home life,” Anita says. “And we wouldn’t have it any other way. We have some of our best ideas on cases at the oddest hours, day or night. There is nothing more fun for us to talk about than our cases.”
When conflicts do emerge, Anita says, a resolution is “always on the merits, and never personal. We know and respect each other well enough to listen to and value each other’s opinions.”
Marriage counselors have long advised against going to bed angry—something easier said than lived. “Our rule of thumb for 38 years is to talk everything out, and we never go to bed angry,” Gary says. “Never.” That’s an important predicate for resuming discussions at odd hours. “Anita has this special quality that she can wake up to respond to a question of mine in the middle of the night—perfectly coherent and cogent—and then immediately fall back asleep.”
Says Anita: “All I can say is that it works for us. We always laugh when people ask us how we work with our spouse; they don’t know what they are missing!”
Gary’s guidance to others is crystalline in its simplicity: “Do you love and respect that person enough that you would want to be with him or her 24 hours a day?” he asks. “If the answer is “yes” then going into business together is a definite go!”
Katie and Brandon Laughridge
North Terrace Property Management and Nell Hills
Katie Laughridge spent nearly 10 years in various marketing jobs while Brandon was polishing his skills in the world of property management. So clearly, the next step in their marriage had to be . . . acquiring one of the region’s best-known boutique home furnishings and décor stores.
They made that leap in 2019 with the purchase of Nell Hill’s from founder Mary Carol Garrity, an entrepreneurial leap that meant a complete career change for Katie, who runs the show at the high-end Northland retail site. Brandon is still doing his thing with North Terrace Property Management, but he’s never far from the decision-making at the store.
“I’m constantly offering Brandon a position at Nell Hill’s, but he has yet to take me up on it!” Katie says. He does, however, come in on special projects as needed, she says, “and gives insightful feedback without taking over or getting bogged down by the day-to-day needs of the business. His day job gives him a different perspective, which I appreciate. We may be in totally different industries, work with different people, and obviously have very different businesses, but many of our challenges are very much the same.”
Their arrangement works, Brandon says, because “Katie is naturally very detail oriented. I tend to be more of a big-picture, high-level thinker. To steal a cliché, it’s often said that a goal without a plan is just a wish. Our goals have always been aligned, but they were mostly just wishes for the first few years of our marriage. Personal growth and various experiences have led us to be far more purposeful in translating goals to plans and leverage our individual strengths to do so.”
It helps that his strengths—finance and operations—also complement Katie’s experience with culture, customer experience, and marketing. “Fortunately for us,” he says, “and perhaps just as intended by our subconscious, we each chose a life partner that had the same sort of complements to our individual business skill sets that we would also seek out in a business partner.”
Working in different day jobs, by definition, means that deeper discussions about the business take place when they get back together at the end of the day—even with a seven-month-old son added to the mix.
So there is no such prohibition about talking business in their time together, Katie says. In fact, “our favorite thing to talk about at dinner and on a night out is business.” With their young one bedding down around 6:30 p.m., she says, “we don’t have much time to eat dinner together or go out. But when we do, we talk about work a LOT. Challenges, frustrations, major wins, ideas—these things fire us up and could keep us talking for hours, and usually do.”
Brandon, waxing a bit philosophical, says that “serving one another as both partners and outsiders to our respective businesses at once is mutually beneficial. Our roles go far beyond that of a spousal cheerleader. The distance from the daily operations of the business we are not involved with allows us to provide support more easily to one another and serve as a pragmatic counterbalance in a way that’s not necessarily possible while working in the business.”