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Articles - Successful Management Techniques in the Family - Business

Could Your Wife Run The Business In Your Absence?

Friday, June 04, 1999




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.


Jay was 28 when he founded his sign business. He and his wife Teddie were thrilled when they opened their storefront and sent out the first announcements. As a young couple, they had a lot of energy and worked long hours getting the office and shop ready, buying supplies, arranging office furniture, developing a business plan, joining the local chamber and greeting their first customers.

Jay took over full management of the operation while Teddie kept her full time job as an account executive for a women's fashion company. But Teddie was there through all of the growing pains of the business too. She helped with billing and emptied the trash. She took messages for Jay at home in the evening when he was working late. The goal was to build the business to a level where she would quit her job and come to work with Jay. In the meantime her job provided a steady paycheck and other benefits such as insurance.

As the business grew, so did Jay and Teddie's family and responsibilities. With the first child, Teddie still managed to work full time because her mother and mother-in-law were willing babysitters. However, with the second baby, Teddie and Jay had to look at a more reasonable plan. It just wasn't possible for Teddie to work full time, care for two daughters, and help Jay in the business. Also Jay's Mom wasn't as healthy as she used to be and wasn't available for childcare anymore. Teddie's Mom was still helpful, but she and her husband had retired and wanted more free time. By the time their second daughter was born, the sign business was doing well enough to support the young family without Teddie's income. It would be tight, but the couple decided to take the plunge. Teddie quit her job to have the flexibility to care for her children and help out at the business.

For years Jay and Teddie ran the business this way. Although they shared equally in the ownership of the business and both worked long hours, Jay was really the manager and Teddie the home manager. Teddie would leave early to pick the kids up from school and get them to soccer practice and piano lessons. On some mornings she would come in late to the office because there was a dental appointment or a school field trip that she helped with. At the office, however, she was fully in charge of her department . . . everything that Jay didn't do, such as the bookkeeping, billing, purchasing and replanting the flowerbeds by the front door. Jay did the management, hiring and firing, marketing, customer service and the technical work. Amid all of this the children got more involved with the business, at first just watching dad build a sign, and later learning complex computer work.

If you are typical of most family business owners, you could probably plug your names into this scenario and change only a few details to make it your own story. Likewise, if you are typical of most small business owners, you do not have a succession plan. You have been so busy establishing and growing your business that you haven't looked that far ahead. You may not even have the confidence yet that your business will be around that long. Or you may decide to sell the business and build several other empires before you retire or die. When you were getting your business underway, it never occurred to you that you were building a legacy; you were just going after your dream.

If you are among the rare few who have considered succession planning, more than likely you and your spouse have discussed which child is best suited to be president or if management responsibilities should be shared by siblings. If you are in partnership with your brother, mother, sister-in-law, or some other family member, you probably have a legal and financial plan for how the partnership will transition should one or the other of you die or wish to be bought out. However, if the family business is a sole proprietorship such as Jay and Teddie have, and the husband is the founder and president, it's highly unlikely that you have considered your wife as a successor to the business leadership. Yet it is the wife who is most likely to be thrown into that position with the death of the founder where no succession plan has been established.

In 1984 McKinley conducted an interesting study in which she found that a widow was more than willing to take over management of the business upon her husband's death, especially if she had been working with her husband. But even among those widows not working in the business side-by-side with their husbands, there was a strong desire to take over the management. These widows reported that the business was very meaningful to them, that it was a part of their identity, that they had psychologically helped build the business. They did not want the business to pass out of their hands, even if they didn't know how to run it. Furthermore, most of the widows studied did not know how to manage their husband's business, because they had not been trained. Their function had been auxiliary.

They provided support such as Teddie has done for Jay. Therefore, these widows, untrained in the ins and outs of managing the family business, had to turn to their attorneys, CPAs and other advisors to educate themselves about the business. This is not sufficient training for the complexity of running a small business, as any business owner knows. But these particular women were determined and they learned as their husbands had done . . .by the seat of their pants.

This seat-of-the-pants training may have been sufficient for the founder, but it seems a waste to have the successor not benefit by her predecessor's lessons. Unless the business is a professional practice requiring college and certification that your wife could not readily get upon your death, preparing your wife to take over the business is a logical and practical step for most business owners. A side benefit is that once she is trained, the founder can turn his interests elsewhere, such as expansion or developing a second business entity. Growth of an empire is possible only when you have the flexibility and freedom to explore uncharted territory. If you are busy manning the helm, your growth will be limited to raising prices on product or adding a new line.

Preparing a wife for the presidency is no easy feat, however. It means acknowledging that the founder may die or wish to move onto something else. It means putting things into writing, such as compensation plans for your wife. It means letting go of control and allowing your wife to know all of the company secrets. It means that the marriage itself will be challenged. As the protégé grows in ability and leadership, the mentor may find himself eased out of power before he is ready. Can your marriage stand the strain of your wife being the boss, for example?

Making your wife your equal partner at work (provided she wants the job) and teaching her everything you know, will provide a solid succession plan. She will most likely be a devoted fan of yours and the business, and therefore a loyal and responsible guardian for the business. She will be a much better prepared widow than McKinley found in her study and less likely to lose the business. However, this also means redesigning the business today to accommodate two owners, two managers, two leaders. The consensus model of marriage that most Americans accept as the standard today will be brought into the business setting. Not only will husband and wife have to adjust to this change, but so will employees, customers and others used to a more hierarchical model. Be prepared to change the structure of management when your wife becomes your management partner. No longer can the founder fly by the seat of his pants. Although you may feel that your style is cramped when there are two of you to answer to, remember that having a well trained successor (and one who loves you) means that the business has a much more bright and stable future.