All in the Family
Entrepreneurs Test the Ties that Bind by Working with Relatives
One of the biggest arguments Clyde and Gerry Hicks have had during their 33 years of marriage was over gloves—winter gloves, to be exact. Gloves that Clyde ordered to sell at The Trail House, the outdoor equipment and apparel store they have owned in Downtown Frederick since 1984.
When the gloves arrived in late summer, Clyde put them out on the sales floor. Gerry promptly put them in the storeroom, arguing that no one buys gloves in August. Clyde brought them back out, arguing that of course no one would buy them if they were in the storeroom because they wouldn’t know they were available. By their own admission, an epic set-to ensued.
Today, the Hickses laugh about what has become known among their employees as “the glove incident,” but they acknowledge that some couples who work together might not be able to get over and get on with things the way they do. Donna Dorman, who works with her husband, C.J., at Dorman Home Remodeling, Inc., in Frederick, says when you work with family, “It helps to have a sense of humor … and a short memory.”
According to the National Federation of Independent Businesses, 43 percent of small businesses are family businesses, with two or more family members involved as owners and/or managers. More than half of those are managed by couples.
Tom and Kathy Schultze were high school sweethearts who will celebrate 40 years of marriage in August. They are also business partners in Kathy Schultze State Farm Insurance. They have worked together for the better part of 30 years, during which time Tom says they have learned that one of the biggest keys to their business success is the ability “to stay on your side of the bed.”
“You have to appreciate what each person does best and let them do it,” he says. In their business, Tom is the detail person who handles the business operations such as payroll and taxes, in addition to the agency’s commercial business products. Kathy loves helping people with things like life and long-term care insurance. “I tend to be a big-picture person, while Tom can focus on the finer points and how to get there,” Kathy says.
But not all family businesses involve spouses. Some are run by two or more generations, as is the case with The Collins Team at ReMax Results, the mother-daughter real estate duo of Sue and Sarah Collins. In the four years they’ve been working together, their business has taken off. They were recently named one of the Top 100 realtors in Maryland by Real Estate Executive Magazine, but they acknowledge that their story may be more the exception than the norm. “When I first started working with my mom, a lot of people expressed skepticism that it would work … or last,” Sarah recalls.
It’s a sentiment that is not unfamiliar to the Schultzes. “I wish I had a nickel for every time someone in the insurance business said to me, ‘You work with your wife? How do you do that!?’” Tom says, with Kathy adding that she knows of many State Farm couples who have tried working together but ultimately divorced in their business and marriage.
After 32 years in business together, the Hickses have well-defined responsibilities. Clyde handles the business’ books and selects hard goods, while Gerry handles marketing, floor sales and soft goods buying. If Clyde strays to her “side of the bed,” Gerry is quick to remind him, “I do marketing. If I need input, I’ll ask.”
“The key is that you have to have an incredibly strong relationship,” Kathy Schultze says. “You have to respect the individual you work with and be willing to give and take. It’s not always going to be rosy.”
These family entrepreneurs acknowledge that in business, as in any relationship, there will be times when the partners disagree. How they deal with those disagreements determines who makes it and who doesn’t. “You have to pick your battles because at the end of the day, you still have to go home,” says Donna Dorman. “C.J. and I are so blessed because we can make people’s lives better by changing their environments. Remembering that can make it a lot easier to pull back from that argument you think you want to win.”
As in marriage, those who work with family say there are times when you have to circle back to what is important. “Yes, we both still want to sell gloves, but just like in a successful marriage, there has to be some give and take in business, too,” Gerry Hicks says. “But the relationship comes first.”
Of course, one of the dangers of working with someone you know like family (because they are family) is the tendency to be irked by some of their quirks. Just ask Kathy Schultze. “Tom has a clock in his office that has read 4:20 for forever,” she says with a smirk. “Every time I go in there I ask him when he is going to fix it.” To which Tom quickly replies, “I’ll get to it. I’ve got a list …”
For Sarah Collins, who at 28 is admittedly on the other side of the digital divide from her mother, the issues often revolve around technology—or the inability to master it. “My mom never locks her cell phone, so she is always purse dialing people!” Sarah says. “I can’t tell you the number of times a day I hear ‘Hello? Hello?’ coming from her purse.”
Coping with co-workers’ annoying habits is hardly limited to family businesses, and those who do work with their loved ones say the benefits far outweigh any of the challenges. For most, that starts with the ability to put family first. “This is a lifestyle choice we made,” says Clyde Hicks. “It meant we didn’t have to run up and down [Interstate] 270. We could be home for school events and games.” He acknowledges they probably could have made more money if they weren’t in business for themselves. “But we wouldn’t trade a minute of it,” Gerry adds.
As Donna Dorman points out, “I’ve never had to ask the boss for time off to be home with a sick kid.”
Like the Hickses and Dormans, the Schultzes say they benefitted from the freedom owning their business gave them to be present for their children when they were young. “When I first started this business, Tom was working in Montgomery County and traveling extensively,” Kathy recalls. “We had two little ones. So when we knew that Tom’s company was going to close, it was actually my father-in-law who suggested Tom help me out.”
Although she admits her first response to the suggestion was, “Oh, dear God, no!” Kathy now knows any misgivings she may have had about working with her husband were unfounded. Not only did it enable both of them to do the things that were important to them with their kids, like coaching their Little League teams and volunteering in their schools, but, “I think it has actually strengthened our relationship,” Kathy says.
Working together has enabled Sue and Sarah Collins to see each other in a new light, not simply in their established roles as mom and daughter. “I watch and learn from her every day. She’s taught me that to succeed in this business you have to have a really thick skin,” Sarah says. “Buying and selling a home is a huge decision for people so they naturally tend to get stressed or frustrated with the process. You can’t let it bother you.”
But working together has also enabled Sue to have a greater appreciation for her daughter’s determination. “She’s tough. She’s strong. She will fight for her clients,” Sue says. “I always knew she could be ornery, but in this business ornery can be good.”
Eye on the Prize
Some couples, like the Hickses, decide from the outset that they want to go into business together. “I don’t remember even discussing how it might impact our marriage,” Clyde recalls. “I think we figured that we like each other and didn’t mind the idea of working together,” Gerry adds.
For others, however, the process evolves. Over the years, as the Dormans’ children got older, Donna started taking on more and more responsibilities in the business. Now she adds a valued perspective when she and C.J. meet with clients. “When we meet with a husband and wife, we see some of the same dynamics we deal with as a couple playing out when these couples try to make decisions about their remodel projects. I think that helps us help them smooth things out,” Donna says.
Family members who are in business together know that their partners truly understand their work and share the joys and frustrations of their careers, although most acknowledge that they make a concerted effort to separate work from family. When the Hickses’ two sons were young they did not bring them to work since their five-minute commute meant they could take turns going back and forth to the store. They also took assigned days. Gerry worked Saturdays and still does; Clyde and the boys would use that time for a “guys” day.
Sue Collins is grooming Sarah to be her successor someday and Sarah is doing her best to be a good student, learning from her mother’s experience and wisdom. Sarah recently bought her own house and is using that knowledge to help other first-time home buyers and sellers with everything from staging tips to insights on financing options.
The Collins agree that even though there may be disagreements over which photos to use in listing materials or frustration when Sarah has to tutor her mom on new software, if things ever get too tough, they’ll dismantle the business before they’ll let it dismantle their family. “I’ll always be her mother,” Sue says.
And Sarah will always be her proud daughter. “Clients meet with several different agents before they choose the one they are going to work with so I’m always proud when she gets another listing,” Sarah says. “I’m like ‘That’s my mom. Yeah, she’s great.’”