Ever wonder what it would be like to work with your spouse? Imagine being together 24/7, running a business and building a dream. It all sounds a bit romantic, and certainly there are advantages. But then again, chances are it’s not always wine and roses. To get the scoop on what it’s really like, the Columbia Business Times spoke to three couples who have taken this less-traveled road and not only made a success of working together but also wouldn’t have it any other way.
Elemental Enzymes Inc.
1601 S. Providence Road
Scientists Brian and Katie Thompson met in graduate school at the University of Missouri, but they got to know each other through the Post-Doc Graduate School Association, where they both served a term as president. “We were just trying to get scientist students out of the labs to interact with each other,” says Katie, who adds that it’s not always easy. “I think that says a lot about our personalities, that we wanted to be involved in this kind of group.”
Their first date was different as well: a drink during happy hour in celebration of Brian’s submission of his first patent. Married in 2009, the couple launched Elemental Enzymes two years later. It’s a cutting-edge custom enzyme solutions company based on a process Brian co-invented with George Stewart, chairman and professor of veterinary pathology, and Chung-Ho Lin, research associate professor of agroforestry. Their company will launch its first product in January 2014.
For Brian and Katie, the idea of working together came about over time, and they attribute much of their success to what they call a “trial run.” In 2010, when Brian finished his post doc, he took a position working for a lab that collaborated with Katie’s. With his new position somewhat outside of his expertise, Katie was assigned to train him. “We worked together for a few months on a daily basis,” he says, “so we knew we could be around each other for longer periods of time than a normal couple.”
As Katie’s post-doc wrapped up, they did some major soul searching. “Do we take the leap and start the business or take the safe route and try to find a job?” Brian says.
They took the risk and soon discovered it was the right decision. “What I like about us is that on paper we may look like two Ph.D.s with similar aspirations, but we operate differently,” Brian says. “We know our strengths and weaknesses and know who should do each project within the company based upon our strengths and weaknesses.”
Katie agrees and adds that their differences make them a strong team. “A lot of what we do in the business is social,” Katie says, such as public speaking. She knows Brian has her back when she’s fielding questions from a group. “I can throw it back to him when I need more details.” The 24/7 togetherness also allows the couple more opportunity to make business decisions quickly and complete projects on time.
“If I was working with a normal business partner, I would feel really guilty saying, ‘We have to grind this out; you’ll need to put your family on hold,’” Brian says. With two children of their own, Evelyn, 5 months and Luke, 3 years old, the Thompsons’ working arrangement allows them more flexibility than parents who work two separate jobs, such as bringing the children into work when necessary and taking turns watching them.
But Brian and Katie also understand the importance of not letting work overshadow their personal relationship. “We check in a lot to get a read on each other,” says Katie, who adds that honesty and openness in all areas of their lives is essential.
Brian says prioritizing is a must. “You may be aligned on your priorities at home; it’s a different challenge at work. For instance, you can have financial challenges at home and work, but you approach each one differently.”
Brian and Katie offer some suggestions to other couples considering opening a business together. First, dedicate plenty of time to talking it through. “You may find you have the same goals, but if you don’t have the same strategy of getting there, you will have conflict,” Brian says.
Equally important is spending time working together before you jump in with both feet. “Try before your buy,” Katie says. Also, don’t assume anything. “We wouldn’t have thought starting out that we would be able to work together.”
Hoss and Trish Koetting, owners
1010A Club Village Drive
Jim (Hoss) Koetting met his wife, Trish, in 1989 at Boone Tavern when he was the general manager and she was a waitress. Engaged in 1990, they were married a year later. Like most couples, over the next several years, life got busier. Trish moved up in the restaurant business and eventually became director of operations overseeing several restaurants. At the same time, the couple’s family grew with the addition of two boys. Overtime, busy turned into chaotic, says Hoss, whose own job at Boone Tavern required hours that were far from family friendly. “The kids were 1 and 3, and I would be gone on football weekends from Friday morning through Sunday afternoon,” he says. By 2000, knowing something had to change, they began seriously discussing an exit strategy.
St. Louis natives, the couple frequented their hometowns, often stopping at the Smokehouse Market in Chesterfield, Mo. The country store with high-end meats, cheeses and gifts has always been a particular favorite of Hoss, Trish says. “I would say, ‘You have $100 and 10 minutes,’ or he would spend the whole day there.” It was after one such stop that they started talking about opening their own gourmet market. Two years later, they opened Hoss’s Market, a gourmet restaurant and grocery store in south Columbia.
“The best thing about working together is although we are both concerned with the overall operation, we have a division of responsibilities,” says Hoss, adding that this stemmed from a sense of trust they developed over years of working together. Trish agrees.
“We don’t question what each other does,” she says. “He is the prepared food and executive chef, and I’m everything else.”
Their individual skillsets have been instrumental in their business success. “We didn’t think we were going to cater when we first started,” Trish says, but working together, they accomplished it. Catering now represents a large portion of their revenue.
Hoss and Trish will also be the first to point out a couple-owned business does have its challenges. Separating the differences of opinions on work, then clocking out and still maintaining a healthy relationship at home is no walk in the park. Additionally, running a business often means long hours for both husband and wife. “From Sept. 1 to Jan. 1, we average 60 hours a week,” Trish says.
Overall, opening their own business has been a positive experience for the couple, and they advise others to take the plunge, as long as they do their homework beforehand. The Koettings advise, first, to seriously exam your personal relationship so you can learn what is truly important to each other before taking on the responsibility of operating a business. For instance, the Koettings find having the same moral and childrearing philosophies made the transition easier for them. “Being with our boys is our top priority,” says Trish, referring to sons Joey, 17, and Sean, 15. So working together allows the couple more freedom to attend their children’s sports events and other activities. Trish, who serves as the boys’ soccer manager, also appreciates the fact that she can volunteer readily to help with organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce.
For Hoss, achieving any goal in life is possible once priorities are established. “Someone once told me you can only juggle so many balls,” he says. “When too many are in the air, you have to let the less important ones drop, walk away and don’t look back.”
The Koettings also stress taking actions that reflect your goals long after the business is up and running. “Neither of us has our work email on our phones,” Trish says, which allows them to truly leave work at the end of the day. They are also closed on Sundays to have one day a week reserved for family time.
Overall, Hoss and Trish say be ready to weather all storms together. And when things get crazy — and they will from time to time — resolve to work through issues with a sense of humor. “Some people medicate,” Trish says. “We drink red wine.”
Fisher, Hal K. CPA
2510 W. Ash St.
Born and raised in the tiny community of Harrisburg, Hal and Gail Fisher have known each other since elementary school. They competed in basketball, of which Hal says Gail was the better player, and they both fondly remember the thrill of holding hands during the Moonlight Skate at the Rollerina in Columbia. Not surprising, they chose the same career path in college.
“In April of our senior year, he wanted to be a coach,” Gail says. “I said, ‘Don’t you want to go into accounting instead of coaching?’” Hal, who wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, says he just started taking accounting courses because she was taking them.
At one point, they attended different colleges — Hal at MU and Gail at Central Methodist — but they managed to see each other daily. “I was living back home, and she was in the dorm, but we would meet in Harrisburg every night,” Hal says.
Married during college, the Fishers both graduated with their B.S. in accounting. In 1986, Hal set up his CPA business, and Gail got a job in Moberly. But it wasn’t long before she started working evenings with her husband. “I was like the secretary at that point,” she says, and they were trying to save money. Two years later, Gail came on full time, and they’ve been working together ever since.Gail admits people sometimes make fun of them (good-naturedly) because they are seldom seen apart. But Hal can’t imagine living any other way. “We don’t really understand what it would be like to marry someone or to run a business with someone that you haven’t known all your life,” he says, adding that he still remembers the day Gail walked in the door at Harrisburg school. But their longtime relationship is also beneficial in running a business that requires more than the typical 9-to-5 timeslot.
“The seasonality of the business is the most difficult part,” Hal says, adding that they sometimes put in 80- to 100-hour weeks from January through April 15. According to Gail, you can’t leave things at the office; there is just too much going on.
“If we have to deal with something, we can talk about it when everyone leaves the office or when we’re driving, or at home,” she says.
With their long history, the Fishers also know they can count on each other and that everything will be done correctly. “We want things to be right when they leave our office,” says Hal, who adds he knows that Gail’s more detailed, check-list oriented way of working will keep everything running smoothly when he’s out consulting. In the same respect, the couple doesn’t hesitate to talk things out when there’s a problem.
“If we don’t agree on something, we tell each other,” Gail says.
Like all couples, the Fishers’ No. 1 challenge is balancing family and work. “When you both run a business, when business is behind, you are both behind, and then you both have to work late,” says Hal, who feels they are fortunate that both his and Gail’s parents have supported them through the years, especially when it comes to child care. In the same respect, vacation planning can be a bit tricky. But they always manage to get away a few days every year with son Kyle, 25, who teaches English and coaches track in Harrisburg, and daughter Ashley, 21, who is a marketing major in grad school.
What advice do the Fishers offer other couples that are thinking about working together? Compatibility is a good start. “It helps that we have known each other for so long,” Hal says.
Gail agrees and adds that honestly is important. But “loving one another” is No. 1 on the list, she says, to be successful in the long run.