Growth Strategies

Wedded to a Business

Can finance experience help you run a company with your spouse and still sleep well at night?
Helen ShawOctober 11, 2005

“You have got to be out of your mind,” said Stan Lawson to his wife, Gabriella Ambrosi, when she told him she was thinking of owning a business.

At the time, Lawson — formerly the chief financial officer of Chinzano in Turin, Italy, and at DBS Industries in Middle Valley, California — was working at a faltering communications company. So was Ambrosi, whose experience was as a nurse and a marketing manager. Once they agreed that leaving the troubled company was a priority, Lawson agreed to help Ambrosi create a business plan and crunch the numbers.

Perhaps the idea wasn’t so crazy after all. Today, the couple own Sequoia Senior Solutions, part of The Senior’s Choice, a membership organization that employs in-home caregivers for seniors. “The combination of my wife’s skills, as a nurse with a marketing background, and my CFO background has really helped,” says Lawson. His finance experience was essential in profiling their likely customer base — an increasingly elderly demographic in the nearby California counties. Lawson’s background also enabled him to determine the break-even point that enabled their recent decision to finally move the business out of their house and into a 1,700-square-foot office space in Petaluma.

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Lawson and Ambrosi are not alone in another sense, too; many other couples are teaming up as co-owners of a business. Often, at least one partner cites finance experience — either on the job or as an investor — as a big plus in handling everyday challenges from employee relations to managing cash flow.

Ed Hobson, once the finance chief and the treasurer of The Massachusetts Co., a former Boston-based bank, credits his finance positions and his wife Shelley’s background in marketing with their success in managing cash flow, inventory, and advertising for their Learning Express franchise in Wilmington, North Carolina. The Hobsons went so far as to buy a budgeting software system to manage purchases and sales. (Ed Hobson, although no longer a financial-services CFO, still enjoys hands-on work with the numbers. “Shelley gets to make all the decisions,” he says, “but I get to write the checks. It’s called checks and balances.”)

Mary Beth and Chris Kreger co-own three Learning Express stores. (In fact, 88 percent of the company’s franchises are owned by married couples, up from 56 percent in 1995.) The Kregers tease each other light-heartedly isn’t moving well, but when it comes to managing costs, they keep a close eye on everything from sale prices to the phone bill. Chris Kreger also acknowledges that even with his management experience at a manufacturing plant, he hired managers for two stores who weren’t truly necessary.

To Bruce Arnett, who owns Georgia-based Carnett’s Car Washes with his wife Dee and his son, Bruce Jr., their combined knowledge and business experiences that have contributed to their success. Bruce Sr. maintains that his experience as a silent partner in a car-wash company in Buenos Aries, Argentina, combined with Dee’s background as a Big Eight accountant and Bruce Jr.’s business-school education, have helped their car wash grow to a franchise with 15 locations.

For Jodi and Dan Bittick, who worked in the retail and coal-mining industries, respectively, and now own a dry-cleaning service, managing the company’s finances has proved a major challenge. The Bitticks had learned about the business from Jodi’s family, who owned a dry cleaner’s, but they didn’t feel that their college-level accounting and business classes were much help. Jodi and Dan took small-business management classes with a counselor and met with other small-business owners who had similar concerns.

Managing employee relations has also been challenging, says Jodi. By contrast, Lawson says that at Sequoia Senior Solutions — which has more than 100 employees and is aiming for 450 — employee relations is relatively easy, given his CFO background. Others who haven’t enjoyed that management experience will “have a harder time,” he observes.

Staying on top of innumerable details can be challenging for any small-business owner, whether or not he or she has financial experience. As Ed Hobson notes, without a finance staff — often, with only one’s spouse to rely on — both partners must wear multiple hats. All the business owners we spoke with for this story believe that they work harder and have more business discussions outside the “office” than they would otherwise.

Ambrosi and Lawson, like all business partners, have disagreements about spending and strategy. Their response? They take turns on who “wins” and let the results speak for themselves. “It gives both of us a chance to fail and learn,” says Lawson. “You learn when to fight your battles because you don’t want to take them home with you.”