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Breakup of Clarklewis founders: a lession for family-owned ventures

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

The news wasn’t pretty when it hit the papers a few months ago: Splashy restaurateur Michael Hebberoy quit his marriage and the eateries he and his wife had founded. After a handful of years as the reigning prince and princess of the red-hot Portland dining scene, Naomi Hebberoy was left to pick up the pieces. She promptly shut Gotham Bldg Tavern and Family Supper and set about saving Clarklewis.

All sorts of things were blamed for the blowup: financial problems, stretched resources, different visions, personal changes. The couple expressed hurt, regret. Could this marriage — and business — have been saved?

No one outside a marriage can really know why it falls apart, but Mark Green, director of the Austin Family Business Program at Oregon State University, says the Hebberoys were a classic couple-owned business case.

“They had a lot, maybe too much, going on, and they ran out of time for each other. Running a business is all consuming,” says Green, who works closely with families who own and operate businesses. Keeping life and work in balance can be tricky and dangerous.

“Copreneurship” — couples who go into business together — has been called the fastest-growing segment of family business, fueled by corporate job loss, women gaining equality in the workforce, more people working at home, and a desire to control one’s own life. Estimates put the number of copreneurships at 1.5 million nationwide. But the ventures are tricky to navigate.

If couples want to join the growing ranks of copreneurs, they need to go into it with forethought, honesty and some business and personal life planning. Otherwise, they risk not only losing their businesses, but also their loved ones.

Green points out that women in such business partnerships need to be particularly careful: “Women often end up doing more no matter what the relationship is. Even the most modern man is not so hot about cleaning up after himself. Men will never ever, in my estimation, do what women do around the house. The workload gets quickly out of balance.”

The perils of such a double union are many. Green says couples should start by writing a partnership agreement that outlines expectations for their business and personal lives. The agreement should include how to resolve disagreements, the financial and personal commitments for each partner, working hours, who makes what decisions. It’s a critical business pre-nup that can save heartache down the road.

The Austin program has developed a questionnaire that can help couples ferret out problems in advance. (To see all the questions, go to http://afbp.bus.oregonstate.edu/resources/frm_chklist_couples.aspx.) Questions include:


  • Can you hear negative feedback from your partner without having it hurt your relationship?
  • If you won the lottery, would you still stay in business as a couple?
  • Does working with your partner enhance your relationship?
  • Are attraction and romance alive in your relationship?
  • Do you receive sufficient appreciation from your partner?
  • Is the workload in the business and at home divided fairly between the two of you?
  • Are you as passionate about each other as you are about the business?

And you thought opening up that corner gelato shop together would be easy.

With 80% of family businesses never making it to the second generation and more than 1,000 family businesses facing bankruptcy in Oregon each year, it’s wise to make sure that your life partner is your best business partner before you hang out that shingle together.

— Robin Doussard

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Related books
Entrepreneurial Couples: Making it Work at Work and at Home by Kathy Marshack
Couples at Work: How Can You Stand to Work With Your Spouse? by E.W. James
Married in Business: What You Must Know and Achieve to Survive
and Thrive in Partnership by Jack Wyman

Austin Family Business Program www.familybusinessonline.org
The Austin Family Business Program at Oregon State University helps business-owning families manage day-to-day operations and plan for future generations. Topics such as succession, communications, growth and home/business balance are addressed. The program does not provide private consultation for individual family business or deal with start-up business issues.


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