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Hearth & Home May 2019

A Family Affair

By Mark Brock

Specialty retailers are proving they can be both a partner and a spouse – successfully.

Business partners who are also married are common within patio and hearth industries where the tradition of family ownership is strong. We recently spoke with several couples who are also in business together to gain insights.

Married couples agree that a candid assessment of each other’s strengths and weaknesses is essential, leading to a clear definition of roles and responsibilities. Open and honest communications, and joint decision making on strategic issues, must be closely aligned with a division of labor.

One of the most interesting insights from married specialty retailers is how the factors that make for a successful marriage also make for a successful business partnership – mutual respect, trust, commitment, shared vision and values. At the end of the day, being married to your business partner is a lifestyle choice.

Everyone agrees that a separation between business and marriage is a good thing, but extremely difficult to achieve and not even completely desirable. Specialty retailers love what they do and enjoy talking about work when they are away from the business where they can percolate on innovative ideas. These same couples, however, insist on date nights and date vacations when the business takes a backseat, at least temporarily and in theory.

One of the greatest challenges for married business partners is creating a separation between the personal and the professional. When your spouse and business partner disagrees with you, it’s difficult not to take the criticism personally. Protective instincts are also likely to emerge when there is a disrespectful customer or a troubling employee. Everyone’s advice is to take a deep breath, step back and objectively focus on the issue at hand.

A month or so ago, on March 29, National Mom and Pop Business Owners Day was celebrated – at least by some who were aware of it. Most people also were unaware of the importance of these small, family-owned businesses to the entire economy.

Constant Contact, Retail Trends, and the Conway Center for Family Business gathered some facts that should be of interest to all of us. For example...

Click charts to view larger.

Quick Links

Yvette and
Vince Aube
Jeanne and
Colin Grier
Tina and
Wilt Dod
Cindy and
Bill Esch
Elsa and
Jeremy Hodges
Schelle and
Rob Lewis
Kimberly and
Brian Weber
Suzette and
Greg Hopkins
Cathy Galbreath-Buzbee
and Scott Buzbee
Michelle Larrabee-Martin
and Greg Martin
Denise and
Claude Quirion
Kristetta and
Chuck Miller
Vicki and
Stacy Lavertu
Alexis and
Dave Rettinger

Yvette and Vince Aube

AIM Chimney Sweep & Stove Shop

Midland, Ontario, Canada
Categories: Hearth

Yvette and Vince Aube at the 2017 Chimney Sweep Festival in Santa Maria Maggiore, Italy.

It comes with the territory – married business couple establishing rules and routines to help prevent their work lives from overtaking their personal lives. And so it is with Vince and Yvette Aube, owners of AIM Chimney Sweep in Midland, Ontario.

“We have a rule that in certain areas of our home, for example the hot tub room, there is a ‘no work talk’ rule. These areas are for life, not work,” Yvette said. “By respecting each other’s boundaries we’ve found that during 40 odd years of working together we know where our work begins and ends; we trust each other’s instincts and skills and allow each other to flourish.”

Vince and Yvette have been involved with the chimney profession since 1977 and founded AIM Chimney Sweep in 1983. The company focuses predominantly on chimney sweeping and hearth care, but also does stove and chimney sales, installations, repairs, and inspections. Vince is in charge of road work, vehicles, and crews while Yvette is in charge of the office and administrative responsibilities. They are both WETT (Wood Energy Technology Transfer) Certified as Chimney Sweeps/Installers/Advisers and Inspectors.

AIM Chimney Sweep is a growing family business with their son Martin in sales and his wife, Shannah, working closely with Yvette on office and administrative responsibilities. Even their grandson, Jared, is working full-time with the business.

“Our focus is on the success of the business, but we also make sure to keep our married life fun and alive,” Yvette said. “We do date nights, and we both drive vintage Corvettes and love being on the open road and attending car meets with each other. We share a lot of activities together but we still have our separate groups and lives.

“The secret for a successful married business partnership is to never go to bed mad,” Yvette continued. “You have to know that every day is not a bed of roses, and you learn when, where, and how much to prune the bush to keep it alive.”

Among their shared activities is attending the annual international chimney sweep festival in Santa Maria Maggiore, Italy, where they were the first Canadians to participate in 2006.

“The best tip I can give other married couples is so easy – learn your strengths and weaknesses in the business, respect each other’s knowledge and space, and learn to separate your business and personal lives. After the day is done, you are a married couple not business partners anymore.”

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Jeanne and Colin Grier

Stylish Fireplaces & Interiors
by Huntington Lodge

Vaughan, Ontario, Canada
Categories: Hearth

Jeanne and Colin Grier.

Stylish Fireplaces & Interiors began as an interior decorating business in 1993 when Jeanne Grier, who has more than 20 years of award-winning experience, purchased an interior decorating franchise. Colin Grier, whose background is in accounting with a variety of businesses, joined Jeanne in the business in 1998.

In 2003 the couple opened a small showroom (800 sq. ft.) that included electric fireplaces, and in 2017 they moved to a larger location (3,000 sq. ft.). Jeanne serves as president and handles marketing, human resources and custom projects; Colin is vice president and accountant with responsibilities for purchasing, customer service, and installations. Both Jeanne and Colin are responsible for sales.

Jeanne and Colin have carved out a niche in the home décor industry by illustrating how electric fireplaces can be incorporated into stylish room designs.

“Our business was founded on the belief that a fireplace is much more than an appliance,” Colin said. “We know that the right style and size transforms an average room into an elegant, sophisticated space. We’ve specifically designed our store to showcase a wide variety of electric fireplaces, from modern to traditional.”

“One of the greatest advantages of being in partnership with your spouse is your ability to make faster decisions on most things,” Jeanne said. “Because Colin and I have different skill sets, we approach problems from two different angles which I think leads to better outcomes.”

Colin and Jeanne work intensely but have made a commitment to find balance in their lives. Their new showroom is in the same building as a health club where they go after work each day, followed by dinner and relaxing at home. In addition, Colin and Jeanne enjoy cycling and, on the first long weekend in May, they close the shop on Saturdays, pack the bikes, and go riding on rail trails. They keep up Saturday biking until Thanksgiving when they reopen on Saturdays.

One of the couple’s many priorities for the business is to improve communications and teamwork.

“It seems that we occasionally give conflicting instructions to our employees, and we’ve also been known to disagree in front of our staff,” she said. “The debates won’t likely stop any time soon, but our staff takes it all in stride. They realize that we have different approaches. If we give conflicting instructions, then the staff will usually let us know so we can resolve it.

“We’ve also started having team meetings every few weeks to sort out processes that need fine-tuning or to hash out new processes,” Jeanne continued. “We’re trying to instill in our staff that if they have a better way of doing something, we want to hear about it. Having a small team means that they have direct access to us at all times and we can make changes quickly. It also means they have to listen to husband and wife debates sometimes.”

In terms of lessons learned in a married partnership relationship, Jeanne offers this advice: “Have a clear definition of who does what and who is responsible for what. He doesn’t make marketing decisions and I don’t touch the accounting. Some things need to be discussed together, but you have to be able to make decisions on day-to-day stuff without consulting each other all the time. You also have to respect the other person’s decisions.”

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Tina and Wilt Dod

Dod Installations

Wichita, Kansas
Categories: Hearth

Tina and Wilt Dod in front of Kozy Heat’s Alpha 36 natural gas fireplace.

Tina and Wilt Dod are a good example of married business partners who have followed many of the recommendations for a successful business and a happy marriage. They worked together in another business before launching Dod Installations in 1990 and have cultivated a strong team of outside advisers and resources. While recognizing that their business is an essential priority, they make a concerted effort to enjoy life outside of work.

“One of our top recommendations for married couples going into business together is to get good outside counsel,” Wilt said. “We have the best CPA, computer tutors, and business consultants we can find. We also keep our eyes and ears open for new talent every day because we want to be prepared to recruit when needed.

“All along the way, married couples in the hearth industry must also obtain required certifications and licenses and seek out unique products,” he continued. “Our focus is on offering customers the full range of products from basic units to cutting edge choices in demand by high-end buyers. We’re always looking for the next better idea.”

Dod Installations was launched with a well-used pickup truck, computer, and a few tools. Wilt and Tina took advantage of every learning and networking opportunity, plugging into industry trade training, securing certifications, and building relationships with suppliers. Wilt was soon full-time while Tina joined him in the business on evenings and weekends, keeping her full-time day job selling vinyl graphics. They were both full-time in the business by 1993.

“We started out installing fireplaces for builders,” Tina said. “Soon the word spread and more builders wanted us to install their fireplaces, and then they asked if they could also buy fireplaces from us. We could see that we were on to something big that would fit well for us. We worked out of our home and kept inventory in storage units. At one time we had eight storage units.”

While the home office and storage units worked efficiently for a number of years, Tina and Wilt purchased a building in 2008. By 2019, in order to accommodate continuing growth, they doubled their building to 9,000 sq. ft., encompassing a large showroom with many live-burn displays. The staff of eight supports a wide range of offerings, from gas and wood to electric options. While they share duties, Wilt focuses on selling and Tina on administrative duties.

“We truly enjoy being together, so that is one of the first and best things about being married and business partners,” Wilt said. “We’ve been told we do a great job of balancing out each other. While we see things from different points of view, we usually come to a good hybrid answer that fits best for the situation at hand.”

In addition to following well-regarded advice for a successful business partnership while married, Tina and Wilt are also experiencing the challenges.

“It’s hard to ‘get away’ from the business. We do take it home with us and think about it a lot,” Tina said. “That’s just part of the price you pay for being business owners, but some of our best thinking is on evenings and weekends. We figured out years ago, if we don’t agree on the big decisions then we seek a solution that we can agree on. Otherwise, the answer will be ‘no’ until we find that solution.”

Wilt and Tina have made a concerted effort to have a balanced life. They are season-ticket holders for the Kansas City Chiefs, play golf together, enjoy going RVing with friends, having dinner parties, and spending time hanging out by the pool, hot tub, and, of course, their outdoor fireplace. Tina also has a music studio where she writes and records; she also paints abstracts. Wilt enjoys taking on remodeling projects and has a green thumb.

Finding balance between married life and owning a business also requires managing the expectations of employees.

“We have a strong team that really cares about each other, but at times Tina and I need to close the office door and be unavailable so that we can meet business deadlines or talk about personal and family things,” Wilt said. “Getting privacy on a busy day can mean just saying to employees ‘unless it’s an emergency, we need a minute and we’ll get back to you.’”

For Wilt and Tina, the most important aspect of their personal and business lives is achieving a healthy balance.

“Find something fun you love to do as a couple, such as date nights once a week, and put it in your calendars like you would an appointment,” Tina said. “Don’t invite best buddies to come along on your time to reconnect as a couple. Look across the table at each other and remember what really matters – the connection between you as spouses.”

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Cindy and Bill Esch

Patio and Hearth Co.

Albuquerque, New Mexico
Categories: Hearth, Patio, Barbecue

Cindy and Bill Esch.

When the owners of Patio and Hearth Co. in Albuquerque, New Mexico, decided to sell the business, the most likely potential buyer was Bill Esch. He had been with the company for seven years, playing a strategic role in helping the business transition from a focus on spas to a broader retail operation featuring casual furnishings, hearth products, and accessories. The owners, however, had an unusual requirement before they would sell to Bill.

“The owners knew my strengths and my weaknesses, and they insisted that my wife, Cindy, come on board full-time with me in running the business,” Bill said. “It was actually written into our business plan that Cindy would leave her full-time job in property management and take on front-office responsibilities – budgeting, accounting, advertising – and I would focus on sales and merchandising.”

Shortly after joining Bill in the new enterprise, Cindy quickly demonstrated why she was the ideal complement to Bill’s strengths.

“We had this giant office overlooking the sales floor, and I said there was room for both of us to work in that office, but that arrangement didn’t last two months,” Bill recalled. “I came in one day and my installer was adding a partition to create two separate offices for Cindy and me. The two of us work in totally different ways, and she knew we had to have our own spaces, and she was right.”

Under the ownership of Bill and Cindy Esch, Patio and Hearth Co. has completed its transition to a successful full-line patio, hearth, and barbecue retailer. Their experience illustrates how specialty retailers who are also married can own and manage profitable businesses when there is clear definition of responsibilities that plays to each other’s strengths.

“I believe the most important thing in going into business with your spouse is to have a strong marriage first,” Bill said. “Cindy and I had been together for 10 years before we bought this business. When one of our reps heard we were buying the business, he said we better get a marriage counselor, but we’ve never needed that type of help. We’re both committed to each other and to our business and we have the same vision for our future together.”

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Elsa and Jeremy Hodges

Hauser’s Patio

San Diego, California
Categories: Patio

Elsa and Jeremy Hodges.

Jeremy and Elsa Hodges had worked for Hauser’s Patio & Rattan in San Diego before they acquired the business in 2017. Jeremy had begun with the company in the warehouse, working his way up to general manager, while Elsa specialized in purchasing. It was a natural transition for them to take over the business when the previous owner decided it was time to retire.

“For me, the greatest advantage of being in business with your spouse is trust, 100% trust,” Jeremy said. “In a typical business partnership, no matter how well you know your partner, business is business and there is not the same level of trust as when you’re married.”

With a combined three decades of experience in the luxury outdoor furnishings business and as a family-owned enterprise, Elsa and Jeremy have found they can form close relationships with their customers.

“Our customers can see that we are a family business and we work well together,” said Elsa, noting that their sons also work in the business. “Our customers like buying from a family business because there is more of a connection; a lot of our customers grew up in family businesses so they can relate to our experience.”

As the city’s go-to resource for quality outdoor living products, Hauser’s features extensive lines of casual furniture along with shade structures, fire pits, indoor/outdoor gas logs, tableware, accessories, and wall décor. One of the unique aspects of the company is its proprietary line of high-quality designs made exclusively for Hauser’s. In addition to residential customers, Hauser’s also serves several commercial clients.

To help keep the business and their relationship strong, Jeremy and Elsa focus on listening to each other and respecting different points of view.

“It’s essential to listen to one another,” Elsa said. “Listening to one another doesn’t mean you have to agree, but it helps you understand your spouse’s point of view and it helps in understanding each other’s work style.”

Elsa and Jeremy share common goals and a vision for a business that requires long hours on the job. At the same time, they are careful to nurture their relationship outside of work.

“We have a promise to have lunch together every day and we get away for week-long breaks two or three times a year,” he said. “And we have fun with the business. You don’t have to take everything so seriously all the time.”

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Schelle and Rob Lewis

Canyon Fireplace

Orange, California
Categories: Hearth

Rob and Schelle Lewis.

Rob Lewis launched Canyon Fireplace from his garage in 1984 and has guided the company’s growth as one of the nation’s leading custom fireplace designers. With expansive design, fabrication, and distribution facilities, Canyon Fireplace’s reputation is based on innovative fireplace designs that are as beautiful as they are technically advanced. Rob’s wife and business partner, Schelle, joined the business full-time in 1997.

Rob serves as president and handles crews, jobsites, warehouse, design, blueprinting, and fabricating duties. Along with designing and selling fireplaces, Canyon Fireplace completes all of the finish work, doors, mantels, facing, and fire features with its own wood shop. Schelle is vice president, responsible for scheduling, ordering, human resources, receiving, and customer service. Both Rob and Schelle handle in-home consultations.

“Our business partnership is definitely a lifestyle. The business comes before almost everything,” Schelle said. “We have missed a lot of birthday parties and get-togethers over the years, but we have gotten to do things we aspired to. Our daughter came to work with me every day instead of daycare, and she was able to attend Columbia University. Her opportunity to be happy, thrive, and succeed was our mutual number one priority.”

Although the business is demanding, Rob and Schelle work hard at finding balance in their lives through outside interests.

“We both have our own activities after work,” she said. “Rob is the head Science Olympiad coach and a varsity girls’ softball coach at the local high school. I have an awesome group of friends and we work out together, which is my daily stress reliever.”

Separating their dedication to the business and other interests is, however, a daily challenge, with the business always the first priority.

“It depends on the day,” she said. “Sometimes it’s super easy to leave work behind and some days not so much. On days when we bring work home we try to limit it. The signal is if it’s not about work right now, we’ll talk about it tomorrow.”

While sacrifices for their business have been many, the rewards have also been great.

“Our focus for the last 20 years has been on being the best that we can be at what we do,” she said. “We continue to learn and grow within the industry, and adapt to the codes and changes in California. We’re lucky to have had a good foundation for growth.”

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Kimberly and Brian Weber

Energy Center – Manhattan Pool

Manhattan, Kansas
Categories: Hearth, Barbecue,
Patio, Pools, Spas

Brian and Kimberly Weber.

One of the great things about being married to your business partner is a shared history that adds a unique touch to the relationship and makes communications about the business easier. So it is with Brian and Kimberly Weber with Energy Center – Manhattan Pool of Manhattan, Kansas.

“Brian and I both grew up on farms with cats that had litters of kittens,” Kimberly said. “We would, of course, put the kittens in a box and they would immediately start to crawl out of the box. One day Brian called me at the store and it was a pretty intense conversation over something that had happened. I stopped him in midstream and told him to put his kittens back in the box. We both just laughed because we both could identify with what I meant. Now, whenever either of us needs to lighten things up a bit and gain a fresh perspective, we just tell the other to ‘put your kittens back in the box.’”

Kimberly and Brian had thought about owning their own company for several years when they heard rumors in the late 1990s that Energy Center – Manhattan Pool was potentially up for sale. Using money they had saved for a new home, along with loans, they purchased the business in 2000 and began a steady process of expansion, renovation, and improvement. Skilled employees with industry certifications and continuing education were recruited and product lines and brands were refined.

Today, the company’s expansive offerings include hearth products, swimming pools, spas, grills, patio furniture and saunas. They also do installations and service, including chimney sweeps, new construction, stove installation, inspections, and in-ground and above-ground pools.

“When we first started in this business, we didn’t have any balance at all, just work, because it was essentially just the two of us and we needed time to recruit talented individuals who could earn certification,” Kimberly said. “On more than one occasion the police would stop at our store to check on us because the lights were on so late at night. One time, Brian was preparing for a Saturday morning grill class when the police stopped by to check; I think they were more interested in the food they could smell on the cooker.”

Brian and Kimberly enjoy greater balance in their personal and work lives today with family vacations and regular meals with their three children. In terms of responsibilities, Brian is the more technically inclined of the two and handles inspections, installations, training, service, repair, and estimating. Kimberly drives customer relations, advertising, billing, sales, and inventory.

“After being in the business this many years, the key is keeping things fresh and energy levels up,” Kimberly said. “You learn to read when your spouse needs a break from business and maybe isn’t up to discussing issues that have come up. The most important thing is to always be respectful of each other.”

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Suzette and Greg Hopkins

A Cozy Fireplace

Chicago, Illinois
Categories: Hearth, Barbecue

Suzette and Greg Hopkins in front of a Majestic wood burner with a Hargrove gas log set.

Business is business and personal is personal, which Greg and Suzette Hopkins learned very early in their careers. Working together at a hearth store just six months after their marriage in 1986, Suzette was late for work because she was out Christmas shopping for the family. As store manager, Greg said rules are rules, and he fired her.

“Excuse me, but do you know who I am and what I have been doing – that’s what I said to Greg,” Suzette recalled. “He stood by his position and said I was due at work at 10am and I arrived at 1pm. Well, he slept on the couch for a while, but after about a week, he hired me back. It was an important lesson for both of us.”

Today, Greg and Suzette are partners in A Cozy Fireplace with three locations in the suburbs of Chicago, offering fireplaces, wood stoves, gas grills, gas lamps, and fireplace accessories. Greg launched the family business in 1995, purchasing an existing business, and Suzette joined him full-time in 2000 as the business was growing. Suzette focuses primarily on marketing and sales while Greg’s responsibilities include financial and operations.

“Our personalities are really complementary,” Suzette said. “I am more passionate and impulsive while Greg is more analytical and methodical. When I have a new idea, I’m ready to run with it right now, but he’s more likely to say ‘Let’s sleep on it and talk tomorrow.’ It’s an approach that works well for us.”

Despite the awkward situation that occurred the first time they worked together, Suzette is a firm believer that married couples should try working together before they purchase and operate their own businesses.

“The first question I would ask a couple before they start their own business is: ‘Have you ever worked together?’” she said. “If you’ve never worked with your spouse you don’t know what kind of work style that person has and whether you can get along.

“It really comes down to having a strong foundation,” she continued. “As long as your foundation is strong everything else can be taken care of. With your spouse you can be open and honest and talk freely in a way you could never with an employee or a boss. That’s a real advantage of being married to your business partner.”

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Cathy Galbreath-Buzbee
and Scott Buzbee

ABSCO Fireplace & Patio

Birmingham, Alabama
Categories: Hearth, Barbecue, Patio

Cathy Galbreath-Buzbee and Scott Buzbee with their dog, Wrigley.

For Cathy Galbreath-Buzbee and Scott Buzbee, ABSCO Fireplace & Patio is more than a business; it’s a lifestyle. Other family members are part of the company’s team and they enjoy family vacations together. The lines between marriage, family and business are blurred.

“We really don’t separate our work and personal lives because they are so commingled with the business,” Scott said. “It really is a lifestyle for us because we love the industry and we love what we do.”

Cathy’s father founded the business in 1965 and she joined the company in 1994, which she now co-owns with her niece. Scott joined the business as manager of the warehouse and operations after he and Cathy married. ABSCO has two locations in the Birmingham area, offering a broad assortment of casual furniture along with hearth products and accessories, vented and vent-free gas logs, and outdoor fireplaces and fire pits.

“There is a commitment and trust level when you are in business with your spouse,” said Cathy, who serves as company president and is responsible for retail store operations. “We know that each other will go the extra distance and put in the extra hours whenever it’s needed. Scott and I rely on each other at all times.”

While there is this level of commitment to the business, Cathy and Scott are also well aware that there are times when they need to take a break and step back from the business. One of the strongest aspects of their partnership is that they genuinely enjoy each other’s company and can relate to each other’s challenges.

“You have to have a great marriage going into a business together,” Cathy said. “If it’s a rocky marriage to start with, it’s probably not a good idea to start a business together because you have to be able to depend on each other 100%. When you are in it together, you are all in.”

Scott and Cathy also enjoy the advantage of understanding each other’s daily work challenges.

“Cathy and I have separate responsibilities for the business, but we also know what each other is going through each day,” Scott said. “Most working couples have two very different jobs, making it hard to relate to each other’s issues. That’s not the case for us. I understand the problems she’s dealing with and she knows the issues I’m facing. That’s a real advantage for us.”

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Michelle Larrabee-Martin
and Greg Martin

Kolo Collection

Atlanta, Georgia
Categories: Patio

Greg Martin and Michelle Larrabee-Martin in their Westside showroom in Atlanta, Georgia.

For Michelle Larrabee-Martin there is one essential question that a couple should ask themselves before getting married or starting a business partnership: “Can you see forever?”

“This is the most important question in deciding to get married, and it’s the most important question in deciding whether to go into business with your spouse,” she said. “Can you see the future together? Can you see raising kids? Can you see retirement? I saw all of these things with Greg Martin and that’s why I married him and that’s why he’s both my husband and my business partner.”

Michelle and Greg had only been married for two years when Greg first suggested that they go into business together. His family background was in furniture, and her expertise was with interior design, so the skill sets were there.

“My family had done well in the interior furniture business, but Michelle and I saw more opportunities in outdoor furniture,” Greg said. “We believed we could create a niche in outdoor décor because there weren’t as many players and because what we had in mind was not a regular furniture store.”

Kolo Collection was launched in Atlanta in 2003 with Greg in the lead and Michelle joining him a year later. With a showroom in the Atlanta Decorative Arts Center, along with a retail location, Kolo Collection is renowned for offering premium outdoor décor accented with distinctive merchandising. The company has won numerous awards and press accolades for its design leadership.

“The best advice we received in opening the business was for each of us to identify our strengths and weaknesses and determine our roles and responsibilities so that we could focus on what we do best,” Michelle said. “Greg is the financial guy, the forecaster, and he manages the business operations. My job is to lead the sales effort, merchandise, and to do the design work for customers. We meet in the middle when we need to make decisions that affect all areas of the business.”

As is true for most married business partners in specialty retail, one of the greatest challenges is having a life outside of work.

“It’s definitely a 24/7 situation and shutting off the business can be a real challenge,” Greg said. “But we love what we do and are fully committed, so we always enjoy talking about the business. Sometimes we go out for a nice dinner and try to see how long we can go without talking business. It usually takes about 30 seconds.”

Given the challenge of being consumed by the business, Michelle and Greg make a concerted effort to maintain relationships outside of the business.

“It’s important for married business partners to maintain a network of friends outside of work,” Greg said. “Your life can’t be just your spouse and your employees. It’s essential to have some balance with friends outside of work and spend time with them.”

The other essential challenge, according to Greg and Michelle, is to separate personal from business when dealing with issues at work.

“There will be times when you are going to get angry and disagree with your spouse,” she said. “It’s only natural to speak more candidly with your spouse than you would with a coworker. At times like these, it’s good to take a deep breath and try to think of your spouse as a coworker. It’s important for your employees to see you relating to each other with the same respect you would an employee. Our business is family owned, but professionally managed.”

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Denise and Claude Quirion


St-Hubert, Quebec, Canada
Categories: Hearth

Denise and Claude Quirion.

After several years traveling internationally for a furniture manufacturer, Claude Quirion decided it was time for a change so that he could spend more time with his growing family, wife, Denise, and two sons. Both Claude and Denise had grown up within family-owned businesses, so they both had an entrepreneurial spark.

They purchased L’Attisée (embers in a fire) in 2004, and their son, Marc, joined the company in 2015. Denise and Claude were new to the hearth industry, so the previous owner remained with the business for several years and generously shared his knowledge and contacts within the industry.

L’Attisée today operates from a 6,000 sq. ft. showroom, featuring wood, pellet, gas, and electric products with more than 140 displays. The company offers a full range of fireplace construction and installation services, including carpentry, and stone work. L’Attisée serves consumers and professional designers, architects, and contractors throughout Montreal and is highly regarded, having consistently achieved superior ratings from professional organizations in the Canadian hearth industry.

“Claude told me that I would only work three days a week, but I discovered that was a pipe dream,” Denise said with a laugh. “I am still waiting on my three-day week. We have a French song from a popular singer here in Quebec that roughly translated says that ‘he sold me the dream.’ Well, I’m still waiting for my three-day work dream.”

Claude serves as president with general management responsibilities, including the Commercial Division, Sales, and Operations. Marc Quirion is vice president for Sales and Operations, encompassing Sales Management and Strategies, Web and Marketing Strategies, and Installations. Denise is responsible for the company’s finances.

The secrets to success for the Quirion family include their sense of humor and a balance among the three family members in the business. Denise describes her husband and son as having “hyperactive minds,” and while she encourages their creativity there are times that require her to “put my foot down.”

“One of the greatest advantages of being in business with your spouse is trust,” Claude said. “While I was traveling with the furniture company, Denise provided support for my work so we already had experience in a business partnership as a married couple. We knew each other’s strengths, and from our family backgrounds we knew what it meant to be an entrepreneur. As the person responsible for our finances, I know that I can trust anything that Denise tells me.”

Denise adds: “With both of us coming from family businesses we understood the pressures, but also the opportunity to share in each other’s dreams, hopes, and challenges. We respect each other’s strengths, and because our responsibilities are separate from one another we don’t step on each other’s toes, but give counsel. And we laugh a lot and look forward to hearing about each other’s day.”

Claude and Denise have experienced all of the challenges that come with being married to your business partner – one source of income, drawing a line between business and personal lives, and supporting each other on those days when things don’t go according to plan. But after 15 years in business together, and with son Marc taking on a substantial role, Claude and Denise are finding more time to enjoy life outside of work.

Family has been consistently the first priority for Claude and Denise, including their grandson. Family dinners, vacations, summer by the pool, and simple pleasures such as playing cards, help to nurture their marriage. In terms of recommendations for other married business partners, Denise and Claude emphasize the importance of having a solid marriage foundation, respect for each other’s opinions, and, most of all, a commitment to raising a family.

“At this stage of my life, I very much enjoy the working challenges ahead and seeing our business grow with our son’s appetite and my husband’s excitement,” Denise said. “We also look forward to more time away to enjoy our ‘youth’ with our business being in the competent hands of our son and staff.”

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Kristetta and Chuck Miller

Louisiana Fireplace

Pineville, Louisiana
Categories: Hearth

Chuck and Kristetta Miller.

Kristetta and Chuck Miller can credit Louisiana College in Pineville, Louisiana, and Craigslist with their successful marriage and business partnership with Louisiana Fireplace.

“We met in 1990 at Louisiana College in Pineville, Louisiana, where we took an advanced marketing class together during which we had to run a virtual company,” Kristetta said. “Our professor wasn’t sure that our doing the project together was a good idea because we were engaged but we did it anyway. That is when we began dreaming about someday having our own business. Little did we know that more than two decades later that dream would become reality.”

This is where Craigslist came into the picture. Following graduation, Kristetta and Chuck continued to explore owning their own business. While surfing on Craigslist in 2015, Chuck came across Louisiana Fireplace, which traced its roots to 1977. The store was located only two miles from where they lived and was being offered for sale by an heir of the company’s founder.

Kristetta and Chuck purchased the business and have grown and expanded Louisiana Fireplace’s services, including the acquisition of a chimney sweep business. Their store is known for the “hard to find,” or “if they can’t help you nobody can” place when it comes to fireplace needs. Kristetta is the office manager and at the business full-time. Chuck is also a licensed contractor, working with service calls and installations for their business and for other projects.

“I love working with my best friend on something we have dreamed about for years,” Kristetta said. “I can see where a business might be a strain on a marriage, but for us it is a major connecting point.”

Chuck also sees advantages of a partnership with a spouse: “When you’re married to your business partner, there’s not a lot of smoke and mirrors. You’re in the same boat together, so you’ve got to learn to manage together. It’s lots of fun living out our college dream.”

With demanding work schedules from the retail business and general contracting projects, the Millers have had to make a commitment to both the business and personal sides of their relationship.

“A while back we established a two dates per month plan,” Kristetta said. “One date is work related. We have a favorite barbecue place where we take paperwork to do. This is when we do a lot of our planning. The other date is strictly not work related. On our Google calendar, the work date is noted with a pencil emoji and the other date has a heart on it. It’s silly but it reminds both of us what the focus of the evening is.

“We also keep a lot of our work communication in writing via email,” she continued. “I send emails to him all day and then he responds at night, sometimes while sitting beside me on the couch. This helps to remind us what we talked about with a paper trail instead of trying to remember everything.”

For Chuck, the balance of family and work is important but not easily achieved.

“You’ve got to remember that business is business and family is family and it takes a lot of hard work to keep both of them running right and balanced properly,” he said. “Before we were married I came across a quote that Kristetta had framed for us; it has given me guidance through the years.”

To be successful in the business world takes hard work, long hours, persistent effort, and constant attention. To be successful in marriage takes hard work, long hours, persistent effort, and constant attention. The problem is giving each its due and not short changing the other.

— R. W. Ogden

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Vicki and Stacy Lavertu

Czar Energy Solutions

Westfield, Massachusetts
Categories: Hearth

Stacy and Vicki Lavertu.

With seven years under their belts as married business partners, Vicki and Stacy Lavertu, owners of Czar Energy Solutions of Westfield, Massachusetts, can begin to feel their business is well established and the result of a close working partnership.

“I’m not sure how we did it, but we have survived,” Vicki said. “After seven years we now feel we are over the hump and the business partnership is working for us. Work is six days a week so we enjoy chilling at home on our time off. We also bring our dog to work every day, so our social life is being with each other and with Bernie, the Boston Terrier.”

Czar Energy is a full-service hearth shop serving builders and homeowners throughout western Massachusetts. The company specializes in gas, wood, and pellet units, available as freestanding stoves, fireplace inserts, or newly constructed fireplaces. Czar Energy offers fireplace design as well as additional accessories including mantels and stonework.

Stacy’s background included service as a manufacturer’s rep for a fireplace manufacturer and Vicki’s career included furniture sales. In 2008, Stacy acquired a hearth shop and Vicki joined him in the company in 2011. Stacy is responsible for all aspects of running the business, including sales, customer service, and technical aspects. Vicki is also responsible for sales as well as project scheduling and marketing.

“I think the greatest advantage of a husband and wife working together is you have each other’s back – you can always cover for each other,” she said. “There are commitments to the business that you make as a married partner that you could never expect from an employee.”

Success for married business partners can be measured in many different ways, but for Vicki it’s all about customer recognition.

“The thing that I enjoy most, the thing that motivates me, is when people compliment us on great products and service,” she said. “When we receive a five-star rating that makes my day.”

Also important to maintaining motivation in the business is finding a balance between work and personal lives.

“It’s important not to put too many expectations on each other,” she said. “Be patient, don’t get upset over little things, and build individual time for yourself. Yoga is my saving grace because it helps to keep me calm and relaxed.”

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Alexis and Dave Rettinger

Rettinger Fireplace Systems

Voorhees, New Jersey
Categories: Hearth

Alexis and Dave Rettinger in front of the Heatilator’s I Icon Series 100 wood-burning fireplace with 36-inch Eiklor Flames Mombo vented gas log.

Dave Rettinger created Rettinger Fireplace Systems in Voorhees, New Jersey, in the family’s basement beginning in 1995. He personally installed each fireplace and built each mantel. The company moved to its first showroom in 1996 and subsequently moved the showroom two more times, increasing in size each time. Rettinger Fireplace Systems has been in the current showroom for 12 years and is celebrating its 24th year of business.

Alexis and Dave met in 1983 and she joined the company in 2000 after a 20-year career as a court reporter.

“The business was growing and Dave needed another set of eyes, ears, and hands that had the same name as his. I knew nothing about the hearth industry but had no choice but to learn quickly,” Alexis said. “Fast forward and we now have 24 employees which include our 32-year-old daughter, Alyssa, who runs our purchasing department, and our 30-year-old son, David, Jr., who does just about everything his dad does.”

Dave serves as CEO covering daily operations, including sales, design, and scheduling. Alexis is customer engagement manager, responsible for social media, marketing, sales, and décor design.

“Sharing a vision that is rewarding to both of us is the greatest advantage of Alexis and me working together,” Dave said. “We are loyal to each other and trust each other in both business and in marriage. We have different skill sets that are complementary, with me on design concepts and Alexis with a great decorating eye to complete each vignette in the showroom.”

“There is a lot at stake when the whole family is making their living together,” Alexis added. “It’s hard to shut work off. There are nights when one of us is still thinking about a job, and the minute you bring it up at home you’re sorry you did because you realize the other person had shut it off and now you turned it back on again.”

Alexis and Dave focus on taking Sundays away from work, but it’s not uncommon for work to creep back in even when away from the showroom. For example, on a recent Saturday night at a restaurant, they began a conversation with another couple, leading to a showroom appointment on Monday, and, when walking out of the restaurant, they struck up a conversation with a customer they just happened to run into on the street.

“We truly love being together, especially in the showroom working together with other married couples,” Alexis said. “Sometimes people catch on that we’re married, sometimes they don’t and think we’re just a super-friendly company calling each other ‘hon.’

“We are spouses first and business partners second,” Alexis continued. “We stay focused on our vision of building a successful business together, but we are husband and wife first and will never let Rettinger Fireplace Systems get in the way of being Mr. and Mrs. Rettinger.”

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Click charts to view larger.

Insights on Happy Marriage and Successful Business

Michael Klein is an organizational psychologist based in Northampton, Massachusetts, who has been working with individuals and organizations, including small family-owned businesses, for more than 20 years. We asked Dr. Klein to comment on a few key issues related to combining marriage and business.

What is the essential challenge for married couples when they are also business partners?

“With small businesses, it’s often ‘all hands on deck.’ Whatever needs to get done, gets done by whoever is available. Unfortunately, this can lead to a lack of clarity when it comes to who makes the decisions, when those decisions are made, and each individual’s areas of responsibility. This lack of clarity can lead to wasted effort, inefficiencies, and conflict for the married partners and for the business in general. This type of negative energy from even the smallest disagreements and conflicts can easily be taken home and affect a marriage.

“Another challenge for couples working together is having the business overrun their personal lives. Every meal at home, vacation, or social outing can turn into a business meeting at some level. This can be deadly for a marriage.

“Just like a business, a marriage needs time and energy so that it can manage issues early, maintain key relationships, and grow. If all the time spent outside of the workplace becomes about the business, the marriage won’t get its due, unresolved issues will remain, and the joy of marriage will diminish. Spouses run the risk of becoming business partners who live together, not a married couple that works together.”

What are the potential advantages when married couples are also owners/managers in a business?

“Couples who work together can more easily divide responsibilities based on skills, experience, and interests. A husband and wife enjoy the unique opportunity of being brutally honest with each other about individual personality styles and strengths. A detail-oriented spouse can manage accounting while a sociable, outgoing spouse can run sales. A patient spouse can be in charge of customer service, while a hard-driving spouse can manage project timelines and work with vendors.

“Working couples can be more straightforward with each other when talking about relative strengths and weaknesses than they can with employees. An employee simply doesn’t have the same personal investment in a business as a spouse who is a part-owner.

“When working with employees an owner is smart not to ‘show all of your cards.’ On the other hand, when working with a spouse who is your business partner, there is no substitute for being completely open and honest. With more people in the right jobs, including the spouses/business owners, the better the chances for the business functioning well and thriving and for the marriage to be a happy one.”

What do you think are the most common mistakes for married couples who are in business together?

“Failing to set aside time for the marriage (e.g. date nights) and creating boundaries around when business can be brought up (e.g. only in the office) are the most common mistakes that I’ve seen. Another common oversight is with spouses/business partners who think they don’t need any help in working on their businesses. Turning to outside resources to advise and coach on partnership effectiveness is critically important both to the marriage and for a profitable, growing business.”

Dr. Klein is the author of “Trapped in the Family Business”.

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