Working Relationships: When Business Gets Personal

What happens when you work in an office with the person you wake up with every morning? Meet three couples who took their ¬personal relationships into business and thrived – even when the personal, love life side hits the rocks.

What happens when you work in an office with the person you wake up with every morning? Meet three couples who took their ¬personal relationships into business and thrived – even when the personal, love life side hits the rocks.

If you’re a guy who’s never dared to get a facial, Spruce Body Lab is a safe place to join the ranks of the metrosexuals. Opened in June 2005, the Yaletown spa has a welcoming, gender-neutral atmosphere and its sleek reception area feels more like the entrance of a hip new-media company than your typical oasis of relaxation.

Spruce’s unique, spa-for-everyone environment is the product of a close-knit partnership that’s both business and personal. Its owners, Ryan Seitz and Mark Cooperstone, have been in a romantic relationship for 10 years. Like other couples who work ¬together, they’ve found that their arrangement gives them a closer bond while they pursue common goals. But they’ve also had to deal with the challenges that come when the line between work and private life is blurred. For couples who work together, the challenge isn’t as simple as setting strict boundaries between work and private life; it can also mean finding a comfortable degree of overlap that allows their businesses and ¬relationships to flourish.

“Starting a business is like making any fundamental change in a relationship,” says Cooperstone, 42. “We felt extremely confident that it wouldn’t wear hard on us. You really have to have a solid foundation.”

Before launching Spruce, Cooperstone spent 10 years negotiating leases on behalf of cell-phone carriers in Canada and the U.S., including Clearnet, Bell Mobility and Cingular Wireless. “It meant travelling,” says Cooperstone. “Basically living in Washington State and Oregon and commuting back and forth. At one point, I thought it would be great to open up a massage therapy clinic where I could work with Ryan.”

“I had the idea of doing Spruce back in college,” explains Ryan Seitz, 33, a massage therapist at Spruce and co-owner of the business. “I thought it would be cool to blend the best of a massage-therapy clinic with the best of a spa.”

For Cooperstone, the joint venture not only means spending more time with his partner; his commute has also improved. He and Seitz live in a townhouse around the corner from their business. In fact, they can see their business from their patio.

“When we do have our down time, trying to relax, Spruce comes up,” admits Seitz. “It’s hard for us to leave it alone.”

“It gets a little repetitive,” Cooperstone adds. “But we both want to stop talking about it at the same time. We try to get away on the weekends and get out of it and we really turn it off when we’re with friends.“

A business relationship, like a personal relationship, will succeed only if it is built on a foundation of mutual respect, according to Karl Aquino, a professor who studies inter¬personal work relationships at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. “I think in a business relationship it’s important to maintain some kind of objectivity, so you’re able to give each other feedback,” he says.

Cooperstone and Seitz can attest to the importance of respecting the opinions of others. They make their business decisions by consensus and include Spruce manager, Kathryn Hurwitz, in the process.

Angus and Theresa Tsang have found that working together has helped bring their family closer, but that it’s critical to have some boundaries at the workplace.

A midlife career change brought Angus into Theresa’s growing insurance business. Having spent 10 years as a biochemist at UBC, Angus realized that the workload kept him from Theresa and their daughter. “I found that doing research you had to sacrifice a lot of family activities,” says Angus, who emigrated from Hong Kong with Theresa in 1988. “Sometimes you had to spend 24 hours in a lab. The research field here was different from what I was doing previously in Hong Kong. I had a feeling it would be difficult to get anywhere unless I started from the very beginning again.”

While Angus was growing discontented with academia, Theresa’s business was expanding. “I needed help with the ¬company,” says Theresa, who started Metro-Pro Insurance Agency Ltd. in 1991 after working as a commercial lending officer at HSBC. “There were too many things to look after.” Angus now takes care of the company’s office administration, but Theresa admits she hasn’t assigned him a clear role. “His position is not really defined. I guess you can say he’s the office manager.”[pagebreak]Though working together allowed them to pare down to one car and made caring for their daughter (now a university student) easier, the Tsangs admit the transition to working in the same office required an adjustment period. “At first it’s kind of strange to work together,” Theresa acknowledges. “Before, he had his own circle of friends, all his colleagues. He was in the academic field and I was in the commercial field.”

Although it may be awkward at first, such close proximity gives a couple shared experi¬ences and a common vocabulary, says Aquino. “For people who don’t work together it can be a little more difficult to empathize with what the other person is going through. Where it really comes out is a social situation. There’s a jargon that people use at work that will exclude those that might not be there.”

In the Chinese-Canadian community, where business and social gatherings are often intertwined, Theresa believes that having a husband who is familiar with her work is an asset. “When you’re meeting [a client] with their family, you have to chat with everyone. I find that if I have Angus here, then sometimes he can take care of the other people.”

The Tsangs believe they work well together because they handle very different aspects of the business. “He looks after the office,” says Theresa. “I look after the sales as well as the marketing team. It’s easier than if we worked in the same area.” This structure also contributes to a feeling of equality. “It’s very difficult to differentiate,” says Angus, when asked who’s in charge. “Sometimes I’m the boss; sometimes she’s the boss.”

Another key ingredient to a successful marriage that doubles as a business partnership is trust, according to Viola Neufeld, a therapist who offers conflict coaching to couples, groups and organizations. “A foundation of trust allows you to be vulnerable, honest and frank with each other,” she says.

Theresa enjoys the level of candour she has with Angus. “If I have anything to discuss with him, I’m probably more objective. With family members, you can tell them your underlying reason for doing certain things. You can tell them really what you want to do. When you’re talking to an employee, you have to keep it to yourself.”

Architects and business partners Heather Howat and David Battersby know that even the worst challenges at work can be managed after a couple has suvived a complicated marriage break-up. The two were once married and shared a house with Battersby’s partner Bradley Thompson – a house that also served as head office of the BattersbyHowat architecture and design firm founded by the couple. Battersby and Howat’s marriage dissolved in 1998 when Battersby accepted his homosexuality. He later developed a personal relationship with Thompson. Despite the turmoil, Battersby and Howat continue their successful business partnership – albeit at a new location with no ties to their former life as husband and wife.

At their new office in East Vancouver, the banter between Battersby and Howat still has the kind of playful snap and one-upmanship of a married couple.

At one point, Howat jokes about the mess at her desk. “I used to be more tidy when we worked out of our house,” she says.

“You used to eat crackers in bed,” Battersby reminds her.

“Do you remember that expression, ‘I wouldn’t kick her out of bed for eating crackers?’” Howat asks rhetorically. “I did!”

“It’s wonderful working for them,” says Josie Grant, an architect with the firm. “They’re like family. David’s the talker; Heather does everything else.”

“You couldn’t plan it but, honestly, it’s also why we’re successful,” says Battersby, who is definitely the chatty one. “We have the benefit of having a relationship – we can be really frank and direct to each other.”

“It’s easy to step on someone’s ego,” adds Howat. “We’re hardly concerned about the petty problems that come in a project.” At the same time, both credit their divorce for their smooth working relationship. “If we were still married, it’d be too intense,” says Howat.

Howat and Battersby believe that their success is due to their detail-oriented, overlapping approach. In other firms, they say, designers are more likely to work independently, resulting in work that has no fixed identity. Battersby and Howat bring a clear, united vision to every project and have kept their office small – with only six other architects – so that they’re not spread out too thinly. They establish a clear direction for each project ¬before handing it off to their contract designers.

“The idea is that people are never doing work in isolation. The model of our relationship becomes the model for the office,” explains Battersby. “When we bill, we don’t have a different rate for Heather and me than any of our employees. And it doesn’t matter if you’ve just graduated or have 10 years’ experience.”

Battersby and Howat briefly went their separate ways after they split up in 1998, with Howat moving to Toronto to work for another design firm. Since her return in 1999, the former couple have not only seen the fortunes of their design firm rise. After divorcing in 2002, they designed and built a home together in 2003 that embodies their shared style and close-knit bond. Battersby and his partner Thompson live in one half of the duplex; Howat lives in the other. And this spring, the three are joining forces to open a bar called 1181 (named after the bar’s address on Davie Street), which the firm is designing. “We’re diversifying,” explains Battersby. “We felt it was tragic that the gay scene in Vancouver – which is very sophisticated – doesn’t have a hip new bar.”

Whereas other working couples seem to value their distinct roles within their businesses, Battersby and Howat have no such boundaries. Battersby, for instance, might have training in landscape architecture, but Howat will have a hand in a project’s landscaping. “I may be on site in boots,” jokes Battersby, “but that’s only because Heather doesn’t have practical footwear.”

Conversely, even though Howat has a background in interior design, Battersby will often choose materials and fabrics inside the house. “Since I came out, everybody asks me about paint colours,” laughs Battersby. “Before I came out, they’d always turn to Heather to talk about a colour.”

Clients, too, are impressed and reassured by the bond and the history shared by these partners. “We deal with a lot of couples in residential,” says Howat, “so people actually like that we were married.”[pagebreak]“They can tell we don’t abandon things,” Battersby points out.

Advertising executives Andrea and Jim Southcott agree that working together involves making tough decisions, and that the business takes precedence. “The busi¬ness has to come first; the relationship can’t come before the business,” says Andrea, president of the Vancouver office of TBWA, an advertising agency with 243 ¬offices around the world. Unlike couples ¬running their own businesses, the Southcotts are accountable not only to each other, but also to their corporate boss. “A couple has to live with the fact that one might have to fire the other. For a lot of couples that would be very hard,” says Andrea.

Andrea talks about such difficult choices in a light and matter-of-fact way. She is gracious and not at all brisk, though it’s easy to detect the focus that allows her to keep on top of her gruelling schedule. As the first female president of a large agency in Western Canada, Andrea manages the resources and talent of the 50 people in the office, and works with clients such as Vancity and the B.C. Lottery Corp.

“When the company’s busy, we’re both busy,” she says from her corner office overlooking Coal Harbour. Jim’s office is only a few feet away. “If Jim’s working late, I don’t have an issue with it because he’s helping the company. And vice versa. And I think it helps with the personal trade-off, so there’s no resentment.”

Jim, TBWA’s chief strategic officer, actually worked in advertising before Andrea did. Andrea, who was in sales at IBM, joined Jim’s agency in Toronto. Even before she joined her husband’s agency, Andrea was given a ¬lesson on sharing a workplace with a spouse. “When I was hired,” she remembers, “the managing director said to me, ‘Remember, Jim is our Southcott.’ He meant that if one of us had to go, it would be me first. Couples really have to understand they’re putting all their eggs in one basket.”


“Jim and I were going down to Santa Monica for a network meeting. The U.S. customs official asked me whether I was going as his wife. I said: ‘No, as his boss’ ” – Andrea Southcott, president of TBWA Vancouver


Later, Andrea would join another firm. For a while, the Southcotts were direct competitors. “In 1992, we ended up taking my husband’s largest account,” Andrea recalls. “We were both working on the pitch at home and pitching on the same day. On the night he got the news, he was really disappointed and couldn’t sleep and I was really excited and couldn’t sleep.”

“It was pretty crazy for our kids to figure out who to root for,” Jim adds.

Working together isn’t difficult for the Southcotts, “because we know each other; we really play to each other’s strengths,” Andrea says. “Jim was sick one time and I took a meeting for him. He didn’t have to brief me. I just knew what to do. And vice versa. At the DNA level, we share the same vision – in terms of how we want to run our family and our business.”

“It’s never an issue of people worrying that there’s groupthink,” Jim stresses. “You could argue there are more disagreements that we’re prepared to have.”

Prior to working together, Jim and Andrea were offered positions at one another’s firms. Jim ultimately chose to work at Andrea’s agency. “I’d say we’re equals,” says Andrea – with a caveat: “Ultimately, he reports to me. You have to be truly equal or feel equal for that to work effectively.”

“You have to have a president,” reasons Jim. “Clearly she’s the bottom line on a number of issues. But we collaborate more than a typical reporting relationship.”

Their married status does lead to some confusion. “We were going down to Santa Monica for a network meeting,” recalls Andrea. “Jim went through customs first and explained he was going down for business. Then the U.S. customs official asked me whether I was going down as his wife. I said, ‘No, as his boss.’” She adds: “We don’t act like a married couple. We feel comfortable critiquing each other in front of people and neither of us takes offence, because it’s about business.”

“It’s fair to say we end up putting business in front of family, especially on family vacations,” Jim concedes. “Both of our styles are ones in which we tend to not disconnect fully from work. We’re the top two in the company, and when we’re both away a huge management piece is taken away.”

Recognizing the demands of work, sharing it as husband and wife and as the parents of two children, they say, helps keep resentments from forming.

“We time-shift stuff easier, we co-mingle work and home more effectively because we work together,” says Andrea. “So work spills into home. We also try to manage the home stuff as much as we can during the day.”

The fluid intermingling of the Southcotts’ business and personal lives extends to their precocious kids, aged 12 and 15. Every evening, Jim and Andrea and their two children gather at the family meeting spot, the hot tub, to discuss their day together. Inevitably, the conversation turns to work – not only between husband and wife, but also between children and parents. “Kids love to know what you’re up to,” says Jim. “They’ll regularly quiz us in the hot tub at night in terms of pitches that we’re doing and clients that we’re working on, and be very knowledgable in what new campaigns are breaking.”

According to conflict coach Viola Neufeld, any couple hoping to work together should first look at their track record. They should consider, for example, how smoothly the planning of their own wedding went and how well they handle basic disputes.

“Can you hold your own while still respecting the other?” Neufeld asks working couples. “Is what each of you brings to the table experienced as a winning combination? Does your giftedness complement each other? Do you respect each other’s different styles and energy levels?”

For the couples featured in this piece, the answer seems to be yes, but each has developed a unique relationship that works for them. They’ve defined their roles at the workplace or left them open; they’ve set the boundary between work and home at varying points, sometimes moving the line when necessary. Above all, they share the same aspirations and goals – a crucial component when business gets personal.