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Mr. and Mrs. Inc.--and It Works : Husband-and-Wife Entrepreneurs Describe Joys, Pitfalls

September 17, 1987|ANNE Z. COOKE

After the first flush of success in the business world faded, but some time before boredom and cynicism felt as comfortable as a worn pair of jeans, Valerie Summers and Charles Cox made a momentous life choice.

After evaluating the pros and cons, Summers and Cox, who are married, decided they'd like to work together.

The result, Cox says, "has been a wish come true." In the seven years they've co-owned and published Southern California Guide, a travelers' magazine distributed in major hotels, they say they've had more fun and enjoyed greater personal satisfaction and financial rewards than they had dreamed possible.

But while their success has been remarkable, their decision to work as partners on a business venture is no longer so unusual. Today, many couples are actually in business together or harbor the dream to be.

This dream, however, is not woven from wispy, ephemeral threads. Fashioned from tougher stuff and usually destined to become reality, it's a dream about making decisions, about delighting in the credit but accepting the blame, about choosing working hours, about stretching old skills and discovering unused ones, even about finding the pot of gold: a dream, in short, about being the boss.

But it's also a dream that verges on nightmare when partners don't agree.

Already Good Friends

"To work together you have to be good friends at home," says Adeline David, 27, who with her husband, Dennis, 32, owns a Farmers Insurance agency. "If you don't work as a team, you won't be working together at all," she says.

"We knew the problems from watching friends in the same business," says Bob White, a screenwriter who has successfully collaborated with his wife, Phyllis, for the past 26 years.

"Lots of our friends--successful writers who couldn't separate their work and their personal lives--ended up divorced," he says. "Feelings about work could get so strong that in one case, the biggest problem in the divorce was who would get custody of the agent."

The Whites, who added travel writing to their repertoire about five years ago and who write everything jointly--one types dialogue while the other strides back and forth, rehashing the lines and proposing and defending changes--contend that couples who can't subordinate their egos to the team effort will ruin a partnership.

"You have to be able to take criticism about your work without taking it personally," Phyllis White says.

Dynamite Combination

Such possibilities don't scare couples determined to strike out on their own. When husband and wife both get the itch to leave the safe haven of a regular paycheck, and then a mutually attractive alternative appears, the combination is explosive.

"We'd been planning our escape for a long time," says Cox, 62, who was working as a marketing manager at a publishing company on the morning he saw a small "magazine for sale" ad. As a man whose first career as a musician and a "free spirit" had left him with a taste for creative work and a yearning for independence, he admits that "I never felt I fit in the corporate world."

Wife Valerie, 50, with three small children at home, was equally enthusiastic about a new direction. Despite a promising advertising career, she found herself juggling the demands of a difficult job and the need for a flexible schedule.

"I felt very vulnerable because there's tremendous turnover in advertising," she says. "The hours are long and my children were very important--a primary profession, really."

But the burden of debt and loss of salaries didn't outweigh the temptation to own a magazine. Cox and Summers took out a large loan for the purchase and quit their jobs. "It was nip and tuck getting started," Cox says.

Dennis David, 32, had a similar experience. He was a technician and salesman for a medical-products company when a friend in the insurance business suggested he try being an agent. He grabbed the opportunity, realizing he'd been thinking "that old cliche that all employees think: 'If I were the boss, I'd run this company differently.' At that point, I realized I wanted to be the boss."

To cushion the loss of Dennis' salary, Adeline, now 27, stayed in her job as a medical assistant. But when the accounts grew too large for one person to handle, she joined the agency.

Mulled Over for Years

Barry Rubens, a 53-year-old economist who founded California Research Corp. with a friend 10 years ago and where his wife, Babs, 49, works as comptroller and accountant, had mulled over for years the idea of leaving the financial institution where he worked.

"I wanted to be an entrepreneur, be my own boss, have a chance to make more money," he says.

Though Babs had quit teaching school the previous year, they talked it over and made the break.

"We started off with a bang," he says. "The time was ripe, my partner was ready to move and we had lots of contracts and consulting jobs lined up."

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