Case Study: Buying A Company With Your Spouse - Acquira

Case Study: Buying A Company With Your Spouse

What You’ll Learn
  • How to communicate clearly with your spouse about the business.
  • How to discuss the acquisition with your family.
  • How to approach difficult conversations.
  • How one couple has dealt with the acquisition journey.

Couples that play together stay together. But what about couples that acquire together?

Many of the entrepreneurs that we work with come as a package deal with their spouses. Going through the process together can serve as a great comfort during the sometimes stressful experience of buying a business. However, it can also create unnecessary bottlenecks.

“Let me run that by my spouse,” is a statement that may seem innocuous at first but it could actually be indicative of a bigger problem. At Acquira, it’s also an excuse we hear often to explain why a buyer can’t move forward with our programs. After all, if one half of a business couple constantly has to check with the other before making a decision, things will move much slower.

Fortunately, there are ways to approach a business acquisition and eventual ownership as a couple that are both efficient and won’t ruin the relationship.

Kathy and Phil are a couple who are currently on the hunt for a business of their own. Kathy has already made a reputation as an Acquisition Entrepreneur (AE) with a knack for fostering relationships with business brokers. While Kathy’s background is in Human Resources, she currently runs an e-commerce store that specializes in Lucille Ball, John Wayne, and Marilyn Monroe memorabilia and merchandise. 

Her husband Phil is a military man with a background in finance. The couple currently live in the Washington DC area where Phil works for the Pentagon. As he nears retirement, the couple are looking to make an acquisition to help support their six adopted special needs children. 

While the process hasn’t been one hundred percent smooth sailing, the husband and wife duo have been able to navigate the waters so far.

“There are things that we don't see eye to eye on as far as the future of the business because as we're looking at this next acquisition, we're both going to be a part of the business,” explains Kathy.  “Whereas my current business, I pretty much run it all. With this one, it's not going to be like that. We've had to really sit down and decide what we are going to do when we run into issues.”

Recognize Each Other’s Skills

From the beginning, Kathy says they have made an effort to recognize what the other is good at. 

“Phil has admitted that I'm more of the entrepreneur,” Kathy says. “But I also step back and say Phil's got the financial expertise. He's got amazing charisma and leadership skills.”

In their partnership, Kathy has assumed more of the researcher role while Phil takes charge of the accounting. Defining these roles took time and compromise though. As both relied on their own expertise, it was sometimes difficult to see that the other person may be better suited to a position.

“Where I think we've bumped heads on is, because I've been running this business, that I'm more of a control freak than Phil,” says Kathy with a laugh. “So Phil may say, ‘Well, this is what I would do.’ And I immediately say ‘no, you wouldn't want to do that.’ And he's had to explain that because I run a business, I’m gonna have to try and let him do it his way.”

“You might not agree,” says Phil, “but you're gonna have to try because I don't want to see this business fail either.”

In a couple, you need to recognize that you’re not always going to have the best solution for a problem and your spouse’s opinion can go a long way.

In a couple, you need to recognize that you’re not always going to have the best solution for a problem and your spouse’s opinion can go a long way. 

“I've had to really step back and recognize that there is truth to that,” says Kathy. “And he has also recognized that I have a specific skill set. He's had to openly admit that I have done this and say ‘I'm going to have to trust you.’” 

“I wouldn't say we've had arguments about this, but we've had more of a heated exchange,” Kathy laughs.

Recognize Your Own Weaknesses

Successful relationships of all types require a certain amount of give and take, compromise, and listening. This is crucial in business as well as marriage, according to Kathy.

“When you have a boss come and say we need to talk, you might not like it but you want to keep your job so you put up with it,” Kathy explains. “But if someone else (like your spouse) says ‘sit down, we need to talk,’ it sucks.”

Both partners need to be humble and open to constructive criticism or the relationship will suffer. It’s important to be straightforward when giving criticism and to be able to listen when you’re receiving it. After all, everyone has the same goal.

“They're not telling you this because they want to hurt your feelings,” says Kathy. “They're telling you this because you guys are in it to win it. You need to grow. And if they're seeing something that could affect the business, i.e. your livelihood together, you have to be brave enough to accept that constructive criticism.”

Before beginning the acquisition journey, it’s important for any husband and wife business partnership to sit down and determine what your strengths and weaknesses are. Some may find that one is strong in one area and the other is strong in another. That allows you to fill gaps in each other’s skillset. 

It’s just as likely that you’ll find you’re both strong in the same area or you’re both weak in another. When you discover that you’re both lacking in the same skill, that’s a good time to consider hiring a general manager, according to Kathy.

“You want to make sure that their strengths are your weaknesses as a team,” she says.

It’s at this point in the conversation that Phil chimes in. 

“Going into a business together, I've had to really reflect deep down in my heart of hearts, what my strengths are and what my weaknesses are,” he says. “I'm very proud of my MBA, which Kathy does not have. But I needed to figure out that Kathy is a better entrepreneur than I am. She's a lot stronger at running a business with a lot more experience.”

Having The Difficult Conversations

At some point in every relationship, difficult conversations will need to be had. These conversations shouldn’t leave any ambiguity. After all, no one likes to be told what they’re doing is wrong and that’s the end of it.

If there’s a problem, you should approach it with an alternative or suggestion on how to fix it. It’s also important to approach these discussions with openness and understanding.

As Dan Mager, MSW, writes in Psychology Today:

“Approach the conversation with openness and an interest in problem solving, rather than needing to be ‘right.’ Anytime we see it as a competition where we need to be ‘right,’ it means the other person has to be ‘wrong.’ This kind of rigid either-or, win-lose, or right-wrong mindset makes conflict much more likely and mutual understanding much less likely.”

One way you can make sure everyone leaves the conversation satisfied is by saying something like “how do we work together to fix this? Here are my suggestions. Do you have any ideas?”

While this may not work in all scenarios, it’s important that you offer your suggestions and ask your partner to contribute by offering their own.

Dictate Responsibilities

Once you’ve determined what everyone is bringing to the table, it’s time to decide who will take on what responsibilities within the business. Do this based on your strengths and weaknesses. The great thing about running your own business is you can create your own position descriptions based on the areas you shine in. 

It’s important to remember that your spouse is a partner in this endeavor. If you’re not able to treat them like a business partner then you’re going to run into problems, explains Kathy. That means you need to sit down together and dictate the terms of each person’s position.

After all, if you’re bringing in a GM, you wouldn’t hesitate to define the terms of their job.

“So if you're not doing that with your spouse, then you're already making a big mistake,” says Kathy. “Why would you not do that? You would do that with anybody in any business. Your spouse is a co-partner in this business so you still need to do everything you would in a normal business with a partnership, even if it's with your married partner.”

Make Room For Each Other

Once you’ve recognized your partners’ strengths and your own weaknesses, and you’ve laid out everyone’s responsibilities, it’s vital to remind yourselves to stay out of each other’s way.

“You can't get into each other's lane, because if you do it's not going to be an effective business,” explains Kathy. 

Remember, you’ve already agreed on what each person is doing. So it would be counterproductive to get in their way. Continue to meet as a team to discuss important matters, but make sure you recognize each other’s roles.

“You can't really step in their lane. You can give your input, you can give your views as an outsider. But that's it,” says Kathy. “And it's tough, I think, as a husband and wife, because you're dealing with a business, and you also go home together.”

If you’re making big decisions that will impact the whole company, it’s a good idea to discuss them with your partner. But if you need to make quick decisions based on your position, you can’t have someone second-guessing you. That’s true for business partners as well as couples. 

“I have to trust that he knows what he's doing,” says Kathy. “I'm not going to be going in and micromanaging every little thing he does and vice versa.”

Like with any business relationship, it’s important to have weekly check-ins or meetings. Getting together once a week with your GM creates a regular space to bring up challenges, ask for help, and collaborate. This is even more important if you’re in business with your spouse. 

“Brutal Honesty”

It’s common knowledge that finances are one of the leading causes of divorce, so you definitely want to make sure that you’re both on the same page when it comes to the company’s finances.

A spouse may see an opportunity for the business – a good deal on a new vehicle, a new supplier offering big discounts – and want to act immediately. But with any big-ticket items, you should make sure to discuss it first.

“If they're jumping into that opportunity, and not fully discussing it with their spouse, that's the danger,” explains Kathy. “You should both get on the same page where you feel comfortable financially.”

This is where honesty comes into play. It’s a concept that’s so important to the couple that at one point during the call, Phil literally holds up a sign with the words “BRUTAL HONESTY” written in bold letters.

“‘Leaving your ego at the door’ is a little cliche,” says Phil, “but in some cases, whether it’s husband and wife or just business partners, you need to be brutally honest for the business to succeed.

This type of honesty can save you from a lot of headaches down the road, according to Kathy. If spouses find that something is not working, they should step back and reassess the reality of their agreement. Working with your spouse in a small business isn’t for everyone, especially when it comes to discussing challenges or disagreements, she explains.

When discussing challenges or disagreements “Maybe it means that one of the partners steps back and says, ‘All right, I think you're stronger in this case. I'm going to step back,’ or ‘I can't run this business with you,’” she says. “You have to really be realistic. You have to be willing to change and recognize that if there’s too much conflict, it's really not worth it.” 

At the end of the day, the relationship/marriage has to remain a priority over the business.

Consider The Children

Kathy and Phil have six children and they knew that acquiring a business would mean big changes for the whole family. Because of that, Kathy and Phil decided to include their children in as many discussions about the business as possible.

If you have infants or young children, they obviously won’t be able to take part. But you and your partner should discuss how the acquisition might affect them in the future. 

“It’s a discussion you need to have,” says Kathy. “Ask yourself, what can we do and can we give up some time? Do we need to get a nanny? But if you have older children, having them involved is important.”

The conversation between Phil and Kathy and their kids was relatively easy given the fact that Kathy already runs a business. But it was still important to have.

“One of our daughters is getting married, so they're older. The thought of acquiring another business to them was a no-brainer,” she said. “They're used to helping me out with my business and my inventory.”

If you come from a family with little to no business experience though, you should try to have conversations more frequently. Explain to the kids what the work will entail, how much of your time it will take up, and what sort of impact it will have on the household. Again, brutal honesty.

Just like with your spouse, it’s important to listen to your children. After all, this decision is going to impact their lives as well. 

“If they come back and say mom, I don't know if I'm gonna like this. I need to be open to that and recognize we've got to tweak some things,” says Kathy. “(In my last business) I really had to tweak some things and put the computer down at night, go out, and spend time with the family because I was spending way too much time on the computer.”

Be upfront with your children. If it’s going to take up a lot of your time, explain that to them but assure them that it is temporary. Just make sure that you follow through on any promises you make, warns Kathy.

“If you're telling your children, ‘hey, give us a year,’ keep to that promise,” she says. “If that means you have to really put a bee in your bonnet to hire that General Manager, you do it. Don't lose the faith of your children.”

Do The Gauntlet Together

Acquira’s Acceleration Gauntlet is designed to help potential partners determine whether they want to acquire a business or not. It teaches them how to find deals and analyze whether they’re worth pursuing or not. It helps us determine whether partners are a good fit with Acquira and it helps partners decide if they want to work with us.

Kathy recommends that any couple who is considering embarking on this journey complete the Gauntlet together.

“Boy, did that really show both of us,” she says. “It was like a mirror to us showing where we were both strong and not strong. The gauntlet actually was what really spurred a lot of our conversations about the business.”

In the process of completing the gauntlet together, Phil saw Kathy’s research skills for the first time. Kathy, in turn, grew a new appreciation for Phil’s financial acumen.

“Because we don't work in each other's fields, we often didn't really see the other’s strengths,” she says. “But when we did the gauntlet together, we really recognized the strengths that we brought to the table that we didn't know about because we didn't work with each other.”

Conclusion

There’s a common saying that nothing causes divorce faster than hanging wallpaper together. The truth is that lack of communication is what usually drives people over the edge. 

By communicating clearly, recognizing each other’s strengths, and being open to criticism, any couple should be able to navigate this process together. It’s also important that both parties feel empowered to make decisions for themselves. 

If you and your spouse are considering starting to look for businesses for couples, we highly recommend checking out the Acceleration Gauntlet first. By doing it together you can begin to learn about each other's strengths and weaknesses and decide if it’s a good idea or not.

If you’ve had any luck going into business with your spouse or partner, please let us know in the comments below. We’d love to hear about it! And if you know any couples who are considering embarking on this journey, please feel free to share this guide with them.

Key Takeaways

  • Recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Be open to constructive criticism.
  • Don’t shy away from discussing your financial situation.
  • In all things, be brutally honest.
  • Be open and forthcoming with your children. 
  • Make sure everyone feels empowered to make decisions when they need to.

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