How to survive and even succeed after splitting up with a business partner
"Running a fast-growing company with your spouse can be tough under the best circumstances," says Jayme Hall, co-founder and CFO of Alligator Performance, a Coeur d’Alene, Idaho-based provider of Diesel performance parts. "Going through a divorce on top of it was almost impossible."
Despite the difficulty of it all, Hall and her now-ex-husband, Chad, who continues to serve as Alligator Performance’s CEO, survived a year-long dissolution of their 18-year marriage, as did the company they conceived together in 2005.
The pair accomplished that feat in large part due to the following lessons, each of which Hall suggests could help small business owners in similar situations—whether the parties in question are married and splitting up or just co-owners who are parting ways.
1. Don’t just think about yourselves.
Hall admits that even today, a year after their divorce was finalized, “emotions can run high, and Chad and I don’t always get along,” but those flare-ups tend to cool down quickly.
Why? Because they want their employees "to be healthy and happy, and that means we have to put aside our differences, demonstrate grace under pressure and treat everyone involved with respect." It's helped, she adds, that they're co-parents (to two sons), which "isn't too different from being co-employers to our staff."
2. Be friendly, but not friends, with your employees.
"Prior to the decline in our marriage, we ran the company very much as a 'family,'" Hall shares. The problem with that, she discovered, is "when the parents (in this case, us) divorce, the children (our employees) choose sides, blame one or the other, and play one against the other."
Although the pair resolved that issue by making a "conscious effort to love our staff through the hard moments and encourage everyone to work together for the good of the company," Hall suggests they may have been able to keep it from popping up in the first place had they put a bit of professional distance between themselves and their employees. Determining the right amount of social interaction between owners and employees is so important, she stresses, as is "learning to draw the line between being friendly and being friends with staff."
3. Stay calm and focus on the big picture.
"Finding strength and calm amidst the chaos and hurt is paramount to making it through a crisis like this," Hall says. Specifically, she--and her company--benefited from "[taking] a deep breath and [reminding] myself that I had the power and ability to get through this with very few casualties."
Also beneficial to everybody involved: Hall realizing that "my calm reaction would influence others as much as if I lashed out in anger." All of which helped Hall come to the conclusion that "if I could act professionally and with dignity, we might all be able to look back in a few years and see this company still standing, still providing for our families, and still providing for our futures. It’s so powerful to be able to see the big picture and not react to the immediate behaviors."
4. Get help.
And that doesn't necessarily mean seek the assistance of a therapist. In the case of Hall and her ex-husband-co-owner, for instance, it meant hiring managers to help the pair run their respective divisions. "This also helped us not to be so emotional in dealing with pertinent company matters," she explains. "Having managers and advisors alongside us kept our focus on the company and not our personal problems."
While these pieces of advice helped Alligator Performance not just stay in business but succeed after the divorce of its co-owners, Omaha, Nebraska-based consultant Jeff Zindel suggests that not all small businesses in similar situations should expect to see such positive results.
Zindel himself once went through a "business divorce" with a minority partner--although his break-up story has a far more negative ending. "It was the worst experience of my life. I would not wish that on anyone. Even with all the agreements we had in place, it was a very lengthy and pricey, not to mention time-consuming, process."
That said, Zindel acknowledges that the success or failure of such experiences often "depends on a lot of factors. How long have [the co-owners] worked together? How is the ownership of the business set up? What types of clauses are built into the operation agreement, if any?
"I can't say it's a bad idea, [as] I know a few couples in this situation and it works" for them, he adds. "But in general, I wouldn't recommend it."