Maybe the only harder way to start a business than doing it alone -- when you've got no one to blame but yourself -- is to do it with a partner. Hewlett and Packard or Procter and Gamble notwithstanding, entrepreneurial pairings more often than not break up on the shoals of personality conflicts or personal power plays.
The two founders of Calibrake Inc. could hardly be more different from each other. Steve Frisbie is 35, outgoing, loquacious, and impatiently enthusiastic. Russell Swall, also 35, is reserved, reticent, and cautiously skeptical. Nevertheless, the two are sailing into their eighth year as partners, in large part because they have always been more interested in staying afloat than in fighting over who wears the captain's hat.
Their company is situated in a former roller rink in Independence, Mo., near the former home of plain-speaking Harry S. Truman. Harry and Bess, the story goes, never put on airs; they never got too impressed with themselves. There's some sense of those same qualities in Frisbie and Swall, who are in the perfectly ordinary business of rebuilding automotive parts -- brake calipers and master cylinders -- with a twist, of course. Calibrake fills a market niche between the national brand-name parts rebuilders, such as Champion and Wagner, and the dozens of mom-and-pop automotive machine shops in every city of any size.
Calibrake's regional -- in contrast to a national or local -- market gives it the volume the mom-and-pops don't have, which supports the wide inventory the locals could never afford. On the other hand, it keeps Calibrake geographically close to its customers, so it can hold its shipping costs down (brake calipers are mostly heavy cast iron) and deliver the overnight service the brand names can't. The regional market defines both Calibrake's competitive edge and its limits. "The farther from Kansas City we get," says Frisbie, "the less competitive we are."
Like their late neighbor, Harry S., these two Missourians don't indulge in a lot of introspection for public consumption. In fact, they are surprised that anyone is much interested in how they have managed to hold their partnership together. Whatever they have done, they say, it just made sense to them at the time.
They became friends 16 years ago, when both went to work for Swall's father, the owner of a small chain of automotive-parts stores. The two boys worked the counter, and they were as different from each other then as they are now. Swall went to college, kept his hair long, and wore a headband. Frisbie raced cars and joined the Army reserve. Later, when the senior Swall began to sell his stores and think about retirement, Frisbie bought two of them.
Frisbie bought the stores, but he had the germ of an idea for a new business. Eventually, he persuaded Swall, between jobs at the time, to give him a hand. Swall set up shop in a building a few yards behind one of the stores and began putting flesh to Frisbie's notion of creating a regional brake-rebuilding business. Swall did the work; Frisbie kept the cash coming. Evenings, they drank beer and talked things over. In January 1979, they incorporated Calibrake as 50/50 owners.
In its first year, with Swall at the helm, Calibrake sold $93,700 worth of rebuilt brake calipers. In 1980, sales climbed to $181,000. Calibrake moved to large quarters. Revenues climbed again.Swall's company -- or was it Frisbie's company -- was doing fine.
As the brake business blossomed, Frisbie sold one of his stores in order to become more involved with sales at Calibrake. To outsiders and to employees alike, however, Calibrake was still unmistakably Swall's company. "As we organized it," says Frisbie, "Russ was clearly the CEO. I was president, but I told key people, 'Don't ever doubt who's in charge here."
That was 18 months ago. Now, it is still very clear who is in charge there, but the person at the top is no longer Swall. Frisbie turned his remaining store over to a manager, moved full-time to Calibrake, and eventually took charge. Was it a power play, a heavy-handed takeover, the sort of upheaval that can tear two friends and a company apart? Not according to Swall.
"Steve began taking a more active role in management," Swall says. "I'd been CEO by default. I had problems with taking charge and being his boss. I felt more comfortable working for him. . . . It would have been difficult for him to take over right away when he came into the company, because people thought of it as mine. But as he spent more and more time here, the lines became blurred. The company got bigger and began to lend itself more to Steve's style -- aggressive, take charge. Eventually, I raised the issue, said that I wasn't comfortable with the situation and that it was creating problems for other people. At the next staff meeting we just said that Steve would take over. There wasn't a lot of change. It was more a formal recognition of what already was, so it was no big shock to anyone. Steve has taken on the actual management of the company. I do the behind-the-scenes work."
One thing that helps the Swall-Frisbie partnership survive, says Allen Lefko, president of Noland Road Mercantile Bank, in Independence, is that they are the same age. Which means, says Calibrake's banker, that "their estate goals are similar."
Another is that both see the partnership -- not one specific business -- as preeminent, transcending and surviving any enterprise they might launch together. In the time that he is no longer devoting to Calibrake, for example, Swall has begun to take an interest in expanding the holdings of Rock Creek Valley Investments Inc., the real estate company the partners own jointly.
Another is three simple rules they've made for themselves:
* Argue the facts. In a disagreement, such as whether to buy a major piece of equipment, the facts will usually support one position or another, but rarely both. If they can agree on the facts, Swall and Frisbie say, the larger disagreement frequently disappears. Reaching major decisions by discussion and consensus takes longer, they concede, but the alternatives get thoroughly aired.
* Keep egos out of business decisions. If, as sometimes happens, the facts should support both views, don't make an issue out of something that's not important. "I really believe Russ can do anything as well as I can," Frisbie says, "so if my objective as a shareholder is a 30% return on equity, why should I push for my way if his way will work just as well?"
* When a decision is reached, speak with one voice. But until then, don't presume to speak for the other. When Frisbie and Swall are being interviewed, for example, neither talks for more than a moment or two without pausing to ask the other's view.
In fact, they act like that other old Independence married couple, Harry and Bess.
"Partnership is like a marriage," says Frisbie. "It takes tact and diplomacy. That's really about all."
Harry S. Couldn't have spoken more plainly.
CORRECTION-DATE: February, 1986
In "Private Lives" (December 1985) the photo credit on page 72 should have read Hank Young/Black Star.