Death of a Marriage
Here's what happened when a great company got in the way of a wonderful marriage. From the cofounder who fell in love with the magic of business
In the morning, I'll be divorced. Every time I imagine standing up in the courtroom, answering the judge, I blubber shamelessly. And I know that if Phil goes there with me, we'll both be crying, and the judge will wonder why the heck we are doing this. Then, in my imagination, Phil will hold me while I cry on his shoulder. Pals to the end.
How did we come to this stage? We were young, smart, and still in love when we started this business together, 10 years ago. We had the best of intentions. The best of counselors, business and personal, later on. Yet we tore each other apart. We came to the very heart of the big "why are we here" questions, and worst of all, our employees had front-row seats as our marriage unraveled, day by day.
I didn't think I'd ever publish this. We do live in a small town. (But what the hey, it knows most of this story already!) Corny as it sounds, though, if our story can save some other marriage, or if years from now it helps my kids, then maybe it's worth letting you see how raw this feels. Divorce is never nice, and maybe it's worse when you are married to a great person. All you rosy-cheeked dreamers who think about how wonderful it would be if you and your beloved could just work together, listen up!
People keep saying, "Isn't it great how you guys get along! How marvelous that you can still work together!" From my view, it's much better if one of the to-be-divorced is a flaming jerk. I know, I know, those of you who have been down that path are crying out, "You have no idea! It was horrible getting divorced from that @#!!**." But if the person is horrible, you have a great r-r-rip in the fabric of your life, and then it's over. If you're divorcing a basically decent person, and you're business partners and must get along, it's a very slow unwinding. At least it was for us. And the slowness, the need to get along because 50-odd people's livelihood depended on it, was excruciating.
Here's how it happened: Eleven years ago we had our first child, Travis. We loved being parents. Phil was probably better at it than I was, because he got more sleep (ah, the old grudges!) and just took more joy in our baby son. I worried more about things like straining the baby food right.
When Travis was about six months old, Phil invented the jogger's stroller. That was possibly because of my nagging. He was a disciplined runner, and he got out each day for an hour or more. My love was my chestnut horse, and I got away to ride only when Phil had days off. Somehow he was hit by the magic of a full-blown idea, and the next thing I knew, he was out running with Travis. I loved it; I could escape to ride, or get the groceries without lugging all the baby junk with me.
One day my father came to visit. He's a photojournalist and has traveled all over. He took one look at Phil's stroller and said, "Do you know what you've got there?" So he pushed us to take a chance and start the business. Actually, we hadn't a clue about what would be involved; we were just a couple of kids. We took all our savings from the sale of our house, added to that a small inheritance from my great-aunt, and started Racing Strollers in 1984 with about $8,000.
I was on the periphery of the business that year. I was the doting wife and provided meals and encouraging words to Phil and to our other partner, Jim, one of our best friends. Somehow I was sucked into running the "office," otherwise known as the kitchen table. It was a lot of fun. We'd go down to our little rented garage, put on some rock and roll, and build a few strollers every weekend. Travis, in my backpack, played with my hair. I remember his leaning over my shoulder and making baby talk while I put rivets in strollers.* * *
Around this time there was an early warning sign that Phil's idea of what it takes to run a business was different from mine.
Since we couldn't get stores to carry the Baby Jogger (those cheery words, "It'll never sell!"), we were running a small ad in Runner's World. We had customers calling from New York City, who apparently wanted to avoid the higher phone rates after 8 a.m. So they would call us at 4:45 a.m. Pacific time, assuming that hardy operators were standing by to take their orders. I had been a midwife and was used to waking instantly if a call came in the middle of the night. So I would take the calls, trying to sound like a real office person in a real office, all the while trying to find the light switch in the kitchen. That was one difference between Phil and me: I couldn't bear to let an order go by; he would have quite sensibly just left the answering machine on.
There was a particular moment when my drive really kicked in. It was in the first year of business. We were so broke. All our money had gone into parts and those first ads. I know Phil really questioned why we were doing this. We were sometimes taking his paychecks from his night job as a news editor to buy parts, hoping that the customers' Visa cards would all go through so we could get the paycheck back. I went to work part-time, cleaning houses. I had done that in college, and if I wanted to keep my horse, Silky, I was going to have to support him. (A friend had offered to get me a job at the local department store. I would have had to buy clothes, and the pay was very low.)
The moment came when I was cleaning some lady's toilet. The blinding fury at myself hit me like a blast: I was smart, I had an education, and here I was, cleaning bathrooms. In that moment, I decided it was up to me. I couldn't wait for Phil, and I was going to get myself out of this. I wanted to be able to have my horses, and I wanted our son to go to college.
For the next two years we slowly built up our business. Several times we came close to closing; we wondered if we'd ever see a paycheck. Phil and I had our second child, Oscar, and Phil finally designed the Twinner version of the Baby Jogger that our customers had been asking for. We had so much to learn. I remember Jim explaining terms like net 30 and FOB Yakima when we finally got an order from our first store, the Human Race, in Spokane.* * *
Recently, I talked with a woman who is a vice-president at one of the big shoe companies. I asked her how she "kept it all together." (I always think someone else has the secret.) She laughed slightly hysterically, told me how wired and frazzled she sometimes gets, and said, "This is the Curse of Ambition."
My ambition was one of the major reasons my marriage failed. I had it in a big dose, and Phil had it in a smaller dose. So I was always making choices that he couldn't understand, and I couldn't figure out why he wouldn't go that extra mile. How does someone who is obsessed live peacefully with someone who isn't?
Maybe the secret is in taking the person as he or she is. But Phil and I couldn't do that for each other. We were always wishing the other person would change. I wanted Phil to become a manager. I wanted him to be as interested in business, in our employees, in all the little problems, as I was. He mentioned once, wistfully, that he missed the sweet girl I had been when I was 17. I remember how hurt I felt. I was going through this tremendous personal growth, learning how to run the business. I felt I had found the art form I was meant for. And he wanted me to go back 15 years. Actually, I was a lot sweeter at 17, and as a young girl I had loved him exactly as he was.
Now we were together almost every hour of the day. I went into work early; he'd get the kids to their day care. Later in the day I'd pick up the boys and start dinner. So the only time Phil and I weren't together was commuting time or when one of us was exercising.
I became president in 1986, around the time Jim left the company. Racing Strollers was in trouble. We were growing rapidly without knowing the fundamentals of accounting, and we were undercapitalized (not that we knew what that meant). My banker referred me to a business consultant. I jumped at the chance to learn, because now it was my job. Phil came to meetings for a while, but then he got bored. He liked getting press stories and working on stroller designs. Once I asked him to take over, but he said that this was where my talents were, in solving problems. He said he hated it when we came into the office in the morning and someone said that some part was breaking.
By 1988 the business had somehow slipped into profitability. Our family income was going up every year. We were considered the new wonder kids in our town. For a three-year period, we had an astonishing amount of free publicity from Phil's press releases. We moved into a bigger house. It should have been great, right? But we never sought each other's company. We were already saturated. We were both working hard, but I was in the worst mode of crisis management. Sometimes I couldn't get home until 7 or 8 p.m. Phil was carrying more of the load at home. We both joked about needing a wife.
There was a fundamental moment in this time when I chose the business over the marriage. I just didn't know it, and if I could go back in time, I would do it differently. I see this pattern with male entrepreneurs, but they are more likely to have a wife who is a full-time homemaker. The strain, the urgency to move the business forward, and the neglect of the family seem to be endemic to entrepreneurs. "I'll get it in balance next year, right?" "As soon as this current problem is over I'll cut back and spend more time with the family." "Hon, I just gotta get through this month."
Here's what I did, and sadly, this part was conscious. All day long I was at my business, and people there needed me. All those needy people. In every department, their work load was doubling at least once a year. The rapid growth made for a crazed environment, and I thought I was the anchor they clung to. Nothing fazed me, except that I was almost totally out of patience when I got home. Then my kids needed me. By that time -- 1988 -- we had our daughter, Marilyn, too. My conscience always bothered me about my kids, and so I tried to sit with them and hold them a lot. Then I needed some time to myself. I remember deciding one spring that I could have a clean house, work hard, and go nuts, or I could let the house go, work hard, and take the time to ride my horse. One little thing for me. But remember how I said I chose the business over my marriage? Where did Phil fit in? Right after work, I'd spend time with the kids, start dinner, ride my horse, read business books, and take a bath, exhausted. I wasn't doing a whole lot to nurture my husband. My rationale was, "Can't he see how hard I'm working so we'll succeed?"
For my part, I just wished that for once, someone would take care of me. I wanted to be held while I mumbled about what a hard day I'd had. But Phil wanted a life away from work. Because Racing Strollers was his workplace as well, he didn't want to hear about my problems there. He'd been there all day, too, and was frankly bored with it. He wanted a break from it all, for at least a few hours. We were always having little rules, like "No business talk after 6 p.m."
So on the one hand, we had a pattern of small instances of neglect, small criticisms, each one a brick in a wall. Then we came to the question, "Why are we working?" because pretty soon we were fielding offers from people who wanted to buy the company. Phil and I reacted in wildly different ways. Looking back, if I could have given up the company, if we had taken the money and run, we would probably still be married.
All Phil wanted was financial security. Is that so much? We had a winning lottery ticket, and I wouldn't let him cash it in. We could have avoided all that strain. For every bit of fun, for all the personal challenges, and for all the rewards of having known our mostly dear employees, there have also been teeth-rattling episodes. Dealing with managers on drugs, with losses (the Case of the Missing Equity), with strained bank relations -- you name it, we made every silly mistake a business owner can make and probably invented some new ones.
The difference between us goes like this: Phil would be eminently comfortable with a life of wealth, golf games, and the security of knowing that his finances weren't subject to the ups and downs of our little lifeboat, Racing Strollers. Me, I was hooked on the thrills!
About five years ago, when someone was trying to buy our company, I went off and thought about it. OK, I'd buy a few horses. We could have a little horse farm. But then, after a few months, what would I do? We were in a Camelot-like episode of our lives; we would probably never again find a synergy like the love affair our customers had with the strollers and the one we had with them. Also, I noticed a pattern. The men who inquired about our company had been very successful and had sold off the businesses they had founded, and now they were bored and wanted my business. "Hmm," I thought. "Could it be that they had regrets about leaving their own companies, about being needed?"
The oldest questions of all fascinate me. Why are we here? Why do we suffer? Is it worth it? Sometimes, when there is a magical moment at our office, it seems as if the answers are found in work. Do we do the right thing? Are we good to our customers, even the ones who are pains in the neck? Do we live by our principles, even when it hurts financially? The arts of business and of being a manager seem like the perfect chance to work on being awake. And some corny card comes in from a customer, and we pass it around the office, and it seems as if it's all worth it.
Phil and I are fundamentally different, and working together revealed it. He is a remarkable artist and the best designer I've ever known. And to him, it's very simple. A business's sole function is to make money. He would rather be painting in Hawaii. He once said to me when we were talking about business, "Hey, it's not a religion." And me, I'm hooked on the magic. I wait through bad times because the good times are so neat and I always want to see more. It is this business that our employees and I are painting; it is a picture that we draw, every day.* * *
Mary Baechler is cofounder and president of Racing Strollers, a 10-year-old $5-million company in Yakima, Wash.