Michelle Cardinal & Tim O'Leary, Cmedia and Respond2
Patrick J. Sauer
for rewriting the rules for husband-and-wife teams
Husband-and-wife business teams are common enough that they even have a nickname, "copreneurs." When the arrangement works, it works well; when it doesn't, a couple can be crippled both emotionally and financially. Michelle Cardinal and Tim O'Leary have come up with a novel way of doing the "for richer, for poorer" thing as business partners -- they decided not to share ownership completely. Each spouse runs an independent company in the infomercial business, even though they work together all the time.
Wife Cardinal, 37, is the CEO of Cmedia and husband O'Leary, 45, is CEO of Respond2. Together, the couple and their 100-odd employees have created spots for NordicTrack, KitchenAid, Stanley tools, the Songbird hearing aid, and those best of Johnny Carson DVDs that surged in sales after the comedian's death in January. O'Leary's team produces the infomercials; Cardinal's group holds inventory for some of the product lines and manages the sale from pricing to buying airtime to telemarketing and fulfillment. "I always joke that we talk shop in the shower," Cardinal says. (They also co-own two smaller firms 50-50).
Interestingly, a wide gap in terms of revenue exists between the companies. Respond2 grossed $10 million last year, compared with Cmedia's $100 million haul, half of which came from serving clients whose infomercials were not shot by Respond2. The remaining two firms kicked in an extra $10 million. "Michelle made more than I did last year," O'Leary freely admits. The arrangement still suits them, Cardinal explains, because "our egos are too big to tell each other what to do. It only works because I have my thing and Tim has his thing."
That strikes Kathy Marshack, author of Entrepreneurial Couples, as a shrewd insight. "Lots of husband-and-wife teams won't acknowledge their competitive personalities, so this sounds like an ideal setup because it levels the playing field for each one's strengths," she says. Plus, Marshack notes, it avoids a common copreneurial mistake: "Not paying the wife a salary."
In certain ways, Cmedia and Respond2 operate as one. They share an 18,000-square-foot headquarters in an old dairy festooned in Tonight Show memorabilia. Their websites are also noticeably similar, featuring the same breakeven calculator for potential customers. And one monthly executive summary tracks key numbers of both companies. On the flip side, the firms pay taxes separately, and Cmedia bills Respond2 for accounting and vice versa for Web maintenance.
There is, however, one not-so-far-down-the-road issue that will test the arrangement. "For the first few years, I thought we wouldn't have children," says Cardinal, in an everyone-asks-that tone. "But we just built a new house with a nursery."