A cigar-smoking nonagenarian who started his comedy career with his wife was once asked how his marriage survived the stresses of working together all those years. "We couldn't split up the act," he quipped.
For some husband-wife teams, however, divorce is the only alternative, and splitting up "the act" can present its own set of problems, financial and emotional. If they decide to go their separate ways professionally, how will they divvy up the business? If they choose to remain business partners, how will they adjust to their new, nonmarried status?
INC.'s unscientific sample found a surprising number of couples who have decided to maintain some sort of business association even after the divorce decree is signed. Some have continued to work together in the same company. Other have devised ways of not working together that don't require either party to say good-bye to a career and an investment.
Divorced couples who continue to work together talk of their partnership in terms of dependence. Individually, they depend on the business for personal fulfillment and financial security. Together, they and their business have come to depend on each other's unique and complementary talents. But how do they make these postdivorce partnerships work?
First, the two parties to the divorce have to stabilize their relationship, butting aside disagreements and making a conscious effort to help each other through a painful period of personal and professional transition. "You do it only for the business," says one woman with a sign. "In our case, it was probably the only good thing that came out of the marriage."
Then there is the rest of the company to consider. Employees need to be informed of the pending divorce and apprised of what the split means for the company. "Me and my wife, uh, ex-wife, went around and talked to each of our 20 employees," recalls the founder of a San Francisco financial-services firm. "It was like Mommy and Daddy telling the kids. It was the hardest part of the whole thing."
Equity is usually the next issue to surface. More than a few couples have been surprised to learn that one of them, usually the woman, doesn't own stock in the company. Perhaps a business lawyer once recommended that the company be registered in just one name. More frequently, nobody really thought about the issue.
"We were naive," says Ellen Lalone, a co-founder of the Weymouth, Mass., running-gear company that bears the name of her marathoner ex-husband, Bill Rodgers & Co. "We never actually had it down that Bill's 60% really meant what's in writing now -- 30% for him and 30% for me. Neither of us thought the business would get so complicated or so big." To Karen Heineman, who operates Homarus Inc., a seafood smokehouse in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., with her ex-husband, Peter, it had been a matter of trust. "Until the divorce, I had never thought what was ours could be considered his, and not mine."
Parceling out stock in new ways is just one of the many accommodations that may have to be made in a postdivorce partnership. The Heinemans drew up a new compensation plan, and they signed formalized employment agreements that included detailed job descriptions. Lalone and Rodgers agreed that she would go back to school for an M.B.A. and limit her involvement to serving on the board of directors of Bill Rodgers & Co.
At Windham Hill Productions Inc., chief executive officer Will Ackerman and his remarried ex-wife, Anne Ackerman Robinson, chief operating officer, found it too much to ask of themselves to continue working in their Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters, much less the same cramped cubicle they had occupied prior to the divorce. Now Robinson runs the main office of the music recording company, while Ackerman, one of his label's busiest guitarists and producers, works out of digs 45 minutes away, in Sausalito. Divorce and distance aside, their employees and colleagues say Robinson and Ackerman are probably better friends and partners now than when they were married.
Most of these people admit they would be less than candid, however, if they said working with an ex-spouse is easy. Communication is difficult at times. "We work at it," acknowledges one woman. "My ex-husband and I find we have to check ourselves periodically, saying, 'This is business, right? And we're talking straight to one another, right?' "Bill Rodgers recalls "a particularly tricky situation," a special fifth anniversary celebration for his company: "Ellen wanted to go, and my new wife wanted to go . . ." He lets the sentence trail off.
As owners of Odegard Books in St. Paul, Minn., Dan Odegard and Michele Poire knew their professional relationship wouldn't withstand such day-to-day pressures. It was clear that one party would have to buy out the other. Yet it was just as clear that both wanted to remain in the book business, in the same town. The compromise: Poire would buy out Odegard, who would then use the proceeds to set up his own shop across the Mississippi River, calling it "Odegard Books of Minneapolis." To better distinguish the two shops, they agreed to a seven-year provision prohibiting each of them from selling, investing, consulting, or in any other way representing themselves as booksellers in each other's territory. There has been some confusion among shippers and customers, and the buyout arrangement has put both companies in debt. But the arrangement is working.
Sometimes the arrangements work out only so long, however. Five years after the divorce and the decision to remain business partners, Rodgers and Lalone have elected to call it quits. The dominant division of Bill Rodgers & Co., its clothing line, is up for sale. "At times, our working together has been a strain on everybody, particularly the other stockholders," says Lalone. "Before, when one of us spoke, it was 60% talking. But for a long time after the divorce, our interests couldn't be assumed to be in the same direction." Now what they want is to cash out.
Lalone has no regrets about remaining involved in the company with her famous ex-husband as long as she did. But now, with an M.B.A. and a new job in banking, her aspirations have changed. "I guess I want to really be divorced," she says.