I Hired My Husband

Can partners at home be partners at work?

By Lisa Bergson

My husband and i never planned to work together. Then Jerry, who headed an individual high-net-worth practice for an insurance brokerage, lost his job. "Come work with me," I said, elated by the prospect. With a year's severance pay, he agreed.

For Jerry, a 34-year veteran of big companies, the transition has not been easy. We run lean at MEECO and Tiger Optics, to say the least. Jerry, who began last November as our chief administrative officer, oversees finance and works with investors. He uses a cumbersome old computer and shares a cold, noisy office with our purchaser and our production manager. He doesn't draw a salary. "She acts as though she's paying me," he grouses to our friends. Truth is, we both know that once his severance runs out, he'll have to find a paying job. My businesses can't afford to retain him without much greater volume.

"If you want to stay, you have to sell," I announced one day, suggesting that he manage our European sales effort. Jerry plunged ahead, taking a crash course in our technology. "I'm gradually filling up many holes in my ignorance," he e-mails from France. "Still doing a tutorial on pressure, vacuum, etc. So much I don't know!"

Jerry's not an early bird, so he makes a point of working hard and staying late. "Why don't you hire Jerry and make him president of MEECO?" one of our production technicians asked. Soon the head of engineering, a recalcitrant fellow, chimed in with his agreement. Their support means a lot to us.

There's little doubt that Jerry's tenure is serving my companies well. He has given me a breather from budgeting and financial planning so I can concentrate on sales. And he's spearheading our attempt to secure ISO certification.

Whether it's serving our marriage well is another question. "It's all one groove," my husband complained as we walked hand in hand following what might have been a romantic dinner in Dublin. But we had spent it talking about how to increase sales to multinational customers and preparing for our first European business trip together.

It helps that we respect each other, but constant exposure also magnifies our flaws. That Jerry is a sprinter and that I'm more of a marathoner has been an occasional source of tension in our marriage. It's more of an issue in business, where I must accept his pace and trust that things will get done, even if they're put off until the last minute.

On the other hand, Jerry has made me aware of my tendency to act like a victim when thwarted professionally. "It's not working for you," he told me. "You're such a strong, intelligent woman. You don't need to do that." I would never get that sort of helpful feedback from an employee.

Right now, we're hoping that our new arrangement will last. Jerry admits to "slow-walking" his job search. I'm working harder than ever to make it possible for him to stay. For me, it's more than just having someone with his capabilities on the team. When a consultant recently questioned my ability to manage our anticipated growth single-handedly, Jerry was quick to interject: "Hey, wait a minute -- she's not alone in this." After 22 years on my own, it no longer feels lonely at the top.

Lisa Bergson is president and CEO of both MEECO Inc., a 35-person manufacturer of trace analytical equipment, and its spin-off, Tiger Optics LLC

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