Mixing wedlock and business might seem a recipe for disaster, but LBM dealers across the country are proof that having a Mr. and Mrs. run the yard can work out just fine.
That's not to say it's an eternal honeymoon. There are accommodations to be made and differences in temperament to be sorted out, sometimes right in the office. "When we first started," Marilyn Archer recalls, "Robert pulled me aside and said, 'You have got to stop chewing me out in front of people.'
"And I did, didn't I?" she says, appealing to her husband.
"You did," he affirms.
Robert and Marilyn Archer have been married to each other for 31 years and to Morton Lumber in Borger, Texas, for 29. The yard is a third party in their relationship that demands a disproportionate share of attention.
"It's always there," says Marilyn.
"24/7," adds her spouse.
Still, the Archers insist–as do a number of couples that ProSales talked with around the country–that the benefits of teaming up with your spouse to run the local building supply far outweigh the potential negatives. It might even help your marriage.
"We learned an awful lot about how to deal with people," Marilyn says. "We tend to get it out there and get over it. That's our personalities. We never had knock-down, drag-outs in the store. We have certainly had disagreements over the business, but we work it out."
"I think there is a fairly narrow segment of the population who could do this," says Robert. "We have survived financial hardships that could have taken us out numerous times. Neither one of us will allow the other to fail."
The Archers fell into lumber, you might say. Recent newlyweds, they were working for other people, Robert at a bank in Vernon, Texas, and Marilyn as a traveling sales rep for a wholesale drug company. They were 26, with no kids, "getting home at 3 p.m. and watching TV," says Marilyn. "We started talking about how we wanted our lives to go and our future kids's lives."
The couple mulled getting into insurance or office supplies, but eventually chose a lumber company three hours away in Borger because the owner made them the best deal.
While Robert and Marilyn had spent their lives working hard and knowing the value of a dollar, they also brought different personalities to Morton Lumber. Splitting up the work and settling on who had the final say proved to be crucial to a smooth-running business as well as to marital harmony.
"Marilyn is all about right and wrong, nothing in between, and I'm all about gray, and she helps me see right and wrong," Robert says.
"Thank you," she replies. "The nice thing about Robert is that he realizes I make him look good."
"I think the reason we have been so successful is that we have a division of labor," Robert says. Marilyn does the paperwork and the banking; she also handles hardware and tools. Robert does the ordering and oversees loading and delivery.
"I call what I do working traffic and she cinches up all the details," he says.
"Robert is the one who is here every day, but I'm behind the scenes," says Marilyn. "But he is the boss, he can overrule me. He has the final word. It has to be the man, I think."
Like most couples ProSales spoke with, the Archers don't separate home and business. "The biggest problem our kids had with the business was that we were always late to pick them up," Marilyn says. "You start to walk out the door, and a customer asks you something and the next thing you know you're half an hour late. Sometimes we'd get frantic calls–'Mom, the toilet is overflowing.'"
"It weighs on the personal life, being in business together," Marilyn adds, "but I can't imagine not working together."
Travel around the country and you'll find similar stories.
Alan and Helen Medina
Parsons Lumber and Hardware, Boyes Hot Springs, Calif.
Helen Medina was pregnant with her and Alan Medina's second child when they bought Parsons Lumber, in California's Sonoma Valley, a quarter century ago. Helen joined her husband at the store in 1995, first handling accounts payable and office management. Lately she's been spending two days a week on the sales floor–a recent development "as we've been adjusting to the drop in business," says Alan.
That's another benefit of couples working together–you can deploy a spouse to take on a job in a way that you wouldn't be able to do with another employee.
"It's very much an exercise in the division of responsibilities," Alan says. "I have learned I can't do all of it at the store. And as my wife has taken over responsibilities, it has been helpful. We do discuss things on both sides and share ideas and concerns. We have found a pretty clean and amicable division of responsibilities. It works well 95% of the time. When it doesn't, we sit back and say, 'Does it really matter whether we get all upset about this?'
"I joke and say we have been married 28 years and been happily married for 11," Alan adds.
Like the Archers, the Medinas find it impossible not to bring the store's business home.
"We own the store and the real estate it's on, and our home mortgage is secured by our business," he explains, "so as business owners, we're always talking about the how to sell and what to sell, wherever we are. We might say, 'Hey, let's sell propane for the roofers and the contractors and the barbecuers,' and all of a sudden there is a way to bring in an extra $25,000 a year.
"The business is a part of your life. There is no avoiding taking it home, unless your business is wildly successful. And if it is, it's because you were taking it home.
"I like working with my spouse. She's hot, and she brings an energy to the store that, after 25 years, I've lost."