How Couples Survive and Thrive in Business

Douglas talks to five dynamic couples who have succeeded at building top-tier careers and businesses without ever losing sight of their relationships with each other, through good times and challenging times.
How do they do it?
There’s something intriguing about couples whose relationships thrive in the rarefied atmosphere of the corporate world — high flyers who effectively balance their business or careers and personal relationships despite long hours, blurred boundaries and sometimes competing interests.
To discover how it’s possible for these couples to maintain healthy relationships with each other while living such fast-paced lives, I asked five prominent professional couples to share their success secrets.
Notably, four of these couples have been together between 22 and 33 years, despite the pressures of high-profile careers. That’s remarkable when one considers the average marriage in Canada lasts approximately 14 years.
Being Boundary-Conscious
Working in the same company, especially when boundaries are not clear, can cause conflict. Kevin and Shawna Walker, owners of the Oak Bay Beach Hotel, know this well. Throughout their 32-year marriage, they have worked together.
One of their keys to success, they explain, is knowing where the lines are.
“We went through a season of our lives where boundary building was very, very important to our personal relationship,” says Kevin. “It was Shawna who took the lead on this, [ensuring] we were going to be a family and have a life outside of our business. There would be a boundary between those two things.”
When asked the secret to maintaining high-pressure jobs and a successful long-term relationship, Kevin immediately quips, “We tried killing each other — that was no fun.”
On a more serious note, he continues, “… it’s not an easy program, but it’s an extremely rewarding one. So it’s worth the commitment.”
Kevin tells of a time when Shawna called him out on crossing a boundary. “We got in the truck to go home one night and Shawna was very quiet. Then she said, ‘I need to talk to my husband about my boss.’ … She told me about this man who wasn’t very pleasant to work for, and he had said some things that just didn’t seem appropriate to how you treat a colleague at work. I had to quit treating her as ‘special’ because she was my wife. I hope I’ve changed.”
Jo-Ann Roberts, host of CBC Radio’s All Points West, and Ken Kelly, president of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, don’t work together, but they often attend various business events together. Sitting together on the sofa in their living room, holding hands, they are the epitome of a connected couple at the top of their careers.
“It’s love that’s brought us together; it’s love that brought us to this city — and from one city to another across this country,” says Ken, noting that they have moved jobs and cities four times in their 33 years of marriage. “We’re very supportive of each other; that’s the key.”
They also credit their obvious harmony to the boundaries they have set to deal with potential issues of confidentiality arising from their respective jobs.
“We learned early on, we couldn’t be each other’s source,” says Jo-Ann.
Changing Roles
During the past 14 years, Josée Lalonde and Murray Cuff went from being co-workers to a couple to business partners in The Housse (no, that’s not a typo), a thriving home-staging resource centre serving the needs of Vancouver Island’s home staging, stylist and design community.
It’s meant shifting and relearning roles over the years. In the beginning, Murray was a military periodontist and Josée was his surgical assistant.
“We worked knee to knee for 10 years,” says Murray. “So we’re used to working in the presence of each other but each having our own respective jobs to do. It’s still a little bit like that — so we are very comfortable in each other’s company.”
What is the secret to the success of their work/life relationship?
“Very few people understand me as well as Josée does,” says Murray. “…I’ve found someone who knows me, appreciates me, loves me and that makes it tick for me.”
He pauses, then adds, “For Josée, it’s because I’m very good looking!”
“You are very good looking,” says Josée.
“And funny,” he laughs. “…she makes me believe I’m still funny, and I think that helps!”
Josée is a little more serious. “We developed this relationship and connection,” she says, “…and at one point I was kind of like ‘hold on a second, this person needs to be in my life, however it is.”
Their skills proved as complementary in business as they did in the dentist office. Joseé taught Murray that style, fashion and home decor is important, and he taught her not to be too open and trusting. Josée works on the creative side and Murray on the business management side.
As Josée says, “We definitely have our strengths and weaknesses and that’s why I think we work so well together — because we complement each other.”
Staying in synch
Like Josée and Murray, Darren Ausmus and Scott Elias work together and live together. They were teachers before they decided to change their lives and open Luxe Home Interiors.
“We deeply value public education,” says Scott, “and we worked passionately throughout our careers towards a stronger and more inclusive education system. When we accomplished all that we could to make a difference, we then decided it was time for a change and to turn our energy in a new direction.”
Four years ago they purchased Luxe Home Interiors. “It gave us a new opportunity to create a business that reflects who we are,” says Darren, who has been with Scott for 22 years.
They find balancing their home and business lives challenging, but rewarding. “It’s about resilience,” says Scott, “facing it together.”
Sitting in the Timothy Oulton showroom at Luxe, Darren says, “You are always working on finding the balance that puts the important things first; there are often commitments at work that take precedence. Then there are times when we need to regroup and take time to do something we look forward to, like travel or dinner at home with our son, or whatever. Finding those moments in what can be an incredibly busy week is challenging.”
To stay connected, they visit the gym together every day and they walk, cook, have meals together and with their son — and most importantly, “We visit people who make us laugh,” says Darren.
“We are fortunate that way,” Scott concurs. “We are so in sync with each other.”
Sometimes staying in sync amidst busy lives comes naturally, and sometimes it takes creativity. For 10 of Ken and Jo-Ann’s 33 years of marriage, when Jo-Ann hosted CBC’s early morning show, they almost never went to bed or got up at the same time. This could have been a major strain on their relationship, if not for their novel approach to the challenges.
So before either of them went to bed, they would write the other a message in a notebook. Then, upon waking, they would read the previous message and add one of their own. This allowed them to communicate what was happening in their lives, and to stay connected.
Today, the dozens of notebooks and the story they contain are used in a marriage prep class the couple teaches for the Association of Catholic Leaders.
They are also careful to balance their roles between work and home.
“We have jobs where [it’s easy to] become the job,” says Jo-Ann. “Ken is Mr. Downtown, Jo-Ann is All Points West, and we are those people in our respective jobs and it’s very easy to think you are that. But what we remind each other of on a regular basis, and why we’re good for each other, is that our relationship is more important than those jobs. It will be around a lot longer than the roles we play.”
And, as Jo-Ann prepares to take an early retirement from CBC, there’s no doubt that while their roles will change again, the foundation is strong.
A Supportive Outlook
Not all couples place such emphasis on separating business and home life.
Mary-Lynn Bellamy-Willms and her husband Russ Willms are owners of Suburbia, a national marketing and communications firm with offices in Vancouver and Victoria. They have been married for 30 years, and although they work for the same company, they have completely different roles. Mary-Lynn manages Suburbia and is CEO of FunctionFox Systems. She is also a partner in Valentus Clinics. Russ is the senior art director for Suburbia.
For them, their business lives are their passion so they don’t feel the need to draw a work/home dividing line. When asked the secret to being a successful professional couple, Mary-Lynn says, “Respect each other professionally, understanding the demands that can come with the work you do.”
“It’s about being on the same page,” says Russ. “If I were off golfing all the time and Mary-Lynn was working her ass off, I couldn’t see that working for us.”
But Mary-Lynn does remember a time of a little too much togetherness. In 1998, they decided to expand Suburbia by building their own office building off West Saanich Road. Their estimated build time was five months, and as shovels went into the ground, they ramped up their business, taking on new clients and new staff. Of course, the inevitable happened and construction was plagued by delays. They were forced to turn their home into a home office temporarily.
“We took over the den, TV room, kitchen and the entire downstairs,” recalls Mary-Lynn. “Aside from the bedrooms, everything [in our home] became office — the fridge was full of people’s lunches and every chair was spoken for, including the piano bench.
“… It made for a close knit team – in fact, many of the people that came to work every day for several months to our home are still with us today. I guess we kind of took work/life balance to a whole other level.”
The Power of Togetherness
Being a dynamic, secure, well-balanced, couple is always easier during good times, but it’s surviving tough times together that demonstrates the resilience of a relationship. During the market crash of 2008, Shawna and Kevin Walker experienced a challenge that might have destroyed a less committed couple. They figured their dream for Oak Bay Beach Hotel was lost when their lenders had pulled out.
That day, after finding out the news, they gave the development team their final paycheques and got into their truck to head home. They ended up driving around until the early hours of the morning, discussing what to do. Things didn’t look good: they were two years and around $12 million into the project.
The next morning, however, their entire team turned up with no expectation of being paid. The rest is history, as they say, and this dynamic duo saw their dream survive and thrive.
“It’s a privilege to go down to the depths of despair together,” says Kevin, “figure it out together, stay up all night, and in the morning wake up and say to ourselves ‘we didn’t accomplish anything, but we’re together.’”
Over at Luxe Home Interiors, Darren underlines the profound effect having a secure relationship has on the ability to achieve goals.
“What I feel so proud of in our relationship,” he says, “is that we find ways to pick each other up when the other person’s down. It raises our energy towards what we want to do.
“Having someone beside you is important,” says Scott. “I can’t imagine doing this with anyone else but Darren.”
Kevin Walker and Shawna Walker
“Support each other’s dreams; acknowledge, respect and honour each other’s strengths and help with their weaknesses. And commit to really hearing each other.”
Ken Kelly and Jo-Ann Roberts
“Don’t lose sight of your love — and do be grounded in each other. Respect each other’s jobs and all they involve, and enjoy shared interests.”
Scott Elias and Darren Ausmus
“Find ways to talk about where you are heading, share similar passions and let the other person shine at what they are good at. And demonstrate generosity of spirit — be supportive, keep the relationship safe.”
Russ Willms and Mary-Lynn Bellamy-Willms
“Make love your foundation, admire each other and be on the same page as parents.”
Murray Cuff and Josée Lalonde
“Trust in the other person’s abilities, respect each other’s work ethic — and be supportive.”