When a co-worker really is family

By Mary Jacobs/The Dallas Morning News

 DALLAS — After raising three children together, Hal and Kathryn Cook now devote their time to another joint endeavor: a Learning Express toy store in University Park, Texas, which the couple owns and operates.

“It’s like our fourth kid,” Kathryn Cook said.

The Cooks are part of what may be one of the fastest-growing small-business trends in the United States: married couples, or “copreneurs,” that own and operate franchise businesses.

Learning Express, a franchiser with 108 locations nationwide, has seen a big spike in the number of couples starting franchises. According to Learning Express Chief Executive Sharon DiMinico, “Couples often make the most successful store owners because they are deeply invested — personally and financially — in making it work.”

The Senior’s Choice, a network of independent businesses providing nonmedical companion-care services, reports that half of its memberships are purchased by married couples.

Statistics on couple-owned businesses are hard to find, but the number of family-owned businesses is growing, and couples often anchor those businesses.

“My sense is that more women are in the workplace now, so more couples might be working together,” said Ann Kinkade, director of the Family Business Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Hal Cook left the oil business to start the toy store in 1996.

As their children — then middle- and high-school students — became more independent, Kathryn Cook gradually took on more responsibilities.

“When Hal started traveling and opening new stores, I started doing some of the buying,” she said. Now she’s in charge of buying for the store, with help from staffers. That involves ordering 5,000 products from 400 vendors.

Hal Cook pitches in on the floor and supports the 30 stores in the regional franchise that the couple also owns. His brother, Randy Cook, handles the financial side of the business.

“An owner-operator usually has a better handle on the business than someone who’s an employee,” Hal Cook said. “If there’s two of you, it’s that much better.”

Kinkade says the advantage of couple-owned business can also be the biggest disadvantage — lots of togetherness, which can lead to all business, all the time.

“The problem I hear about most often in couple-owned businesses is that it’s just about impossible to create private time that’s unrelated to the business,” she said. “There’s very little natural separation. You have to create your own boundaries for that private time.”

For couples thinking of going into business together, Hal Cook puts it this way: “Make sure you can handle 24 hours a day with your spouse.”

The Cooks say they’ve struck a balance by staying involved with their children, now grown, and pursuing other hobbies. Now that they have a strong team of employees in place — which includes a family of four sisters, not related to the Cooks — they feel confident leaving the business under employees’ supervision to travel for a few days at a time.

The holiday season poses the biggest challenge. Every year, starting in late October, the Cooks work nonstop until Christmas Day.

Before going into business together, couples need to think through how they’ll handle these stresses, Kinkade advised.

Kinkade said it’s especially key for couples to anticipate conflict.

“Conflict is not always bad,” she said. “When effectively managed, it can be a really helpful thing to go through.”

Also important for success: self-awareness.

“You have to know your own limitations and know the lens through which you view the world,” Kinkade said.

Like the Cooks, Kinkade compares co-owning a business to having a baby — a big investment of time and effort that can pay off in the long run.

“There’s overwhelming stress, sleepless nights and, like a child, sometimes a business can have a mind of its own,” she said.

“It’s not an easy thing to do. But, just like kids, if there’s a common vision, it can also become a real source of bonding.”