Lessons Learned

Valentine’s Day is special for Debby and me; it was the evening of our first date! Working together for 20 years was challenging but contributed significantly to providing balance between family and work-life, strengthening our relationship and accomplishing shared objectives while having fun! ÿWe were partners in raising our 3 children, supporting each other’s individual pursuits, dealing with the life-cycle events and in our professional careers!

We met at work, as do many couples, 18 months after I left HBS, so we had firsthand knowledge of each other’s style at the office and capabilities. ÿAt GE’s Industrial Diamond business in Ohio, Debby was a manufacturing engineer from MIT for some test material for the product line I was responsible for and had somehow managed to destroy all of the prototypes that we had! ÿShe admitted the mistake and replaced it, and I could see that she had “spark”, honesty and a mind of her own. ÿAfter concealing our relationship for two years out of concern that it would impact our careers at GE, we were married, and two months later, Debby headed off to HBS. ÿOur careers took separate paths and required compromises on where we lived, what promotions we took and decisions about starting a family. ÿIn our first 5 years of marriage, we lived apart more than we lived together. ÿWe learned how to communicate and support each other’s dreams.

Working together had not crossed our minds until my controller quit about a year after I had purchased Extrusion Technology, 10 years out of HBS. ÿDebby was in the process of liquidating her fiberglass tank manufacturing business, purchased two years earlier. ÿI needed a CFO, she was available and ready not to be the “boss” again. ÿOur first child was 9 months old and we were thinking about a second. ÿUpon hearing my proposal, my board advised me that this might be a big mistake! ÿI was particularly sensitive because the business had a bad history of “family” involvement, and employees would see this as the first step backwards by the new owner. ÿIn fact, the old owner had to sign off on my hiring a “relative”, which he did.

Debby’s responsibilities were clearly outlined as finance, benefits, environmental, legal and facilities. ÿShe reported to me on the organizational chart and planned to work 30 hours, 5 days a week at a 75 percent salary for the position. ÿI let my staff know that it would be a 6-month trial, and I was concerned about the perception of employees and vendors as to her competency versus her being my spouse. ÿThere were no other relatives in the wings: our siblings, parents, friends and even our children were not slated to join us. It was my first significant hire, and we were in a “fishbowl” – everyone was watching!ÿ

At home we had also worked out responsibilities that fit us.ÿI did all the family meal preparation and grocery shopping. Debby picked the three kids up from school, shuttled them to doctor and after-school appointments, managed the family finances, did the laundry and dishes. We took turns dropping the kids off at daycare, walking them to school, changing diapers and reading bedtime stories. We did not have a nanny; we did use a house cleaner and a yard service. The children attended the local public schools. I was home in time every day to get dinner on the table, worked some Saturdays and never did much work at/from home until later years. On snow days, service days and some holidays, the kids came to the office with us, did homework, read or watched videos in the conference room.

We worked hard on maintaining balance. Debby worked some evenings to meet financial deadlines, sometimes all night! ÿI was not focused on “growing” the business or taking on customers that required lots of travel, but instead focused on quality, lead times, products and customer support. ÿJacob, our second son, spent his first 6 months at the office, with me changing his diapers and Debby breastfeeding him. Instead of moving forward with an acquisition of a competitor in our 8th year, we decided to adopt our daughter instead and remain focused on the business – the right choice for all of us. ÿWe made time to talk about the day, issues and plans in the hot tub every evening before bed.

At the office, we had separate work spaces, drove separately and reminded employees that we were not good at giving messages to each other. We saved any conflict about business issues for private conversations or at home and made sure to avoid being competitive. ÿAt staff meetings, we would “take this offline” if we sensed discomfort over any conflict. ÿDuring employee gatherings, functions and meetings, we would have our professional roles.ÿ We never hesitated to “correct” each other, which always got a laugh. Outsiders would not know we were married, seeing us instead as President and CFO. ÿ

We shared similar values about basic business objectives. ÿGrowth was not important, profits were. ÿProviding a supportive, safe and healthy environment for employees was critical to both of us. ÿDespite my “gut” feel, investments were made with financial justification and Debby’s review. ÿRe-investing in facilities, new products and personnel meant keeping our profits in the business. We made financial decisions based on operations instead of for “tax reasons”. ÿWe shared ethical standards about our dealings with vendors, customers, partners and our investment in Asia. ÿWe both thought it important to share profits, but not equity, with employees.

For us, there was lots of compromise, hard work and support of each other over the years. We worked hard on our own relationship, which had its challenges at times. We did not end up in the kind of careers we imagined leaving HBS, but what we did worked for us, and we had a wonderful family life, a lifelong impact on the employees in our business and time to smell the roses each Valentine’s Day!

To schedule a Brown Bag Lunch with Jim, sign up on his wiki: //wiki.hbs.edu/confluence/display/Sharpe/Home

If you have comments…website or letters to editor. The Harbus and Jim would love to hear from you at letters@harbus.org, or comment online at www.harbus.org.

Jim Sharpe (MBA `76) is one of the HBS Entrepreneurs-in-Residence for the 2009-2010 academic year, who ran an aluminum manufacturing business for 21 years while working with his wife, Debby Stein Sharpe (MBA `81) after both left careers at GE and large companies and sold the business in late 2008. Jim can be reached at: jsharpe@hbs.edu, 310 Rock Center, 617-496-6285.