Love and the bottom line: Maine couples discuss running a business together, keeping romance alive

Posted Feb. 09, 2014, at 8:44 a.m.
Husband and wife team Gillian and Jim Britt run gbritt PR in South Portland.
Husband and wife team Gillian and Jim Britt run gbritt PR in South Portland.
The owners of the Camden Harbour Inn are Raymond Brunyanszki (left) and Oscar Verest.
Courtesy of Greta Rybus
The owners of the Camden Harbour Inn are Raymond Brunyanszki (left) and Oscar Verest.
Kathleen, Claude and Will Pratt of Tandem Coffee Roasters pose for a photo on Friday.
Courtesy of Seth Pelletier
Kathleen, Claude and Will Pratt of Tandem Coffee Roasters pose for a photo on Friday.

Going into business with someone is like entering a marriage. You are together all the time. But when your business partner is your spouse, how do you keep the romance alive? As Valentine’s Day approaches, we asked a handful of Maine couples their thoughts on love and mergers.

The couple: Betsy and Zeth Lundy

Business: Central Street Farmhouse, Bangor

What they do: Run an urban homesteading, natural parenting shop, teach homebrewing

You have three kids under 5 years old and recently bought Maine Cloth Diaper Co. in Damariscotta. How do you keep the enterprise humming?

Betsy: Seems the more we take on, the more we have to do and the better our performance.

Zeth: Yes the more stuff we do, the better it gets.

Really?

Betsy: Yes, but I don’t highly recommend it. You love everything in your life, but if you could reduce it all by 20 percent and still accomplish the same things, you could shave some intensity off the top.

Was running a business together a lifetime dream?

Betsy: No, it was happenstance. We used to live in Boston, and when we were getting ready to have our daughter, we wanted to move back to Maine to be closer to family. Zeth took at job at a homebrew shop.

Zeth: Our career was borne out of necessity in a way. We realized you can drop your corporate career and make a life out of what you want to do. It’s hard to find real full-time jobs up here. So we said, let’s make our own career and life here. We opened our eyes to what’s possible.

What’s the best thing about owning a business together?

Betsy: It extends the family, brings the family to work. Most people are forced to compartmentalize their lives.

Zeth: We have three kids under 5-years-old. The whole business is their life as well as ours. The store is an extension of our lifestyles. We bought a building and live above the store. It’s a very strange place to be in our lives. We are living our job all the time.

Is there room for personal life amid your busy days?

Betsy: There is a point where you have to take it off and set it aside and say, I’m not going to talk about the business. I’m going to enjoy dinner and play with our kids. Say everything you need to say, download the conversation and then turn it off and talk about something else and enjoy life.

Zeth: You have to turn off the store brain and turn on a personal-life brain.

Biggest challenge you face as business owners with a growing family?

Betsy: We put our eggs in one basket. If we were off doing different things, what are the odds you would both lose your job at same day? It has to work because it’s all we’ve got as a family unit.

Z: It’s a bit rollercoaster-esque sometimes. There are weeks when you don’t think you will make payroll and you say “OK maybe this is the week it tanks.” But our business is four years old now, we are still making it through every day.

The couple: Oscar Verest and Raymond Brunyanszki

Business: Camden Harbour Inn, Camden

What they do: Run a deluxe inn and award-winning Natalie’s Restaurant. Their inn was recently named a Relais & Chateaux property, one of two in Maine to earn that distinction.

You are from the Netherlands and met in Bangkok, how did you end up running an inn on the coast of Maine?

Raymond: Well, Oscar was a pharmacist. In 2006, he sold his business, and we started to think what the next step would be. Since I always worked in inns and wanted to move to Maine, the logical step was to buy an inn and a restaurant. It was my dream more than Oscar’s.

Do you have the same vision for the inn, or is one leading the other?

Oscar: We have the same vision. We are perfectionists and want to make sure our business gets better and better and better.

Raymond: That means we create new and unique experiences so guests find a hotel that’s at the highest level in the world. It’s a commitment that we both have.

With endless demands from guests and the pressures of maintaining a top-tier property, how do you stay on track as a couple?

Raymond: It’s natural. We run the inn as we run our private lives. We both have our own responsibilities. Naturally, there are things that we are better at. Oscar is good at logistics and finance. I’m more PR, marketing, the social person handling esthetics and service. We never argue about this. There is an understanding which responsibilities are ours, and we divide them.

Do you have time for a personal life when work is so consuming?

Raymond: I think the big difference is we both take the same stories home. When we both had other jobs we had different stories at the dining table. Now we talk about shared experiences and business. The hotel industry is a 24/7 business. It’s hard to disconnect.

The funny thing is we started this project to have more time together, and we have only been working harder since we came here. But we have been extremely happy.

Because of your success?

Raymond: It’s exceeding our expectations. The fact that you can work every day with people who love what they are doing and where they are, it’s so much fun. We get postcards and gifts every day from guests thanking us. It’s a lot of fun to be in hotel industry, we get much joy out of it.

Sounds like you are working very hard. Do you get to see much of each other?

Raymond: We both like what we are doing, and our private lives and business life is one life, whereas it was separate before. We can be at the inn and sit in private by the fire and, since we speak Dutch, no one understands.

Would the inn and Natalie’s be as successful if you were doing it on your own?

Both: No.

Raymond: The individual qualities we have are blended together. We really need each other. It’s really the yin and yang in the business. As long as we remain on the same page, we will thrive.

Would you recommend going into business with your partner?

Raymond: You have to have a strong relationship. Not everyone is able to do that, not everyone is able to spend so much time together. If you trust your partner, we trust each other very much, it will work. Oscar trusts my perspective, and I trust his. You need to know each other very well to operate a business together.

The couple: Gillian and Jim Britt

Business: gBritt PR, South Portland.

What they do: Principals in a public relations firm representing tourism, hospitality and entertainment clients in the state. Founders of Maine Restaurant Week

Gillian, your husband joined your company years after you launched. Does that make you the boss of him?

Gillian: No. I try not to be. He spent some time lobbying for the position. I was at a point where I had too much work to do and was very stressed. He has a marketing degree, and I had an English degree. We knew we worked well together.

You have a 15-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son, a business, many demanding clients. How do you juggle work and parenthood?

Jim: That’s the beauty of what we do. Our whole business was designed around the kids. One of us leaves the office every day around 3 p.m. to make sure that their work is done. It’s all about the kids.

Sounds like a solid plan that’s working well. You have it all figured out?

Jim: What’s great about our work is our kids have seen the whole thing. We talk about work all the time, we never turn it off. We work seven days a week like most business people. They’ve seen good times, they’ve seen bad times. They know many of our clients. Our clients know our kids, it’s a cool thing. It feels very special. It’s a unique characteristic about our identity.

And what is your identity. A power couple who has it all?

Jim: Who gBritt PR is, is this husband and wife team who managed to work together and get all this done. We are not more extraordinary than anyone else, but it feels very extraordinary to me. I feel like I achieved more with Gillian than I ever dreamed possible. My dad used to say Gillian kept me out of jail.

Gillian: I rely on him a great deal. If he were to leave, it would be disastrous for the company.

Sounds like your life is very integrated.

Jim: It is. Similar to everyone we work with — be they clients, chefs, or freelancers we hire. They’re all the same. That’s the secret formula, it’s about being all in. It’s about passion. Clarity is key.

The couple: Will and Kathleen Pratt

Business: Tandem Coffee Roasters, Portland

What they do: Run a cafe and small-batch roastery

How did you guys meet?

Kathleen: At a cafe where we worked when we were in college at Boston University. I was there the first day he walked in, and I trained him.

Was it love at first sight?

Kathleen: No. It was funny because he dated my roommate, he dated another girl I knew, but I had never met him until my senior year. I always heard that he was super cute. And I saw him walking in the first day of training and thought “he’s alright.”

Will: She was disappointed … I thought she was quite pretty. Her personality definitely won me over. She was the most fun person I had ever met.

How did you decide to go into business together?

Kathleen: We came here for a small honeymoon and rode around Portland on our tandem bike, and that’s when we decided to move here.

Did you always know you’d open a cafe together?

Both: Yes.

Kathleen: With my experience at Blue Bottle Coffee, it became more obvious that I could open a cafe. We were living in San Francisco and New York. None of those were places where we wanted to settle down. It was perfect timing. We were ready to move, had all the skills we needed, funding, and this building was vacant.

Will: It was amazing timing.

As your family grows, you have a 5-month-old son Claude, Tandem is growing too. In January, your sales tripled versus last year. You make it look easy.

Kathleen: We work really well together. We really do. I hope that we will be saying that 20 years down the road. I enjoy spending time together.

Will: Neither of us are slackers. We never have that issue.

Will your son inherit the business?

Will: He will either love coffee, be a young barista champion or just be a tea drinker.

The biggest challenges of living and working together?

Kathleen: Turning it off. It’s all consuming. Having your own business is so wonderful, but it never rests. We are either talking about the business or babies, which is both of our businesses, I guess. Fortunately we have great employees. We are able to step away from the space right now so we can take a break.

What’s the key?

Kathleen: We have to have an open line of communication, be professional and throw the personal out the window. We are just figuring it out.

 

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