Couples Who Work Together and Make it Work

Friday, August 30, 2013

Maitjian and Todd Welke, of Saratoga, are a devoted married couple going hand-in-hand through life and face-to-face at work.

“Quite literally,” Maitjian says, laughing. “We work in the same office and our desks face each other. So it’s pretty important that we get along.”

Luckily, they do. Married for 18 years, they divorced themselves from their individual high-powered tech jobs in 2009 and started the San Jose-based CMIT Solutions of Southwest Silicon Valley, an IT service provider for small and midsized businesses.

And they couldn’t be happier, enamored with each other and with the entrepreneurial lifestyle.

“A lot of people ask us how we do it, how we can be together so much,” Todd Welke says.

“But when you’re married, you go through a lot of changes in life, buying a house, having kids. I look at going into business as just another one of those things that you can work through together.”

For better or worse

There are roughly 4 million family-owned business in the U.S., with more than 1.4 million of those being run by a husband-and-wife team, according to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And while one might assume the love/work combo might be too much of a good thing, many couples find working with a shared professional passion can keep relationships vibrant as well — if you do it right.

Relationship experts Gene and Julie Gates of the Working Couple Network website have made the national talk-show circuit and written numerous columns on the subject. They describe themselves as a “well-oiled couple machine” after working together for 17 years as on-air radio personalities — they had an afternoon show on 101.3-FM in San Francisco in the early 2000s — and are now in the restaurant business.

“The No. 1 question we get every day is, ‘How on earth do you work together without killing each other?’ ” Gene Gates says. “Sure, there are days we step on each other’s last nerve. But there’s nothing better than working with the love of your life.”

Julie Gates admits that things weren’t so smooth at the beginning — until they decided to bring work home.

“One of the crazy things we learned is that we were having arguments in our personal lives all the time back then — just dumb stuff, like when to leave home for a meeting. But we realized that, at work, we never fought at all, and we really worked great as a team.”

So they decided to apply some of their work skills to their home life. “We have an annual meeting,” Julie Gates says. “We sit down every year around New Year’s and actually do goal-setting together.”

It may sound impersonal, Gene Gates adds, “but at work, people have meetings every week, to maintain focus. And when couples first fall in love, they do that — they talk a lot about their dreams. Somewhere along the line, that (discussion) stops, but our dreams continue to change. So even at home, you need to ask yourselves things like, do you want to retire by a certain age, have a vacation home? It’s important to be on the same page in every aspect of life.”

Separate and equal

Most successful work/life couples have found it important to create a division of labor at the office and map out specific tasks. The Gateses even wrote down job descriptions for themselves, for work and home.

“At an office, you don’t go into your co-worker’s office and start doing his work,” Julie Gates says. “So even at home, if I’m doing laundry, and he comes in and throws my jeans in with the whites and ruins everything — that doesn’t work. You need to know who does what.”

Ragu and Gita Bhargava, owners of Global Upside, a Los-Gatos based firm specializing in financing, accounting and human resources in the U.S. and India, have been married 30 years and agree on the notion of dividing labor.

“He is the CEO, and I’m very good with details, and I deal with customers in India,” Gita Bhargava says. “But it’s not about titles, it’s about making it work.”

The Bhargavas have an interesting perspective, because their marriage was arranged by their families. “Even after 30 years, we learn about each other every day anyway, there’s always something new,” Gita

Bhargava says. “There are times when things are very stressful, but you learn how each other will react.

“My husband is very reserved, and I talk a lot, so he gets to know exactly what’s on my mind,” she says, chuckling. “And I know, if something’s stressful and I say something to Ragu and then have to say it twice and I’m not getting an answer, I’ll walk away and give him some time.”

Debbie and David Shahvar were both employed in the restaurant industry when they married 31 years ago. They started the Bay Area’s Buttercup Grill & Bar restaurant chain in 1988. Now all three of their grown children work in the family business, too.

“You can’t be vague about roles,” Debbie Shahvar says. “(David) runs the business side, and I develop the menu items. We sit down all together, have lunch together.”

Adds David Shahvar :”We’re all dedicated to the success of the business and the family — it’s a big part of what binds us together as a couple. Of course, it’s not all rosy. Sometimes she makes me taste her new recipes, and that makes me gain some weight.”

Me and you time

The Welkes have found it helpful to drive to work in separate cars, not only for some private time but because they often meet with clients in different place during the day. They also try to have a monthly date night.

“In many ways, (working together) has strengthened things at home,” Todd Welke says. “When we had separate jobs, it was a time-demand thing, and we didn’t have a much time together.”

Every couple has to negotiate on the aspect of alone time, Julie Gates says. “Each relationship is different. Some people are like mashed potatoes, and can be together constantly and love it. Some, maybe it helps for one to take a walk in the evening. You have to work it out. Not one size fits all.”

To be sure, couples with separate high-powered careers and family responsibilities often end up not seeing each other much at all. Gene Gates says it didn’t used to be that way. “Humans lived in villages, saw everyone all the time, we lived together, hunted and gathered together.

“Part of the problem in society right now is that we’re not together enough,” he says.

Boundaries are needed, however, or work can overwhelm home, the Bhargavas say.

“It’s very easy to get your personal life taken over by the work life,” Ragu Bhargava says. “Before we all go out for dinner, our children will say, ‘Mom, Dad. Stop. This is time for dinner, not work discussions, please.’ ”

In the same vein, the Shahvars try to keep home life from taking over work. “Like any couple, we fight, we argue, we shout. But not at work,” David Shahvar says. “We don’t allow it to carry over.

“We have this philosophy,” he adds, “that where there’s love, everything works out.”

Follow Angela Hill at, or read her Sunday Give ‘Em Hill column.


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