Making a Partnership Work

One half of a woodshop partnership gets advice on smoothing out rough patches in the relationship. December 9, 2007

I've had a partner since 2000 and we are the best of friends. But we find ourselves butting heads far too much on all kinds of things. Dissolving the partnership is not an option. What are you doing in your partnership that makes it possible to not butt heads so often?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor D:
Renew your vows. Divide and define your responsibilities. If it is not clear to you, imagine what your employees are thinking every minute of every day (assuming there are employees). Even worse, if your suppliers or customers sense the problem. If you are not working together toward an end, you have to change. If you can't find a way to make it work, dissolving the partnership is the only option. Your accountant could make a good marriage counselor.

From contributor W:
Contributor D gives good advice. I would add that if you are a business owner, you are working toward a common goal. Too many times we lose sight of that goal when we are in the daily grind. The two of you need to take a day off away from the shop in a relaxed setting to discuss short and long term company goals and redefine what each of your responsibilities are. Once you determine what your goals are, then brainstorm on how to reach them. Most times human nature takes over and we start to harp on the little things. You have to learn to let go of the petty stuff when it comes to your partner.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. I would like to fill in some of the voids for a moment. My business partner has been in the cabinetmaking industry for well over 20 years. I started out as a painting contractor with about 16 years experience in the industry. I started finishing all of his cabinet work in the early 90's and by the mid 90's, I decided to hang up the paintbrush and become his apprentice. By the year 2000 we decided to start a new company as a partnership and we've been doing business as that new cabinet shop ever since.

We both had businesses before the partnership, so we both have experience in running a company, dealing with customers, etc. My biggest hang-up is that even though we are 50/50 partners, I don't feel I have 50% control over the decisions or the direction of the company. I do realize that I only have about 11 years experience in cabinetmaking now, but I also have the painting and finishing that I bring to the table.

I guess my real question is, am I the one who is creating most of the problems because I think I should have more control over things? Should I be more of a silent partner because he has far more experience in the cabinet industry than myself?

From contributor W:
If you are satisfied that the business is going in the right direction and that the correct decisions are being made, then why not let him have that responsibility? The reason for having a partner is that neither one of you was willing to go it alone. One of the biggest advantages to having a partner is not having to make every little decision. That said, you need to get together with him from time to time and discuss these things. Review your job descriptions or even write them down for the first time, if you have not done so. Not having clear cut descriptions for who is responsible for what is going to make problems between the two of you.

From contributor T:
Just having the most experience does not make someone the best manager or best anything. I don't see how any a relationship can work with it being exactly 50/50. Someone has to be in charge.

From contributor I:
Partnerships very rarely last in the long term. Mine lasted 18 years. There are always differences of views in relation to who is working more, etc. Then the spouses get involved in the mix and you have a recipe for disaster.

The advice offered here is good, but I think you need to go even further with the division of duties and responsibilities. The further you can separate yourselves in performing the daily activities, the better. You each need to be in charge of your respective areas and keep your nose out of the other's, then have formal, scheduled meetings to discuss objectives and complications.

In the long run, I would strongly suggest a clear buy/sell agreement with a shotgun clause written up by a lawyer. This will keep each of you on your toes, knowing that if things are not in the interest of either one of you, there is a simple exit procedure.

From contributor S:
I think that when you have a 50/50 partnership, you are referring to money. Dividing up of assets, etc. The every day running and decision making can never be balanced out at 50/50. You can't exactly say "hey, it's my turn to decide what to do." It may work out that because of the type of jobs you do, there is more direction toward actual cabinet work than finishing. As long as you are providing your customers with a good product and you are satisfied with that, then let the whole company do its job. Some partnerships involve a cabinetmaker and a money man. You do what you do best, and let your partner do what he does best, and everyone should be happy. If your business is failing, and you think it is a result of wrong decisions, then that is another matter. If all is going well, then carry on, because it must be working the way you have it set up.

From contributor J:
Just curious, what is the size of your company?

From contributor C:
This is a very great source of guidance for you and your partner. Read all these together. Laugh and reestablish what you like about your partner and what he brings to the table. I have been blessed with three business partners over the years, and about 40% of the time alone, except for my wife and family. My present one is the best match I could have ever found. We did extensive preparation and had deep discussions concerning all aspects of the business and its operations and finances before we signed anything. We went to a Professional Entrepreneurial Coach and had ourselves tested for compatibility and complimentary skills.

From contributor O:
Whew! I wish my father had had all this good advice forty-five years ago - maybe our family relations wouldn't have ended up shattered. And now I'm about to enter another business partnership. Sure glad I read this thread, because every word written so far is the absolute truth, and it never hurts to be reminded of the basics.

From the original questioner:
We have a small shop - 2500 sq. ft. - and it's just me and him. He does about 75% of the estimating and all of the designing. I do most of the building, except for the specialty cabinets. I do all of the finishing and we both do the installation.

From contributor Y:
My partner of many years approached me a few months ago wanting to buy me out. The valuation of the business has gone on for a long time. We have quite a few employees and having two people allowing their egos to get involved is counterproductive. You, being the painter, should be the go-to man on finishes, and he on the cabinet end. As his end is more involved, he should delegate portions to you that you both agree you are suited for, and he should stay out of those.