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Married To The Job: Business-owner Couples Navigate Working Together

By Jenny Callison, posted Jan 20, 2023
Mary Dickerson began working with her husband, Cedric Dickerson, in his State Farm Insurance agency in Wilmington in 2008 after she had retired from teaching. Cedric Dickerson has been a State Farm agent serving the Wilmington community for 30 years.

Tell friends that you and your spouse are planning to start a business together, and they might set the red flags flying. 

But despite potential pitfalls, it’s estimated that about 1.4 million U.S. businesses are jointly owned and operated by married couples, who have to make all that togetherness work.

“People have made comments: ‘This is amazing! You go to work together every day,’’” said Cedric Dickerson of his State Farm Insurance agency, where his wife, Mary, is an anchor. “We never had that issue: We enjoy each other’s company. She’s very even-keel; she listens and tries to help solve problems. Since she’s been married to me for 45 years, she’s had a lot of practice.” 

A sense of humor is important, according to the Dickersons.

“We do laugh a lot; people in the office think we’re funny,” Mary Dickerson said. 

Cedric Dickerson opened his insurance agency in 1993, when his wife was a special education teacher.

“It was not her intent to be part of the office,” he said, “but we had a staffing crisis in 2008 [after Mary Dickerson retired]. She came in part time, and I never let her leave. She’s now full time.”

Over the years, their respective roles have evolved. Although Cedric Dickerson is the company’s owner, the two operate day-to-day as partners.

“I am the agent and somewhat have the final word, but when Mary brings me something, she pretty much has it figured out,” Cedric Dickerson said. “If I have something else to add, I add it. We pretty much can work through everything. I enjoy having her here because I know she has my back.”

The role of “Ms. Mary” – as she’s known to clients – has grown since she stepped in to help out with filing during that difficult time.  

“She’s a licensed agent, and she’s the go-to person who’s on a first-name basis with our underwriters,” Cedric Dickerson said. “She does a little bit of everything; she even knows what everybody in the office likes for breakfast and brings in breakfast two or three times a week.”

“Ms. Mary” is also the calm voice on the phone, explaining the complexities of insurance coverage to clients, who are sometimes angry or frustrated.

“My teaching experience helps me with problem-solving and understanding why people have the questions they have,” she said. “I tell them the way it is; I can’t change State Farm rules.”

Her presence at the agency allows Cedrick Dickerson to be away from the office for various civic responsibilities.  

“Some folks used to say, ‘It’s not final until I hear from Cedric,’” Cedric Dickerson said. “Now, it’s ‘I talked to Mary; it’s good.’”

Playing to strengths

Ross and Christina Terry are at the beginning of their joint entrepreneurship journey. Both physical therapists, they launched Healthy Seniors, an older-adult-focused clinic, in July 2020. 

“It’s for the active senior as well as the senior who has to come in in a wheelchair,” Ross Terry said.

Like the Dickersons, the couple emphasizes the importance of enjoying each other’s company and valuing their contributions.

The two met while working together in a nursing home and started dating and exercising together. They missed the shared work experience when one of them took another job.

“So, when this idea of starting a clinic came up, we asked ourselves, ‘Can we do this?’” Ross Terry said. “We have [married] friends that enjoy separateness.”

With their experience helping older adults recover physical strength and function, developing a practice that would specialize in geriatric patients was a natural decision. They knew they liked being around each other all day. But how would they divide up the business responsibilities? In creating their business plan, the Terrys discussed their respective abilities and interests.

“We play to our strengths,” said Christina Terry. “I’m more the management, at work and at home. I think through things, but I am a go-getter. When we delegate tasks, Ross is the social one with most responsibility for keeping everything together with regard to our patients and interactions with them. I keep things together with the accounting and billing.”

Ross Terry is also the clinic’s social media manager, updating pages and responding to inquiries that come through the website. He’s also hands-on, cleaning the clinic on weekends since Healthy Seniors doesn’t yet employ a professional cleaning service.

“We have to check in with each other to make sure we’re not getting overwhelmed,” he said.

Getting overwhelmed with the challenges of growing a business is easy enough but added to those are the family responsibilities the Terrys share, with a 3-year-old and a 4-month-old at home. Luckily, Ross Terry’s parents live around the corner and can help out. 

Because their business is relatively young, the Terrys say they need to discuss some business matters at home. But when they go on a date night, business talk is not allowed.

Shared values

Opening Chicken Salad Chick at Wilmington’s The Forum in 2019 was Shane and Haley Pinder’s second venture into shared business ownership. It’s going well enough that the Pinders are preparing to launch a second location in Leland this March. This is in addition to ensuring a nurturing family life for their children, ages 17 and 7.

The Pinders, who have been married for 22 years, first joined forces to run team volleyball camps in their native Virginia, but they knew each other’s MOs before that.

“Each of us had a professional career, and we were able to watch each other work from a distance,” Shane Pinder said. “As we got into the camp business, we knew how we interacted with people and how we got things done. That has moved on into how we do business today. It has reconfirmed our trust in each other, knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses and allowing each of us to play to our strengths and to have the floor when we need to have it.”

For the volleyball camps to be successful, the Pinders had to not only manage their own staffers but also navigate the personalities and expectations of coaches and team members. 

“It’s much like operating Chicken Salad Chick, where we have roughly 30 employees and the management team. We’re very customer-driven,” Haley Pinder said. “We always try to think like a customer so we can give them the best experience.”

The Pinders share three guiding principles for their business: to spread joy, enrich lives and serve others. To follow these principles, they clearly define their respective roles. Shane Pinder, according to his wife, is extremely organized and process-driven, following through with every detail and communicating clearly to members of the team.

Haley Pinder, according to her husband, is a people person and a connector who builds relationships.

“When we looked at this [Chicken Salad Chick] opportunity, we knew that one side is the back of the house, the heartbeat: That leads to me,” Shane Pinder said. “The relational piece: Employees feeling special, facilitating meetings and handling confrontation without being confrontational, that’s Haley. It has helped us retain employees. Now that we’re owners, one of the things we wanted to look at is how you make people feel valued.”

That extends to the home front: The Pinders say they always prioritize their children and their needs. Haley Pinder said, “They didn’t buy the business; we did.”

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