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WOULD YOU HIRE YOUR HUSBAND?

NINE years ago, Laura Udall noticed that her young daughter Rachel suffered back pain from lugging her books back and forth to school. Ms. Udall, a former saleswoman at AT&T, decided to develop and market a backpack light enough for children to wear safely.

Sharon DiMinico leads a staff meeting at her company, Learning Express, based in Devens, Mass. Her husband, Lou, second from left, began working for the company in the late 1980s.

She founded her own company in 2003 and hired an industrial design firm. But after growing frustrated with a lack of progress, she turned to her husband, Nick. “He is brilliant at coming up with things, so he went into the garage and came up with our first prototype for a rolling book bag,” she said.

Today, Ms. Udall, 52, is chief executive of Züca Inc., a $2 million business in Campbell, Calif., that makes luggage. Her husband works for her as vice president for design and manufacturing.

“The buck really stops at me,” she said.

Ms. Udall’s situation may be somewhat unusual, but it is hardly unique.

At a time when high-profile women have suffered some setbacks on Wall Street and when women in general still struggle for pay parity, a group of entrepreneurs has proved that women are comfortable not only with running their own companies, but also with having their husbands work for them. In addition to finding ways to work together at home, the couples have created a separate balance of power in their business relationship. And though it may help that both partners do this to enrich a family enterprise, the woman may make a conscious effort to ensure that her mate is getting appropriate recognition.

While there is no data on the number of such companies, women were the majority owners of 7.7 million privately held firms at the end of 2006, up 42.3 percent from 10 years earlier, according to the Center for Women’s Business Research.

Generally, these couples say they have made the unconventional partnerships work by carefully delineating their respective roles and playing to each other’s strengths.

“That she would be chief executive was not an issue from the get-go,” Mr. Udall said. “When I first met her, I realized thatshe was one of the best salespeople I ever saw. I come from operations and marketing.” He sensed that what the business needed at the top was someone like his wife, “a charismatic person with a vision.”

SOME family advisers say that whatever the route, the odds are loaded against couples working well together.

“I think it is far more challenging,” said Laura Colin, who ran a family business with her husband, Larry, and was co-author with him of “Family Inc.,” a study of family businesses. “Men and women are made differently, and men generally — it is the testosterone thing — they are more compelled to dominate and get credit than women are,” she said. “I think that women are more team-oriented and will try to focus on the goal.”

Carol Kotewicz-Dencker, who has worked with her husband, Gregory Dencker, for 20 years, said those challenges could be overcome.

The couple met in 1988, when Mrs. Kotewicz-Dencker put an ad in The San Francisco Chronicle to recruit someone for Renoir Staffing Services, the temp agency she built that serves the real estate management business.

She had always wanted her own business. “I was an only child,” she recalled. “I was never raised with gender standards where boys do this and girls do that. It never occurred to me that women could not go out and do the same thing as men.”

But after three years as an entrepreneur, her annual revenues were a mere $200,000. Then, she said, “I found this one guy that was really above average.”

“He had been a pool and spa contractor so he spoke the language of the people he was hiring and could supervise them,” she recalled. “So I hired him.”

His arrival freed her to focus on the company’s growth and budgeting. Five years later, they married.

Today, Mr. Dencker is chief operating officer of the business, which is based in Oakland, Calif.; it had $7 million in revenue last year, he said. His wife, the chief executive, handles sales and promotion.

The men interviewed for this article seemed comfortable working at family companies controlled by their wives, perhaps because those who agree to that arrangement are not threatened by it. It was the wives who tended to be more sensitive about the potential pitfalls of having their husbands on the payroll.

 

To read more, visit http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/29/business/29hubby.html?ref=humanresources