A Perfect Blendship
After 20 years, these co-executives remain partners and best friends in work and in life
I have always viewed business partnership as an unstable chemical compound -- at best. Stir in friendship, and you surely would have an explosion. Then I met Gail Tessler and Norma Menkin, best buds for over two decades and, for more than 16 years, co-presidents of Gainor Staffing (as in Gail and Norma), now a 20-employee, $10-million temporary and permanent staffing firm in New York City.
Gail, 46, and Norma, 48, often wonder if they were sisters in another life. In this one, they've been maids of honor at each other's weddings and godmothers to each other's children. Together they've survived recessions, chicken pox, pregnancies, and unhappy dealings with silent partners they eventually bought out.
This tender tale starts in 1977. Gail, a recent college grad, answered a help-wanted ad from Norma, a former teacher and newly minted manager at a New York staffing firm. It was friendship at first sight, almost. Norma initially mistook Gail for a secretarial applicant and asked if she could type. "I said, 'Type? I just got out of college,'" recalls Gail. Norma called Gail at home repeatedly to apologize and wound up hiring her. Within a month, Gail had become a manager, too, and soon they were supervising 70 people between them. They roomed together; they took classes together; they planned their weddings.
WELL-CONCEIVED. In June, 1982, the duo started Gainor. "The business was founded with the understanding that we were going to each try to have at least two children," says Norma. So the partners made a striking pact: They resolved to take turns having babies. "Norma went first because she was older," says Gail, as if nothing could be more fair.
This well-conceived plan easily could have failed. "Fortunately, the stars were in the right place," says Norma. Over a six-year period, they each had two babies, at perfectly alternating 18-month intervals. "For a while, every time we had a meeting with the bank, one of us would be pregnant," says Norma. The money men may have looked askance at this nonstop fertility, but Gail and Norma made it work. They took a six-month maternity leave with each child and overlapped at work so the transitions were smooth. For a while, Gail contemplated having a third child and staying home permanently. Norma was distraught. She couldn't go on without Gail.
But they have gone on -- together. To this day, they remain virtually interchangeable in dealing with each other's kids, the clients, and employees. (Indeed, an assistant leaves me a message from "Normagail" before he laughingly corrects himself.) And they keep on juggling, like circus pros, accepting the fact that family concerns will compete for their attention, whether it's arranging summer camp or attending a school play. "When we do the to-do list for a regular ordinary day," says Norma, "it's one part business and one part personal."
COMPLEMENTS. Norma and Gail can finish each other's sentences, but they're hardly clones. Norma is happiest schmoozing with clients, making speeches, and concocting big-picture strategies. Gail would just as soon curl up with a good spreadsheet. Those personality differences cause occasional sparks -- as when they labored over a new sales brochure. "The brochure became such a tedious thing," says Norma. "I didn't want to deal with it anymore. I wanted to go on to something else." Gail's insistence on perfection prevailed. "We've always been very up-front," says Gail. "We can yell and scream and disagree on a business level and not take it personally."
Granted, such a partnership is rare. It seems to be the product of some uncommon planetary alignment. Years ago, when Norma was a teacher, she impulsively visited a gypsy to talk about her love life. The gypsy peered into the tea leaves and saw something else.
"She said, 'You are going to be in a business which you know nothing about right now. You are going to be very successful and make a lot of money,'" Norma laughs. Curiously, this happened at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue -- Gainor's present-day location. "Maybe it was fate, after all. I've never had this with anyone else in my life," Norma says. "This has always worked. It can't be questioned," chimes in Gail. "It's just perfect. It just is." Whatever it is, it's a priceless asset -- and an inspiration to cynics like me.
By Robin D. Schatz
This article was originally published in the Mar. 1, 1999 print edition of Business Week's Enterprise.