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The end of a marriage doesn't have to spell the death of a business partnership. In the seven years since Carol and Peter Bass divorced, their Maine Cottage Furniture company in Yarmouth, Me., has expanded from 20 to 55 employees and reached record sales last year of $7.6 million.
Although they were barely speaking when they split up after 23 years of marriage, the couple realized there was too much at stake to let the business founder. For one thing, they had taken investments from family and friends whom they didn't dare let down. So they decided to carry on in their respective roles, with Peter as managing director and Carol as creative director.
To manage their frazzled emotions after the divorce, they communicated mostly by e-mail and kept their distance from each other: Carol stayed mainly in the retail store, and Peter worked a mile away at the production facility. "I don't know how well I could have handled it if we had been running into each other in the hallways all day," Carol remarks. Still, once a day they had to eyeball each other at the staff meeting. "Our motto was, `If you can fake it, you can make it,"' says Peter. "We were determined to act cordial to each other for the sake of the employees. After awhile, it became a habit, and eventually, the feeling matched the behavior."
Once their separation was official, the Basses immediately called a joint staff meeting to reassure employees their jobs were secure and that the company would continue to expand. To keep the staffers, many of whom were their friends, from choosing sides, the Basses took another important step: "We decided that, until tensions subsided, the sales staff who used to work for Carol and the manufacturing employees who worked for Peter would report to me instead," says general manager David Petersen, who was sales manager back then.
It was the kind of calm, levelheaded decision Peter and Carol found difficult in their relationship. "We'd probably still be married if we hadn't gone into business together," says Carol. Adds Peter: "I think we used up our emotional capital. You build up goodwill as a couple during the fun times and expend it during times of stress. We had nothing but stress." So much stress that Peter urges married couples not to become business partners. Ironically, last year Peter ignored his own advice and married Maine Cottage's sales manager. But he has learned from his mistakes, he says. "At 5 p.m., we walk out of the office and ban all talk of business, no matter what has gone on that day."
Since Paul's remarriage, Carol has resigned as creative director to write and illustrate children's books, but retains her 25% stake and her seat on the board. "I feel I still have his ear," says Carol. Just last month during a catalog photo shoot, she told Peter a new couch style was a little too puffy. Immediately, he ordered the back cushions replaced. Apparently, the Basses' mutual respect--and their furniture's good design--give this company its sturdy legs to stand on. By Molly Gordy