Brand building through storytelling

Working for the wife

Maureen Robinson had another big idea: single-serving birthday cake in a jar. The creative brain behind Milsean Chocolates of Aldergrove, B.C., she’d already dreamed up nearly 60 confections, from s’mores with homemade marshmallows to award-winning butter crunch. But before she took her latest brainwave to the market, she had to sell her right hand man. And he wasn’t buying. True to form, he just had to make sure that the boss’s big idea was not a big flop. Could Milsean sell enough cakes to justify the cost of the launch? Could the production line deliver and still meet demand for butter crunch? A bank manager could not have grilled her harder than her very own numbers guy, whom she affectionately calls “Ol’ Blue Eyes”—Rob Robinson, her high-school sweetheart and husband of 27 years. “He makes me do my homework,” she says. “It’s annoying and frustrating sometimes. But at the end of the day, everything’s better because of him. How can I complain about that?”

When the bottled birthday cake went to market last year, it was featured in theVancouver Sun and snapped by consumers hungry for novelty. Milsean, whose name means “sweet things” in Gaelic, had proven once again that Maureen’s imagination and Rob’s bottom-line rigor go together like hazelnuts and Belgian chocolate. On financial matters, she answers to him. But make no mistake: Milsean is hers, a passion ever since she started making butter crunch part-time back in 1991, when she had two children at home and a part-time catering business. The candy, a just-for-fun sideline, sold so fast that she made it her focus. Now she sells hundreds of thousands of boxes every year through her own gift shop or by mail. Sometimes Rob speculates about packing it in to start another business or travel. But Maureen, at 46, sees many years ahead for making treats. “I can’t imagine selling my baby,” she says.

In old-school family businesses, pop ran the show while mom tended the books and files. No matter how much troubleshooting “the little woman” did behind the scenes, her husband was the public face of the enterprise. These days, women are opting to grow their own businesses rather than baby-sit their husbands’. Still, every entrepreneur could use a loyal confidante whose strengths fill gaps in her own skill set. Small wonder that some are turning to their husbands for the kind of help that money can’t buy. Observes Barbara Moses, a Toronto psychologist and author who interviewed hundreds of business women for her recent book Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth about Work, Relationships and the Rest of Life, “A lot of women say, ‘Who can I trust but my husband? With him I’m not going to be ripped off.'”

When Judy Pigott of Duncan, B.C., set out to launch Udder Guy’s Ice Cream, she ran into trouble with her first recipe: the perfect, all-natural vanilla. “If you can make vanilla, you can make anything,” says the former college teacher, who never guessed that making ice cream “was this massive chemistry thing.” Someone had to do serious research, and she knew who that someone would be–husband Yves Muselle, a retired hotelier and restaurateur with time on his hands. “I said, ‘You’ve got to get on the Net and learn all about sugar and cream. Every single day we went to a greasy spoon, me with my notebook and calculator, and we’d work on our formula.” Seven months passed before they finally got it right in 2000. The quest hooked Judy on inventing new flavors and Yves on supporting her obsession. Now Udder Guy’s is touted by a Lonely Planet travel guide, which calls it the best ice cream on the west coast. Fans can buy it at more than 100 food stores in B.C. or at the Udder Guy’s ice cream parlor in Cowichan Lake, where Yves fills the cones and kibitzes with customers (he also did the painting and decorating).

Barbara Moses has seen mixed emotions among entrepreneurs who bring retired husbands on board. In cases where “retired” means pushed out or passed over, the husband’s sense of loss and diminution can unsettle a wife who’s bursting with ambition-and who misses being part of a dynamic, two-career couple. How this drama plays out “will have a lot to do with the woman’s psychological maturity and the degree to which her identity is tied to the status of her husband.” Luckily, Judy Pigott, felt no need for Yves to be a player. “He does exactly what I tell him to do,” she says. “He’s quite content to spend hours at that. He’s calm; I’m wired all the time. I get really bored if I don’t have something to challenge me.”

Yves Muselle never planned to join the ice cream business. Judy’s enthusiasm seduced him by degrees, a common pattern among around men who work for their wives. The recruitment is a lot like romance: one night he leaves his toothbrush at your place; next thing you know, you’re sharing the closet and making room for his golf clubs.

The Robinsons have been there. When Maureen’s butter crunch sales began to take off, Rob was a self-employed painter and sandblaster of heavy-duty logging equipment. Her busy season, fall, coincided with his down time. She needed a machine to wrap candy and wasn’t sure what to look for. He seized the chance to go shopping for a “cool, different” piece of equipment. Meanwhile, he was becoming disenchanted with his own business, which exposed him to toxic fumes. Soon enough, he was working for his wife as the equipment guy, the purchasing guy, the numbers guy and the maintenance guy. “That wrapping machine only works for him,” says Maureen, who has a staff of 25. “We like to joke that it’s a woman and she’s in love with Rob.” The biggest joke at Milsean goes back to its conception, when Rob, in full skeptical flight, exclaimed to Maureen, “Not another of your ideas!”

In a more typical scenario, it’s the husband’s unstinting encouragement that pulls him into her business. Just ask Lorraine Green of Oakville, Ont., who quit her management job at the Royal Bank to pursue her midlife dream of starting a catering company. Husband Rod was the only one to cheer her on. He helped her rent premises, built work tables, hand-delivered flyers and peeled baby carrots-all on top of his own management job at the bank. After work, he’d put on an apron and fill orders, greeting customers with a cheerful, “Hi! I’m Mr. Lorraine.”

Last winter at age 59, after 20 years of lifting heavy pots and spending long hours on her feet, Lorraine gave up catering for a less demanding business-cooking parties in clients’ homes. Her new venture, At Lorraine’s Table, needs less help from Rod, yet he’s still known around Oakville as “Mr. Lorraine.” The moniker makes them both smile. As she explains, “Some guys might pooh-pooh it but he was so proud of what I’d build from scratch. When I went out on my own, people said, ‘You’ll never make it.’ But he’s always believed in me.” Now there’s a star named Mr. Lorraine in his honor.

For Paul Charters, who teaches Pilates at his wife Evelyn’s studio in Richmond Hill, Ont., a muscle spasm triggered an unlikely career shift. After more than three decades teaching phys ed and pumping iron in the gym, he was initially baffled by the subtle exercises his wife taught. Then one morning he woke up with a spasm in his back. “I spent 10 minutes getting him to release,” Evelyn says. “He stood up and said, ‘What the hell did you do?’ He realized there was something to this stuff.”

His epiphany was perfectly timed: Evelyn was run off her feet teaching classes wherever she could find a space. Paul took a Pilates workshop and began to pick up the slack. As his interest grew, so did her commitment to founding her own studio. She brought two teachers from England to train Evelyn, Paul and 10 other teachers in a Pilates method called Body Control. That same year, 2003, he retired from the job that had rewarded and defined him. The pair live on a 25-acre property, lush with trees and perennial gardens, but Paul needed a focus besides pruning and mowing. He found it in teaching Pilates. “It takes courage to leave at the pinnacle of your career and start at the bottom of something else. He almost had to let go of all his other knowledge,” says Evelyn with obvious admiration.

The couple has now been working together for more than five years. They teach in their home, which once belonged to Evelyn’s parents. In fact, the basement studio used to be the rec room where Evelyn and Paul held their wedding reception back in 1973. (It’s also the ideal spot for playing ball with their toddler grandson.) Students appreciate their complementary teaching styles—her fluidity, his technical focus. “I have to tell him he’s better than he thinks he is,” says Evelyn of Paul.

When it comes to the finances, they’ve had their moments. As Evelyn puts it, “Sometimes the way I run my business takes him out of his comfort zone. In my mind I intuitively know where we are financially and I have a sense of when we need to rein in a little bit. He’s more organized. He needs to know where we are on paper.” Yet she wouldn’t have it any other way. “He’s been my anchor and I try to keep him lifted.”

At Milsean Chocolates, Maureen Robinson makes a similar comment about Rob. “I couldn’t have done any of this without what he contributes. I don’t have the patience for numbers. Because he does, I can focus on coming up with neat things to do.” She’s already mulling her next idea: a celebration cake in a jar, suitable for any occasion from anniversaries to promotions. All she has to do is put a new cardboard sleeve on the birthday cake. Oh, and one other thing—convince Ol’ Blue Eyes that she has another winner.

First published in More (Canadian edition), February/March 2008, in slightly shorter form. Copyright by Rona Maynard.

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