We found the secret of working and living together
Could you work with your other half? Lee Henry talks to three NI partners who do just that in a bid to find out if being Mr and Mrs in the office or factory is a labour of love.
Edmund Hourican and Maureen Ledwith — the hard-working husband and wife team behind the Belfast Telegraph Holiday World Show, a jammed-packed travel expo which celebrates 25 years of exhibiting in Belfast this year by moving to the Titanic Centre and opens from tomorrow until Sunday — are the definition of “tight”.
Married in 1978, the entrepreneurial twosome still live, love and work together almost 40 years on, and aged 65 and 62 respectively, emphatically confirm that they have plenty of years left in their professional tanks yet.
Asked how other married couples might achieve a similarly productive work-life balance in their own fields of employment, Edmund answers with some solid advice. By sharing professional responsibilities, he argues, and playing to their strengths, spouses can succeed “at anything they set their minds to”.
“If you divide up the duties clearly, then you shouldn’t have any difficulties,” says the Cavan man.
“That’s easier said than done, I know, but normally couples have different skill-sets, they come from different backgrounds and have different interests, so they should be able to adjust to a working environment very easily.
“With Maureen and I at the Holiday World Show, our responsibilities were clearly delineated from the beginning. I’m an accountant by trade and worked with the multi-nationals for quite a number of years, whereas Maureen had already launched her exhibition business before we were married.
“I subsequently joined her when we began to realise the huge potential that the Holiday World Show had, and it’s been productive ever since.
Maureen works in sales and I do the rest. I’m not competing with her and she’s not competing with me. It works.”
How, then, does an average working day pan out in the Hourican-Ledwith household? Many husband and wife business teams won’t be surprised to learn, perhaps, that Edmund and Maureen thrive through separation, even rising from bed at different times of the day.
“Every morning, Maureen gets up at 6am and walks to 7.30am mass, about 25 minutes there and 25 minutes back. That’s her exercise done for the day and then she can get to work,” says Edmund.
“I, on the other hand, rise a little later. I scan the morning papers and am at my desk by 7.30am. We miss out on breakfast together, true, but we always have lunch in each other’s company, at 1pm strictly. Then we’re back to work at 1.45pm sharp.”
Although the Holiday World Show and the other complimentary businesses that the couple run together, including travel magazine Travel Extra, employ a number of people, neither of the bosses at the helm need worry about staff knocking on their doors. Years ahead of their time, the pair employed their team to work from home since the early Nineties.
“With the technology available today, that’s very easy to do,” says Edmund, “but it’s nothing new for us. We’ve long since realised the benefits of distance working, and we’re very happy with our set-up.
“Maureen and I also get on with our working day in separate offices and I think that privacy helps.
“We live in a five-bedroom house, with lots of space, so that’s an option for us, thankfully. Maureen is on the telephone all day, so it makes sense that she has her own room with all of her paperwork and communication equipment. We spend time together at night after a quick spell on the treadmill, and a quick browse through the evening papers.”
Being well into their careers, the couple are able to work in tandem without the distraction of children nipping at their heels. But when it comes to staying sane as co-workers, and switching off when the day is done, Sean and Leona McAllister rely on their brood of three to take their minds, and mouths, off the daily slog.
Founders of PlotBox, a three-in-one software solution for cemeteries and crematoria, the McAllisters built their award-winning business at the same time as raising their young family in Portglenone. Leona, the 35-year-old chief commercial officer with PlotBox, has found that kids, in fact, can ultimately help the wheels of commerce turn even more smoothly.
“Since we launched in 2011, it’s been a busy few years, and a noisy few years, but it’s been fun,” says Leona. “PlotBox has really taken off for us, and we regularly travel to the States, for example, to attend conferences and meetings with investors and clients, but we love coming back home to be with the kids, May (7), Cian (6) and Ryan (4).
“It’s hard to leave them. Having to organise childcare can be difficult,” she adds. “It’s a lot of pressure on our extended family when we’re away. But these are the sacrifices that we have to make as our business moves from the start-up to the scale-up phase.
“Although we’re spinning a lot plates, we see the kids as a Godsend after a long, hard day at the office, because as soon as we start to talk about work when we’re at home, they start to act up, and definitely that’s a good thing. They help us to switch off in the evening. If we didn’t have kids, there would be the temptation to talk shop all the time, and in the end, our work might consume us. We work hard to drive the business forward, but there are other important things in our lives.”
In Claudy, Co Londonderry, meanwhile, parents and business owners Kevin and Julie Hickey founded Tamnagh Foods, supplying cheese and chutneys to big name stores like Harrods, primarily as a means of spending more time with each other.
Having experienced the immense pressures that come with running a restaurant, both financial and personal, the Hickeys decided to shut up shop in search of a more even work-life balance.
Julie, who originally hails from Boston, reveals that the day-to-day struggles of keeping the now defunct Gravy restaurant afloat in the end proved too much, despite it being a lifelong ambition of hers to serve her own customers.
“It was really difficult, mainly because the restaurant was too small. We could only welcome so many patrons inside at a time and so had to work extra hard to make ends meet,” she says.
“In the end, both Kevin and I worked entirely separate shifts, me during the day and Kevin and night, and we never managed to see one another.
“We weren’t happy, it’s not what we envisaged when we opened the restaurant, so we closed and started to think about a production business that might enable us to live and work together the way we wanted to. We dreamed of creating something that would give us a little more flexibility.”
Nowadays, Julie and Kevin work when they want to, and in close proximity on the family plot to boot, where the Tamnagh Foods production houses are located. They get to spend plenty of quality time with their kids — Tom, Mia, Donal and Maeve — who have shown an interest in the “art” of cheese-making. Yet, perhaps more importantly, they get to spend quality time as a working husband and wife.
“It’s a total turnaround for us, and we thoroughly enjoy working together,” says 46-year-old Julie, who moved to Northern Ireland to marry her Derry husband after they met while studying at Queen’s University. “It’s a tough job, supplying so many products to so many businesses, especially with it being just the two of us at this stage, no other employees, but we complement each other, and that’s very gratifying.
“We have the space that we always wanted, though there are limits,” she adds. “The idea of a date night, for example, might involve both of us scrubbing the cheese room floor or deciding to repaint the outside of the food unit, but we’re lucky in that we love what we do.”
In summation, then, it seems that the recipe for success for husband and wife professional teams is different for every couple. It needs tweaking here and there, and there will be lots of cons to every pro, but with hard work, determination, compromise and, crucially, the support of family, friends and anyone else willing to lend a hand, it can certainly be done.
With everything often taking place within a confined space, however, Edmund believes that personality can play a big part in whether or not Mr and Mrs succeed or fail in the world of work.
“Maureen is an extrovert,” he explains. “And I’m an introvert, so, at the end of the day, we bring very different things to the business. We each enjoy our own jobs. I don’t think Maureen could do my job and I certainly couldn’t do hers, so we’ve hit on a formulae that works.”
Leona agrees, adding: “Sean and I don’t always see eye to eye, and we did struggle with that in the beginning. I hate conflict, whereas Sean thinks conflict is good, it’s constructive, and it must have been uncomfortable for people having to watch us talking over the top of one another in meetings back then. But we’ve learned about the ways in which we communicate with each other and that in turn has taught us to accept each other’s views.
“When it comes to your other half, that’s not always easy, I know, but in business it’s give and it’s take and in the end the rewards are there for the taking.”
- For more details about Holiday World, Titanic Exhibition Centre, Belfast, tomorrow until Sunday, visit holidayworldshow.com