By combining business and marriage, these creative couples take the meaning of partnership to the next level. How do they make it work?
In February of 2014 Toc Toc Communications founder Caroline Desautels (above right) welcomed a new business partner to her Montreal firm. It was someone she knew pretty well—Arnaud Lavenue (above left), her husband of 10 years. Desautels had been searching for “the right fit” for her 20-year-old business for some time, to no avail. The answer, however, had been staring her in the face for years when she came from work: Lavenue, who always gave good advice when she came to him with work issues; Lavenue, who had strong business sense but also an appreciative eye for design and experience in marketing; Lavenue, who was already facing a major crossroads in his career that would no doubt greatly impact the couple’s marriage.
With 15 years of business experience in the pharmaceutical industry, Lavenue was steadily rising through the ranks at Pfizer. In 2013, the pharma giant tapped him for a key leadership position in New York City. Lavenue was managing billions of dollars in revenue and had hundreds of people reporting to him. He managed a marketing team that stretched over 70 countries.
He was also 500 km away from his wife.
“We didn’t see each other very much because of that,” says Desautels. “Our discussions were only regarding work, and we forgot about ourselves and what we wanted to be as a couple.” As well, Lavenue was wondering if hunkering at Pfizer meant closing the door on him ever getting to be his own boss. “I thought that if I continued at Pfizer I would [be there for] another 10 years. And then I would just be a corporate leader,” he recalls. Despite the perks of being a high-level player at a major blue chip, “I have to be honest with you, you don’t control your future very much,” he says. Since the day they starting dating, it was clear that both Desautels and Lavenue shared a streak of independence—giving up control of their lives was never in the cards.
Desautels and Lavenue first met in 2002 in a strictly professional matter. Lavenue was working at Fournier Pharma and sought Toc Toc’s expertise for a packaging project. “We were very focused. Even though Arnaud was very charming, we were more interested in designing the job,” remembers Desautels. That was that, handshake, good job. But then, two years later, they ran into each other again at a wedding. Two months after that, they went on their first date. The city was in the midst of a January snowstorm, but—again—that wouldn’t stop them.
Although the streets were being buried under layers of winter white, Lavenue says “it was actually very nice,” likening the landscape of a freshly frozen Old Montreal to a scene in a movie. “We were the only ones there,” says Desautels, the romantic streets empty as locals sought shelter from the cold. The soon-to-be couple wandered through the district like they were the only two people left in the world.
Designedge: How did you know she was the one?
Desautels: That’s a good question! Arnaud?
Lavenue: When we met, what I loved from Caroline was that she—first of all, she was a businesswoman, she has that drive. I found that she was very independent. I am as well. And obviously, she’s cute [laughs].
In 2006, the knot was tied. Their Montreal wedding (they had a second in France) was yet another example of their inclination to do things their own way. For the location, they chose a seldom-visited tower in a Montreal park. An old water tank, nothing grand, but entirely romantic in the end. Lavenue’s parents, from France, were initially quite unimpressed. But once the couple completed their décor plans, designed over a couple of months from scratch and bathed in a sea of candlelight, attendees couldn’t believe their eyes. (The couple hears that the location’s owner has since used their wedding photos to help with promotion—the spot now regularly serves as a location for TV shows.) “That is the beauty of design,” says Lavenue.
Despite being the “money guy,” the stereotypical arch-nemesis of creators everywhere, Lavenue’s regard for design is a big reason why the partnership works as well as it does. “Arnaud is very sensitive about design. He likes beautiful things,” says Desautels. Similarly, although she is the de facto creative in the relationship, Desautels respects strategy and even went to business school after years of seeing spreadsheets and number crunching as her weakness. “Good designers are mostly bad entrepreneurs,” she laughs.
Aside from being able to spend more time together as a couple, joining forces at Toc Toc has enabled each to push forward with their respective career goals. “When I was a kid I was a big fan of advertising and I always thought I would have an ad agency,” Lavenue says. “Interestingly enough, I also found my soulmate.”
unlike the Toc Toc team, Barbara Woolley and Bob Hambly were partners and spouses since the start of their business. When Hambly & Woolley launched in Toronto in 1990, the two had already been married for four years. A risky venture? “We said to each other in the beginning that if the business affected our marriage, we’d be out of the business,” Woolley says.
In 1983 Woolley was working at Saturday Night Publications, her first design job. One day a certain illustrator came in to submit some sketches. “It was love at first sight,” she says. Hambly agrees: he was so struck by the young art director that he forgot to leave his drawings with her. “I couldn’t do my layout,” laughs Woolley. She called him up on the phone. “I said, ‘You walked away with my sketches!’ And then he said, ‘Do you want to go for lunch?’”
The seed for starting the business was planted years later by a mutual friend, Roger Martin (who would go on to become dean of the Rotman School of Management). On their frequent drives up to cottage country, Martin liked to pepper his friends with questions. “I think he was trying to figure out what our thinking process was,” Woolley says. The more they talked, the more Martin suggested that Hambly and Woolley should start a business.
By this time Woolley was working at a design firm and would often talk shop with Hambly at the end of the day. Hambly was working freelance as an illustrator, always plugging away at home, alone. “As Barb liked to say, I got excited when the FedEx guy came to the house,” he laughs. “[Barb] would come home and I would get curious about what she was doing at work—what a new project might be, what stage it was at. Often we’d sit and discuss [the projects], and I really enjoyed that.”
Hambly & Woolley launched in the thick of the Mulroney/Bush recession years. Ill advised, perhaps, but the rocky economy meant the couple learned right away to mind their money and set themselves apart from the competition. As well, Hambly’s background as a freelance illustrator meant he was already used to cold calling and door knocking. “It wasn’t intimidating,” he says. “With hard work and a bit of luck, it gained momentum reasonably quickly.”
While Toc Toc’s principals, on the surface at least, sit on opposite ends of the “design business” paradigm, both Woolley and Hambly brought a creative background to the table. There were notable differences, however. Woolley’s agency background gave her more experience working with clients as well as suppliers. For Hambly, transitioning from a team of one, it was a new world. “I learned that I wasn’t so hot at some of the things I thought I was,” he admits.
Hambly: Clearly, I needed to work on [those things]. And I’m a bit of a—stubborn? Well, I don’t know if I’m stubborn—
Woolley: [Jokingly] We both kind of are!
Woolley: But, you know, we had to figure out how to work together. There’s always got to be some admission that somebody’s idea might be better than the other’s. And that—
Hambly: —Or, when you’re approaching a client or situation, and you could have approached it a better way. I guess we were always open to learning and trying something new. And to be honest, doing it together made it easier and fun.
“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” says Woolley about dishing out critiques. “And sometimes we get short with each other…but I think what you have to learn is that you can’t take it personally—that the other person is just passionate about doing the right job for the client.” They acknowledge when an idea isn’t strong, and work together to make it better, explains Hambly.
Putting it all in perspective, it’s easy to see the intimacy and pervasiveness of the couple’s ongoing collaboration. Hambly and Woolley have not only built a marriage going 28 years strong and a well-known design studio that thrives off word of mouth referrals, they’ve raised a bright young daughter, and recently worked with architect Cindy Rendely to erect a country getaway. “We both love interior design,” Woolley enthuses. They have, quite literally, built a home together.
Vida Jurcic and Dean Ponto, partners and co-creative directors at Hangar 18 in Vancouver, are quite the opposite. Professionally speaking, Ponto joined Jurcic’s firm early last year; personally speaking, the two fiancées recently moved in together. They got engaged in 2012. “We’re playing it by ear,” Jurcic laughs. “Basically, we’re sort of busy running a business. We have no time to plan a wedding!”
Whereas Hambly and Woolley have seemingly long ago cleared any kinks in their working relationship, Jurcic and Ponto are still having fun figuring it out. Both are teachers, so critiquing comes naturally. Each laughs knowingly when the topic gets breached.
Jurcic: As human beings we sometimes fall in love with our own ideas, and I think both Dean and I have been guilty of that. So we have to be gentle when giving feedback [laughs], give good rationale…
Ponto: Yeah. I find myself every once in awhile saying, “Well, you asked for my opinion.” [laughs]
Jurcic: I know! I know. I get defensive sometimes [laughs].
Ponto: You’ll get defensive—
Jurcic: And then I’ll think, oh god, he’s right!
Once upon a time, Jurcic fired Ponto. As Ponto jokes about now, it was a true test of the relationship.
When they met nearly 20 years ago Jurcic’s first impression was “Boy, does he talk a lot!” The two got along but it never crossed their minds that they might one day date. At the time, Ponto worked at BBDO; Jurcic and her former Hangar 18 business partner sought out the ad agency for a meeting and ended up helping with its direct mail and print collateral work since Ponto’s team specialized in television.
They crossed paths again at a business seminar, around a decade ago now, and had coffee. Then, four years later, the roles of their initial meeting reversed as Ponto came knocking at Hangar 18, wondering if any freelance video work was available. “We had a long, extended meeting. We talked about cats of all things.” And that’s how the flame finally lit. That Friday, they went on a date to see Slumdog Millionaire.
Ponto worked for Hangar 18 for a bit until the advertising work started drying up. Although they were involved, the studio couldn’t afford to keep him. “It always hurts whenever that happens,” says Ponto. “But I knew that there were personal things [between us] that were much bigger than just business.” When Jurcic’s business partner Nigel Yonge decided to step down, it was Yonge that suggested Ponto return as partner.
“I had seen other couples that run businesses together,” says Jurcic. “I think it’s actually a good thing, because you understand each other.” Of the broken relationships she’s seen among designers, she feels the majority are among those who married people outside of the profession. “It seems that you almost have to find a partner that really is either in the industry, or related somehow. I couldn’t see myself with an accountant or a doctor,” she says.
Relationship experts advise that couples who run businesses together make efforts to turn off the work talk at the end of the day. But for creatives like Jurcic and Ponto, the job is more than a job—creativity seeps into their every move. “Whenever we travel, whenever
we walk down the street, we look through the lens of each other’s eyes,” says Ponto. Together, they’ll stare at sunlight hitting a fern, or mist cloaking a building top. They get excited over interesting signage and tag-team the crude design of uninspiring menus. “Just like little kids,” they say.
Even their respective cats, who are now forced to live with each other, are described as an interesting visual exercise. “They’re polar opposites,” says Ponto. “The cats that I brought in are kind of mute and they’re big, they look like polar bears and they have very giant paws. Her cat is very elegant and sleek. So, design-wise, they come from two different worlds,” he says. It doesn’t mean they’re not perfectly matched.
This article was originally published in the January/February 2015 issue of Designedge Canada magazine.