“Married couples who work together to build and maintain a business assume broad responsibilities,” said Melissa Bean, now a vice chairman for JP Morgan Chase, from the floor of Congress during her years as a U.S. representative from Illinois. “Not only is their work important to our local and national economies, but their success is central to the well-being of their families.”
Husbands and wives who manage businesses together while raising their families can experience special challenges as well as joys. A few entrepreneurial Legate couples recently shared a bit about what that’s like and how their Catholic faith helps them succeed at work and at home.
Keeping work and marriage ever well
Dr. Chris Zubiate was in the behavioral health field when he met his future wife, Leah, who then worked in private equity. She became involved in behavior health through a volunteer opportunity and had her “eyes opened to a new world I had never been exposed to or really thought about,” Leah recalled.
Now married with two young children, the San Francisco Legates operate Ever Well Health Systems, a network of residential treatment facilities for adults with serious mental and emotional problems. Chris is Ever Well’s president and CEO, while Leah serves as an administrator with broad oversight of the flagship facility.
In the early years, Chris and Leah commuted two hours to their first facility – sometimes separately, sometimes together. “Initially, we weren’t covering our bills, and the time away from the family filled us with doubts,” Leah remembered. “Now, looking back, our commitment to the work was never more tested.”
On the days they commuted together “our commitment to each other was strengthened,” she added. “It allowed us to be together as a couple and reflect on our purpose and our faith.”
Work-life balance remains difficult, but having two little ones keeps the home life in the forefront. “Having the flexibility to start our work days at different times, the ability to work from home, or being able to alternate ‘late days’ is incredible at this stage and a real gift,” said Leah.
The company is open 24/7, she explained, so “it’s easy to become engulfed. We have to set boundaries with ourselves to not always be talking about work. Or for me, to not get so emotionally invested.”
Competition and compromise
Drs. Frank and Cheryl Mueller met as undergrads in the pre-med program at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. “I was attracted to Cheryl not only because she was pretty and smart, but also because she came from a Catholic family with strong work ethics and strong family ties,” Frank recalled. They were married shortly before entering medical school.
Cheryl planned to go into pediatrics, but Frank convinced her to join him in family medicine. Sharing a practice, he reasoned, would facilitate coordinating parental responsibilities.
“We have been practicing family medicine together in the same office for over 30 years,” said Cheryl. “We each have our own patients, but we cover for one another and are business partners as well as life partners.”
The San Antonio Legates’ three sons are grown now, but the Muellers remember the challenges during those child-raising years. Cheryl said she and Frank agreed that at least one of them should attend every important event in their kids’ lives.
“Even though our jobs required being ‘on call’ and responsive to our patients 24/7, we sincerely tried to be the best and most involved parents we possibly could be,” she recalled. “We both are so grateful to God and our families for providing the ability to accomplish this goal.”
Frank noted Cheryl and he have a “natural competitiveness” as to who brings in more patients or income, or who makes final decisions on managing staff or redecorating offices. “However, armed with Christian ethics and compromise, the problems get solved, and our relationship stays intact,” he said.
Passions and priorities
“For me, the challenge of being in business together is having to intuitively navigate two great passions of my life,” said Charlie Domen, president and CEO of DisplayMax Inc., a retail merchandising firm he founded in southeastern Michigan around 1993 with his wife, Susan, who is vice president. The Ann Arbor Legates admit “it is only through the foundation of faith that we are able to balance the peaks and valleys of managing business and family life.”
Charlie worked in sales and Susan was in office administration in the early 1990s when they each took side jobs merchandising products in grocery stores. That experience and their respective skill sets inspired them to start their own company offering services including inventory resets, retail fixtures, and store remodels
“Faith and our family are absolutely our priority,” Susan agreed. “However, as entrepreneurs, our business is certainly our passion. We are always open to looking at ways to improve our organization, to better serve our clients, improve processes and communication, and looking at better ways to integrate systems and software.”
Ensuring that their drive for entrepreneurial success doesn’t compromise family needs – the Domens have three daughters, ages 11 to 18 — is a key concern in addition to simply weathering the ups and downs of business.
Susan recalled a lean December when cash was tight and credit was thin. After a long-awaited receivables check finally arrived on Christmas Eve, jubilation turned to desperation when the bank placed a five-day hold on the funds. A generous bank manager came to the rescue and waived the hold. “That was our Christmas miracle,” remembered Susan. “We went out, got our tree and a few presents, and had one of our best Christmases ever!”
Faith as a guide
These couples have in common a strong faith that permeates their lives both at work and at home.
“Our Catholic faith doesn’t only inform and impact our business, it forms and impacts our hearts, our families, our schools, parishes, and workplaces,” said Charlie Domen.
“One of the more practical and basic ways our faith has impacted our business is it allows us to see each person for who they are, the way Jesus sees them, not as a human resource, but as a human person,” he explained. That translates into generous wages and benefits for employees, prayer before meals, sponsorship of charitable events, and a culture that promotes trust and teamwork.
At Ever Well, Chris and Leah Zubiate echo that perspective.
“Our Catholic faith helps us steward our employees and resources to affirm the dignity of the vulnerable people we serve,” Leah said. “A lot of what guides us is opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit and following God’s will. We try to be open with our employees, residents, and customers about the strength of our Catholic faith and frequently make connections between what we do for work and our personal mission to serve the mentally ill.”
That principle is reflected in the company tagline: “Everything. For everlasting change.”
The Muellers rely on faith to guide their marriage as well as their medical practice.
“Our faith has always been extremely important to both of us,” said Cheryl Mueller. “It is important to be compassionate and understanding to patients who may be discouraged or irritable because of serious health problems. Both of us feel that spirituality is an important part of healing, and we try to include this in the way that we minister to our patients and our employees.”
Frank told of how Mass, prayer, the sacraments, and even Legatus gatherings help them decompress and “enjoy life again as a married couple.”
The Muellers will celebrate 40 years together in 2019, “and God-willing, we will work together another 10 years or so before retiring,” said Frank. “It has, in all aspects, really become a family practice.”
GERALD KORSON is a Legatus magazine staff writer.