For more than two decades, Michelle van Schouwen and her husband, Steve, partnered successfully in business and life. Together, the couple founded Van Schouwen Associates, a business-to-business marketing agency in 1985. Over the years, they grew the business and had respected name in the industry. Then, in 2006, Steve -- a healthy, fit 49-year-old died suddenly of a heart attack. In an instant, Michelle had lost her business partner and her husband.
Recovering from one or the other would have been a Herculean task. But Michelle could barely mourn before she had to face reality. With eight employees and two children to support, she was going to have to make it work. Coincidentally, she had read an article about overcoming the loss of a business partner the previous year. That had led the couple to take actions that made the transition a bit easier.
She shares her insight for bouncing back from such an overwhelming loss.
1. Gather key information. From knowing where all of the insurance policies are to having access to account numbers and passwords, Michelle and Steve created lists of key information that the other would need in case of an emergency. Keeping lists helped her remember all of the tasks she needed to complete during a time of duress.
2. Get a grip on the money. Michelle always handled the business finances, but she says it would have been a problem had she been uninformed about issues like cash flow, expenses, and payroll. When spouses own businesses together, it's critical for both of them to be informed about the money, she says.
3. Rely on your team. This is not the time to micromanage -- you've spent time to hire and train good people, so you can rely on them in times of need. Talk to them honestly about the plans you have for the business and ask for their help to keep things going during the grief process. It's important to remember that they're likely fearful about their jobs and grieving, too. Michelle says she was deeply touched by the way her employees rallied around her and kept customers well-served as she made her way through the immediate crisis.
4. Be visible. After Steve died, there was some concern among clients about whether she would be able to keep the business open. Many didn't know how involved she was in the finances and strategy of the agency. "I remember acquaintances sending me resumes, like I could hire my own boss," she recalls. She quickly put those rumors to rest by calling clients and reassuring them. Within a few weeks, she was blogging again and, then started doing speaking engagements. As her visibility increased, the rumors stopped.
5. Create a new succession plan. Now that she runs the company solo, Michelle has consulted with her financial and insurance advisors to create a succession plan for key employees to take over the company if something should happen to her.
6. Give yourself a break. Enduring such a loss is devastating, and it's important to take time to grieve, Michelle says. "People told me things would eventually be okay -- not just the business side, but getting up in the morning and continuing to go on. But if you are a content and generally happy person, you will likely return to that level, even if you don't believe it at the time," she says.
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