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Satisfying work and a fulfilling family life are the brass rings that people strive for, but often the demands of running a business and the stress of everyday life make them seem like unreachable goals.

March 07, 2000

Satisfying work and a fulfilling family life are the brass rings that people strive for, but often the demands of running a business and the stress of everyday life make them seem like unreachable goals. For Patrick and Sandy Thompson, owners of Thompson Remodeling, a design/build firm in Grand Rapids, Mich., maintaining an even keel has been critical to their success as husband and wife, and as business partners.

 

Six years ago, Patrick and Sandy Thompson purchased a 100-year-old cabin located 50 minutes north of Grand Rapids. They remodel the fixer-upper on weekends and manage to squeeze in some recreation and relaxation, too.

Married right out of college, Patrick and Sandy immediately went into business together. In the early years, Patrick was attending graduate school, they were running the business, and soon after, their first child arrived. Juggling a new marriage and family, school and the business necessitated a plan.

Although there is no magic formula for living a fulfilling and balanced life, the Thompsons have found a system that works for them: The marriage relationship comes before the business one.

 

Thompson Remodeling
 
Thompson Remodeling
 
Thompson Remodeling
 
Thompson Remodeling
 
Thompson Remodeling
 
Thompson Remodeling
 
Thompson Remodeling
 
Thompson Remodeling
 
Thompson Remodeling
 
Thompson Remodeling
 
Thompson Remodeling
 

"There are countless opportunities and countless things we can do," says Sandy. As she tells her two adult sons, "You can have anything you want in life. You just can't have everything." And Sandy readily admits that the choices can be overwhelming.

Underlying all the choices the Thompsons have made and everything they have done--from raising their sons to running a successful business--is a commitment to their 23-year marriage.

"As remodeling contractors, we have the opportunity to see--maybe better than anyone else--that the structure is only as good as it's foundation," says Sandy. "We believe that the marriage is more important than the business, so that has always been our primary commitment and focus. Our business is secondary to the strength and stability of our marriage."

The Thompson's emphasis on family extends beyond their own to their employees' families as well. "We preach and try to live the concept that their family, not Patrick and Sandy's family, is first," says Patrick. For example, if an employee has a doctor's appointment, a meeting at a child's school, or wants time off unpaid, the requests are granted no questions asked.

The time off may disrupt production, but a day or two won't break a project, according to Sandy. The Thompsons have structures in place that allow for the company's flexibility. First, they operate under a lead carpenter system, which facilitates good communication between the lead and homeowner. And the Thompsons never write a project deadline into a contract. Instead, they give clients an estimated window. If the project is at a critical point, they can usually send another employee to cover.

Because the Thompsons view each employee as an extension of their family, the couple is quick to lend support when an employee is experiencing personal challenges. "We've had a number of people going through divorce this year, which has been very painful for us to watch," Sandy says.

The Thompsons also encourage their employees to meet personal goals. For example, two employees were determined to quit smoking, and when they reached three months smoke-free, they were rewarded with a new power tool. "Those are things that go beyond the scope of work," Sandy says.

The Thompsons chose early on not to focus on growth as a barometer of their company's success. Rather, they aimed to build a company that was sound in other ways. "Many people look at a company being length and width--the longevity you're in business is the length, and [the width], the measure for your success, is the volume that you do or the number of employees that you have," Patrick says.

 

Communication is Key

Constant disagreement without reconciliation is probably the best indicator that something is out of whack in a personal or business relationship. “If you’re always fighting about something and not coming to some type of agreement on that issue or several issues that you’re struggling with, then something is wrong,” says Patrick Thompson.

Chris Essex, co-director of the Center for Work and the Family concurs. If the Thompsons’ lives are balanced, they’re probably good communicators, she says. Here, Essex gives tips for communicating:

 

Communication is Key

Constant disagreement without reconciliation is probably the best indicator that something is out of whack in a personal or business relationship. “If you’re always fighting about something and not coming to some type of agreement on that issue or several issues that you’re struggling with, then something is wrong,” says Patrick Thompson.

Chris Essex, co-director of the Center for Work and the Family concurs. If the Thompsons’ lives are balanced, they’re probably good communicators, she says. Here, Essex gives tips for communicating:

 

Communication is Key

Constant disagreement without reconciliation is probably the best indicator that something is out of whack in a personal or business relationship. “If you’re always fighting about something and not coming to some type of agreement on that issue or several issues that you’re struggling with, then something is wrong,” says Patrick Thompson.

Chris Essex, co-director of the Center for Work and the Family concurs. If the Thompsons’ lives are balanced, they’re probably good communicators, she says. Here, Essex gives tips for communicating:

 

Communication is Key

Constant disagreement without reconciliation is probably the best indicator that something is out of whack in a personal or business relationship. “If you’re always fighting about something and not coming to some type of agreement on that issue or several issues that you’re struggling with, then something is wrong,” says Patrick Thompson.

Chris Essex, co-director of the Center for Work and the Family concurs. If the Thompsons’ lives are balanced, they’re probably good communicators, she says. Here, Essex gives tips for communicating:

 

Communication is Key

Constant disagreement without reconciliation is probably the best indicator that something is out of whack in a personal or business relationship. “If you’re always fighting about something and not coming to some type of agreement on that issue or several issues that you’re struggling with, then something is wrong,” says Patrick Thompson.

Chris Essex, co-director of the Center for Work and the Family concurs. If the Thompsons’ lives are balanced, they’re probably good communicators, she says. Here, Essex gives tips for communicating:

 

Thompson Remodeling takes a different approach. "We like to think of our business as three dimensional so there's length, width and depth," he says. "The depth is the intangible things." For example, do they treat their employees well? Are they giving their employees the right tools to get their jobs done? Are they constantly refining systems within the company? Are they delivering what they promise to their clients and employees?

"Money is the measure whereby [society] measures our success," says Sandy. "It's a sad disservice, but that's a truism in our culture." It's easy to say money isn't important while sitting at the helm of a profitable company, but Patrick and Sandy practiced what they preached even in the early days of their company.

"We made a conscious decision when they were little to raise our children, not grow our business," says Patrick. "And that meant slower growth and delayed opportunity." It also meant the couple's business remained in their home for 10 years. The home office allowed the couple to be with the children and kept costs down, but the temptation to work longer hours was there. "It is difficult," Sandy says. "You tend to work more evenings and weekends, and around nap schedules." But for the couple it was a temporary solution that helped them to accomplish their No. 1 goal: raising their children.

A thriving and profitable business may be their reward for keeping priorities in order, but the couple sticks to the creed that money doesn't matter. "Sure there's more money today than 20 years ago, but the things that we value, you cannot buy with money." He lists such intangibles as raising children, liking each other as a family, and knowing they're charging customers a fair value for quality work as the true measure of success.

When their children were young, the Thompsons limited their outside business-related activities to devote more time to parenting. But now that their children are grown, Patrick is an active member of the local Chamber of Commerce, and Sandy was recently elected president of their local Home Builders' Association. She estimates the position will require a 10-hour commitment per week, perhaps more.

Occasionally, opportunity knocks at the wrong time, as was the case with Patrick. Ten years ago, he was on the HBA's board as treasurer and was asked to move into the vice-president position, which is a stepping stone to the presidency.

"With my wife's blessing, [I] turned it down. My kids were in elementary and middle school, and I saw that commitment to our Home Builders taking too much of my time at that point in life. It would have hurt not only my family life, but my business responsibilities as well. So, I said no. Ten years later, my partner said yes and it's the right time."

Saying no has become the Thompson's No. 1 rule for maintaining balance. "There are so many opportunities," Patrick says. "You've got to say no to some of them and choose the ones that will meet combined needs."

In the early years of their business, the Thompsons turned down membership to civic groups such as the local Chamber of Commerce and Better Business Bureau in favor of involvement with their children's activities and school. The couple put their remodeling skills to use and built a play structure at their sons' elementary school and pinewood derby track for their Boy Scout troop.

Despite the commitment to their marriage and family, it hasn't always been smooth sailing for the Thompsons. The early '90s proved to be a difficult time for the couple. "I'd say we went through a time frame when we needed to grow personally," says Sandy. A friend recomended Stephen Covey's "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," which the Thompsons say was a life-altering read.

"That to me was a huge change point in my life, and I think it reflected itself in our business and our personal relationship," says Sandy. "It was good before, but it's much better now."

The Thompsons recommend that anyone involved in a business relationship, especially married business partners, should read about, study and work on areas that aren't specific to their business. "Your own [inner] work is the hardest remodel job you'll ever do," says Sandy.

Developing interests outside of work also helps with personal growth. The Thompsons are actively involved in their church, they chair a meet-and-eat group for newcomers to their hometown, and they have recently taken up ballroom dancing. "It's completely 100 percent away from our business and from our family, too," says Patrick. "It's just my wife and I."

 

Thompsons’ Tips for Balance
 
Thompsons’ Tips for Balance
 
Thompsons’ Tips for Balance
 
Thompsons’ Tips for Balance
 
Thompsons’ Tips for Balance
 
Thompsons’ Tips for Balance
 
Thompsons’ Tips for Balance
 
Thompsons’ Tips for Balance
 

Maintaining balance requires ongoing effort, and the Thompsons have tangible evidence of their commitment to the process. Six years ago, they bought a 100-year-old cabin about 50 minutes north of Grand Rapids. The weekend home had been stripped by the previous owner and required extensive remodeling work by the Thompsons.

The couple admits buying the fixer-upper on a quiet canoeing river was a calculated move. "We're taking it very slow," says Patrick. The longterm project allows them to get away from the world while doing the thing they enjoy most.

The Thompsons acknowledge that they have it easier than most business owners. After years of searching for a hobby they both enjoyed, Patrick and Sandy realized they already had one: remodeling.

"We're really privileged to not have to wait until retirement to get a kick out of life," says Sandy. And Patrick agrees. "It's easier to find balance if you enjoy how you make your living," he says. "You can only do so many things. So if you can enjoy what you're doing in your business, you're that much further ahead."

In addition to providing the Thompsons with a living and personal enjoyment, remodeling has given the couple a deeper appreciation for life. "Being a remodeling contractor is just like life," says Sandy. "You can work on it, change it, improve it, grow it, expand it, and make it better. Over and over again."

Would you like to purchase the book from the article?

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

By Stephen Covey

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