Better off apart Featured

9:39am EDT July 22, 2002

Carol and Steve Kender didn’t think twice about going into business together. After all, they’d spent virtually their whole lives doing everything else as a couple — why not this?

“We grew up together. We were high school sweethearts. We raised a family together,” says Steve Kender, former co-owner of ASK Water Sports Inc. “It was sort of natural that we would be good business partners.”

How wrong that logic turned out to be.

The two had been married 14 years when they decided to start their own business, ASK Diving School, in 1974. Carol took the lead role in the business, making it her full-time project, while Steve continued his high school teaching career. Four years later, however, Steve decided to put his teaching skills to work full-time in the business. That’s when the real difficulties began.

Our management styles clashed,” Carol says matter-of-factly. “He’s an excellent instructor — he has a Ph.D. — and he’s a good salesperson, but he’s not a real good business manager.”

For instance, “he’d give his friends all sorts of special pricing,” Carol says. Then, when she’d chastise him for doing so, he’d fault her for paying too much attention to the books and watching the inventory too closely.

“We had major disagreements over management direction,” Carol says. “I tend to be pretty much a take-charge type person. I have little or no patience with somebody that can’t see the whole forest instead of the trees. That created a lot of stress.”

So did the competitive nature they shared.

We’re both really, really strong people,” Carol says, noting both of them were trying to run the business, which was renamed ASK Water Sports in 1979 to reflect its expanded offerings on the retail side.

“Carol was the shy, quiet, I don’t think very confident person when I first met her,” Steve says. “But she matured and changed ... and gained in confidence and stature. She became a totally different woman than the one I married. She became in charge — of herself and, eventually, of me, too.”

The power struggles that began at work didn’t always stay there, either.

“When you’re married to the person and you’re working with them all day, you’re never off,” Steve says. “Twenty-four hours a day you’re living, thinking and talking business. It got the be the thing that eventually split us up, in my opinion — not knowing when to turn it off and be wife and husband.”

One more try

In 1982, the Kenders marriage officially ended. Their partnership, however, remained intact.

“It wasn’t as awkward as you would think,” Carol says of working with her ex-husband.

“When we got divorced, the lawyer took care of it. There was no animosity; no items of contention,” Steve adds. “Because it was just so tough to work and live together; we thought we could work together and not be man and wife.”

That, too, turned out to be a bad decision.

“It made it worse,” Steve says. “We were more competitive, probably.”

After about a year, Carol decided she’d had enough. She approached Steve about buying him out.

“There were enough things about the business we weren’t agreeing on and I knew he wanted to move to Florida,” Carol says. “So I offered him a couple boats that belonged to the business and gave him some cash and he signed over his stock to me.”

“At the time, I thought I was getting out real good,” Steve says, noting the business was in the red when Carol bought him out. “I figured she never could make that business run.”

Steve took the money and the boats and moved to Florida, where he got a job managing a diving store.

Although the entire business was on Carol’s shoulders from that point on, she says she wasn’t worried.

“Actually it made things a lot easier,” she says of being sole owner. “There was no conflict anymore. There was no more, ‘Am I going to have to worry about him changing the rules after I make them?’ Not having to have someone else involved in the decision making made running the company a lot easier.”

Since the partnership split, ASK Water Sports’ revenue has grown 15 to 20 percent annually, Carol says. In addition, its assets have climbed and its debt structure has diminished.

“Part of it is the strong economy; we’re a discretionary money business,” Carol says, adding that the company is about 60 percent ahead of its financial projections this year. “I’m not saying it’s because of the split ... but at that time, there was no business plan. In any partnership, you have to set guidelines. You have to set a business plan and follow it. You have to figure out who’s going to do what part of it and then let that person do it. Having clearly defined objectives would’ve made things a lot easier for us.”

“She pulled it together,” marvels Steve. “I’m very pleased with her and for her. I have to give her credit ... she’s doing great with it now. I never would’ve believed it.”

In hindsight

Now that several years have passed, the Kenders can see more clearly where things went wrong — and what they would do differently if they had it to do again.

“The No. 1 rule would be to set guidelines down about the dos and don’ts,” says Steve, who is now co-owner — with his new wife Linda — in a Florida-based business called Mango Man Cool Ties Inc. “The first thing on my don’t list would be: ‘Don’t continue working after hours at home on the business — unless it’s an absolute necessity.’ You need to pay attention to your kids and family and not the business when you’re off hours.

“If you can’t set rules and follow them, the best thing is to not work together in business.”

As for Carol, she realizes she should’ve done a better job making sure she and Steve were compatible business partners before he became more involved in the operations.

“You have to find somebody with complementary talents,” she says. “If you can recognize somebody has strengths and you can fill in the weaknesses, then I think a business partnership would work out.”

Though their own partnership — and marriage — failed, the Kenders have managed to maintain both a business relationship and personal friendship through it all. Steve is one of ASK Water Sports’ suppliers; Carol stocks his Mango Man ties — many of which feature brightly colored marine life patterns — in her Dublin area dive store.

On the personal side, the two phone each other about twice a year, Carol says, and even attended their 40th high school reunion in Montana together last year. They also met up in Las Vegas this past January, Steve says, and went out to dinner.

“We’re friendly,” Steve says. “Why be nasty? That’s not going to do me any good — or her any good.”

Carol agrees: “Being friends is a lot easier.”

Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Columbus.