Kirit & Anita Patel

For Better... For Work

12th February 2016

Head and heart in perfect (bank) balance – in celebration of all that is romantic about Saint Valentine’s Day, Heather Harris meets couples who mix business with pleasure, having married…

‘All that matters is love and work’ – said Sigmund Freud. It may be grammatically incorrect (all that matters ‘are’ love and work, surely) but the bearded guru must get some credit for predicting the growing lifestyle choice of 21st century couples.

More than three million people now use their home for work and although nobody has measured how many of these are couples, the Henley Centre for Forecasting has recently confirmed it as a ’defining trend’ – more and more people are choosing to live and work together 24/7.

The vast majority are working for their own businesses as, interestingly, even in this enlightened age, many companies operate a ‘no couples in the same department’ policy. This is entirely legal, and backed up by horror stories of bosses having to deal with amorous couples sneaking off to the stationary cupboard every ten minutes or conversely tipping coffee over their ex’s keyboard.

Speaking on the subject, psychologist Tom Steward warns that mixing business and pleasure can be a minefield. “Successful couples need a clear demarcation between working life and relationships,” he says, while relationship counsellor Paula Halls is a little less tactful: “Over-familiarity will breed if not contempt, then boredom.”

“Boredom? When do we ever have time to be bored,” is Anita Patel’s response to that. Anita has worked in her husband Kirit’s business, Radlett Opticians, for the last two years after giving up a pressurised position at Glaxo.

“I knew I wanted a less stressful job so when he suggested I help in the opticians a couple of days a week it sounded ideal!” she tells me, quickly adding,”Trouble is… I am now there six days a week and am busier than ever.”

Speaking to the Patels – who live in St Albans with their two teenage sons – it is quickly apparent that Anita has made the classic mistake of making herself invaluable.

“When I first started, I had to really bite my tongue,” she recalls. “There were three members of staff, including my own husband, and they were all so inefficient!”

Warming to the subject, Anita describes how Kirit was not a businessman and was happy to give customers glasses or lenses with a promise of payment later.

“He doesn’t realise we can’t afford to be so lovely and generous to all his customers!”

Kirit does admit that, since his wife arrived, she is getting the business in line so that it is hard to argue with her approach. And the advantage of them being
married is that any disagreements that they may have are not taken home. As Kirit explains, “Because we know we have to go home together at the end of the day, issues are not taken to heart! We also make sure that we both know our clear roles – I do the clinical optometry and she does everything else!”

This definition of roles is what keeps Matthew and Diana’s relationship sweet, as they jointly run the brilliantly named Lick The Spoon chocolatiers in Corsham, Wiltshire.

“I do the creative side – making the actual chocolate – so for me the business is very personal and I can get very hot headed about the whole thing,” says Diana, explaining that before they embarked on working together they read a book entitled The E-Myth, all about entrepreneurs and the need to allocate roles and draw up plans.

Matthew, who gave up his job as a software engineer to work in the company, is more mild mannered and pragmatic, so takes care of all the business side.
“It was a big leap of faith when I gave up my job, but we both knew that the only way to grow the business was to move away from our kitchen table and into new premises!”

It was after they won the Waitrose Made In Britain Award in 2007 that all the luxury department stores started wanting to stock them. “My Mum actually took the call from Selfridges when she was babysitting our children,” recalls Diana.

The crunch came when they had 3,000 chocolate boxes unloaded all over their driveway, and realised that the business had outgrown their modest semi-
detached house.

“I wasn’t worried about working together and, in fact, being a couple means we have invested in the business both financially and emotionally so are both pulling in the same direction,” Matthew tells me. “It also helps that we’re working with an aphrodisiac all day!”

The only issue is knowing when to stop talking chocolate… Matthew admits that he is happy to discuss it all evening, whereas it’s Diana who says, “No… leave it to tomorrow!”

“She gives me THE look!” Matthew admits with a wry smile,” and I know to shut up”.

For Jamie and Anna there really is no cut off between home and work, because they live in the stunning Micklefield Hall, an 18th century country house, now a wedding and party venue, in the Hertfordshire village of Sarratt.

Married now for 32 years, and with four children, they first worked together in Clements, once Watford’s flagship department store. “When we moved into the family home at Micklefield in 1998 we soon realised that we would have to sell it or work together to run it as a business,” says Anna.

They held their first wedding there on 8 May 1999 – Anna gave birth to her fourth child two days later – and the business grew and grew. They are now already booked up every Saturday from May to mid-September in 2017.

“We work well together because we have a laugh,” says Anna, adding that when showing couples round Jamie will often tell people she’s the cleaner!

Both also admit that they are very competitive. “We each want to get the most bookings!” Jamie says. “We are both ‘people’ people, and enjoy selling – but then I am more adventurous and she is more risk adverse, so we balance each other out”

It’s a balance that continues on the domestic front, with Jamie doing the shopping, and Anna the cooking – “and I always do the pigs…” she adds.

Both are clear on the need to take breaks away from work, and make sure that they always take a holiday. “I really believe when you know someone very well a lot of the work is easier, as it’s based on intuition. There is almost a shortcut, as you know what the other is thinking,” Jamie explains.

This point was echoed by Ivana, who, together with husband Rob, runs Swan Windows, a well-established family firm based in Rickmansworth. “I started doing a bit of marketing after our twins were born but it was never going to be long term,” she tells me. “Then in 2009, when the recession hit, I knew I had to become more hands-on.”

The result is a thriving local business based on their mutual belief in, ‘professionalism, quality and reliability’. This fundamental base is what they believe makes both their business and home life succeed.

With her boy/girl twins now aged 14, there is little chance of the couple talking ‘windows’ over dinner. “We have a rule we can talk work over one cuppa then no more – the kids are far more interested filling us in with the latest celebrity gossip!”

Ivana admits that when it comes to the children, she takes on the major role – doing the school runs and activities – while Rob will work longer hours and often be on the road.

“We also have different interests in the evenings so we are not together all the time – we even support different football teams. I’m Arsenal and he’s Spurs…”

When asked about their advice to other couples who are considering following Freud’s advice and mixing love and work, Ivana was clear, “You have to LIKE each other as well as love each other.”

There must be an element of trust, too. But at least couples working together can never accuse their partner of having an affair with the boss…

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