NEWS

For better or worse — at work

Jessica Pierce

The man had fired a rifle and poured a flammable liquid inside the house. He had been making suicide threats and refused to come outside.

Police surrounded the property. A SWAT team and a remote-controlled robot were on the way.

It was lunchtime on Sept. 19, 2006, and Sheriff’s Investigator Falkey was talking in an amplified voice to the troubled man with a speaker in a patrol car. The other Sheriff’s Investigator Falkey was at the edge of the property securing the perimeter.

After an hour, the man gave himself up. Brad and Jackie Falkey, married only five months, had a lot to talk about over dinner that night.

“There aren’t any other married couples that I know of that do the work we do together,” Brad Falkey said.

For many people, the thought of working with a spouse is downright frightening — a potential fast-track to marriage counseling or divorce.  All that time together with no break, the added financial strain if the spouses own a business together, the struggle to keep a healthy divide between work and home life.

But there are many married pairs — from the Falkeys to a pair of construction workers to musicians to mom-and-pop shop owners — who not only make it work but say the wider partnership has brought them closer. Not only are they pursuing a shared professional dream with the person they most love and respect, they have the added bonus of getting to spend more time together.

“I really enjoy being with him, having him sit there with me,” Jackie Falkey said of her husband, whom she first met more than 20 years ago, early in their police careers. “I just feel relaxed when he is there.”

While Brad Falkey works mostly on drug investigations, oftentimes undercover, his wife is stationed in the Ontario County (N.Y.) Department of Social Services, investigating reports of welfare fraud. They occasionally work closely together on cases since oftentimes the cases are connected. Said Brad Falkey: “The people committing the frauds are sometimes the same people that are the drug dealers.” 

Last Valentine’s Day, the Falkeys found themselves together that day not for a romantic dinner but for a late-day murder hearing in Ontario County Court.  They made up for it with a fancy dinner the next evening.

The Falkeys, mind you, aren’t elbow to elbow 24/7, since they work in separate buildings, and though they strategize on their cases over dinner, “It doesn’t dominate our life at home,” Brad said.

Couples who are in business together are far more common than public-servant pairs and face another set of challenges.

The National Federation of Independent Business estimates that one in five small businesses is headed by a husband-wife duo. The organization reported in 2003 that there were about 1.2 million husband- and wife-owned small businesses nationwide. Anecdotally, business experts say that number has only continued to climb.

Here are some profiles:

The Scotts

Harnessed and dangling from a rope 50 feet up, Sue Scott had to place a lot of faith in her co-worker on a construction job in Hemlock, N.Y., last year.

Good thing it was her husband.

She and Rick Scott were putting a metal roof on a big old barn.

“It was scary,” she said. “You could see the Rochester skyline from where we were.”

The Scotts, of Bloomfield, own Risco Construction. Since the couple, married for 29 years, partnered in the business about 12 years ago, they have done everything together, from hanging drywall to building decks.  

Sue said she had been working in sales, then for the state as an inventory clerk, when she decided to partner with her husband. She was good with her hands and wasn’t afraid of carpentry projects. 

She started with smaller projects, like decks and sheds. Now its nothing for her to hang from a barn roof.

“You really gotta watch out for each other, that’s what it’s all about,” she said. “I know my husband, I can trust him.”

The Scotts, who have two adult children, say they enjoy spending the time together and at this point can’t imagine not working together. But it isn’t always easy.

“I’ll be honest, there’s days I just gotta walk away for a while,” Sue said. “I’ll have my idea and he has his idea, and we’ll butt heads.”

The Schmadts

She was working as a special-education teacher at Palmyra-Macedon (N.Y.) High School. He was the physical-education teacher and coach. Their introduction some 15 years ago was filled with fireworks, not romantic sparks.

“Right away, he said something to me that really annoyed me, and I sort of told him off,” Jen Schmadt said.

That was at a school wrestling match. She had gone to watch a student, while he was there as a chaperone. Realizing his faux pas, Tom Schmadt took a seat next to Jen and apologized.

“We sat and talked for the rest of the evening,” she said.

The pair dated for a few years before getting married nine years ago. Until recently, they worked together in the high school on Hyde Parkway in Palmyra. Though they were separated by a few corridors, they didn’t see each other but a few times a day. Now their paths hardly ever cross, since he has taken a job as assistant principal at the middle school.

“Tom and I see less of each other these days,” Jen said. “Our roles have changed a little bit.”

She added, “I do miss him. Even though we didn’t spend a lot of time together, I knew what he was doing — he could swing by my room and say hello.”

The Mossbrooks

When Doug and Kim Mossbrook leave their house for work each morning, they don’t have to travel far. Their office is a quarter-mile down their driveway in Bristol, N.Y.

He is the CEO. She is the CFO. Their company, Eagle Mountain, sells solar hydraulic systems, high-performance boilers and supplies for installing geothermal systems and radiant-heat floors.

Doug Mossbrook started the business in the late 1980s while his wife worked as a teacher. When the children came along, she wanted more flexibility. She decided to take what she says was a “big risk” to work with him.

The risk was twofold: The Mossbrooks would be losing a steady, guaranteed source of income with her giving up the teaching position, and then there was the big question of whether they’d be compatible co-workers.

“Initially, it was difficult,” said Kim, noting that her husband “had been used to doing everything on his own.”

“We butted heads initially as to how things should be done,” she said. But eventually, through trial and error, the pair “ended up working out a system that works to both our advantages,” Kim said. 

That is, they have clearly defined roles in the business. While she handles the finances, purchases and shipping, he oversees the marketing as well as the engineering and design of their products. They share the personnel matters for the business, which has 14 employees.

Though they are in the same building, their offices are on different floors, and they have surprisingly little contact most days. That space is a good buffer, but there is a downside: It makes it hard for the Mossbrooks not to take their work home.

“We are still struggling with leaving the office at the office,” she said.

The benefits of the close quarters far outweigh any negatives, the Mossbrooks say. “You know you can go to work and someone has always got your back,” Kim said. “Neither one of is going to give two weeks’ notice and go out and look for another job.”

The Kozlowskis

The Kozlowskis own Wizard of Clay Pottery in Bristol. While he crafts everything from salt and pepper shakers to oil lamps to ladles, she oversees the day-to-day business operations like marketing and finances.

“She makes sure everything functions,” Jim said of his wife of 43 years, Lois.

Jim and Lois have relied a lot on what they call “blind faith” when it comes to their marriage and their business.

Starting the business nearly 30 years ago was a huge risk for the couple, who were secure living in Greece, N.Y. He worked as an art teacher at one of the local schools, while she stayed home with their two kids. He wanted something more — to leave his job and make a go of it as a potter.

They moved to Bristol and lived for several years in a small mobile home while he built the business in a field across the road.  “The whole time we were doing it, just the faith that it was going to work was what kept us going,” Lois said. 

Today Wizard of Clay is a complex of seven buildings across from the couple’s home.

They credit much of their success to their simple business strategy: “I think it’s really important to define who is doing what and to really assess your strengths and weaknesses,” Lois said.

The Kozlowskis’ challenge over the years has been “to keep going, to keep each other grounded,” Lois said.

They met when they were both art students in college.

Said Jim Kozlowski, “We’ve always been a partnership, ever since I saw her that first day of school.”

The Cahns

For 30 years, Bill and Ruth Cahn worked together as professional percussionists in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

Bill said he and his wife of almost 40 years were often asked how they managed to get along, spending so much of their time together.

“When we were on the job, we just treated each other professionally,” he said. “It had absolutely no impact on the relationship; in fact, I think it helped the relationship.”

For starters, he said, “We shared our interests — we didn’t get bored when we were talking shop, and also, we had the same friends.”

Their relationship was challenged at times as they changed over the years, but, he said, “We were both able to adopt to the changes of the other person.”

The Ficarellas

Al and Nancy Ficarella had been married 20 years when they decided to move their family more than 50 miles from their home in Batavia, N.Y., to take over a pizza shop in Farmington, N.Y. He had been working as the manager of a car dealership; she was a secretary.

They took the risk on the advice of a longtime friend. And it was indeed a risk: Neither had any experience in the pizza business.

The Ficarellas first bought the former Tony’s Pizzeria on Route 332. They eventually bought what is now Bernardo’s Pizza & Submarines on School Street in the village of Victor, N.Y. They sold Tony’s and for a few years also owned another pizzeria, in Manchester.

Now in their 60s, the couple have a set way of doing things.

“I take care of the money. That’s first and foremost, and that’s fine with him,” Nancy said.  “He doesn’t want to.”

In turn, Nancy said, “I don’t do the pizzas.”

But she does some of the cooking — the homemade goulash and baked ziti and egg salad.

Al quipped, “She lets me do all the slavework — she just stands by the cash register.”

The best part of being in it together, they said, is simple: “He knows where I am, I know where he is,” Nancy said. “And we get to face all the challenges together.”

The biggest challenge came just two years ago when Al needed a new heart. In July 2006, he had been in and out of the hospital, retaining fluid and having trouble catching his breath — what his doctors called “endstage cardiac disease.” After his surgery a few months later, he was a new man. He said he owes it to the heart — and his wife. “Without her, I’d be a goner,” he said. “She’s my backbone.”

These days Al Ficarella is back in the shop, tossing pizza dough and laying toppings on his signature subs.

“It has been good, it has been very good,” Nancy said. “I don’t regret any of it.”

Jessica Pierce can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 250, or at jpierce@mpnewspapers.com.