Divorced but Working Together: How three couples have handled the situation

Few people do it, but some couples continue to work together after their personal relationship has been dissolved. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it works only for a while. Here is how three enterprising San Antonio couples dealt with their unusual situations.

Staying together for the sake of business

Every month, thousands of households in the San Antonio area receive a Valpak envelope stuffed full of coupons offering savings on goods and services of all kinds. Chances are everyone can find a coupon in there to help them save a few bucks, whether on dry cleaning, oil changes, remodeling or insurance. The people behind the familiar blue envelope are two hard-working San Antonians, Joe and Theresa Ernest, who bought the only local Valpak franchise six years ago from another husband-and-wife team. Since Valpak is a brand of the Florida-based Cox Targeted Media, the parent corporation had to approve the sale as well. In addition to mailed coupons, the company offers coupons online, and through their Solo Values product, it can also accommodate advertisers who wish to send their message solo, printed on fancy cards.“

The couple who owned the business before us divorced, so they wanted to sell,” says Theresa, 57, who has a reputation for being a terrific saleswoman. “We went after this business; we really wanted it, and it’s been great for us.”

A year into their new venture, however, the Ernests divorced as well. But unlike their predecessors, they decided to remain business partners. “This is a very successful business,” continues Theresa, “and it would have been hard to walk away from this kind of money. Also, I really didn’t want to go to work for someone else at my age. Joe and I have a lot of respect for each other in the work environment, and we both wanted the divorce, so that’s why we can still work together.” But it wasn’t easy at first. For one thing, the tension between the former spouses was hard on the employees, explains Theresa. And for another, Theresa herself felt the need to be in a more comforting milieu immediately following the split-up. In the office she was known as the “disciplinarian,” and that was not the role she could play at that moment. The problem was solved by having her work from home for a while, running the Solo Values part of their business, which she named the Red Bird Direct. She still has art and mementos featuring redbirds in her office today.
What brought her back into the common fold was the economic crash of 2008. Suddenly businesses had less money for advertising, and the individual mailing campaigns became too expensive for many. The Ernests regrouped by putting their entire effort into group advertising.

Joe and Theresa originally met at work when they were both employed by a radio station, he as general manager, she as an advertising saleswoman. “We worked in the same industry, and we were very close friends before we fell in love and married,” says Joe. “She was an excellent sales rep at the time when there were few women in broadcast sales. We had a lot of common interests.” Following marriage, Theresa stayed home to rear the couple’s two sons, who are now young adults. But when her husband left the broadcast media after 28 years in radio and TV, she was ready for a change. Together, they checked out a number of business possibilities before buying the Valpak franchise. As to why they divorced after such a long marriage, they offer safe statements such as “I love her but I can’t live with her” (Joe), and “There were no affairs; we just grew apart” (Theresa). They drove together to the courthouse to get the decree, but they “cried all the way back home,” she says. No matter how amicable, parting after so many years of togetherness is always a sad event. In the office, the partners have more or less separate duties, though both are engaged in sales, which are, of course, the core of their enterprise. Though Joe may call Theresa the president and himself the sales manager, in reality they switch back and forth between various roles. When disagreements occur, there’s more restraint in voicing disapproval than when they were married. “I am not going to be in the doghouse,” quips Joe. “We have learned to accommodate each other better; the confrontations are not as personal, and there are no lingering resentments. It’s our common livelihood.” It helps that business is booming. With the parent company’s new emphasis on digital products, their younger son, Nick, has also joined the firm to lend his expertise on that front.

Neither Joe nor Theresa is involved in another relationship at present, but they don’t hang out together outside of work except for an occasional dinner with their children. Still, the former spouses watch each other’s back. When one goes on a long trip, for instance, the other takes care of the traveling partner’s interests. There’s no fear that things won’t be handled right because “the trust level is off the charts,” says Joe.

Reuniting for the sake of business and fun

Alexa Person and Glenn Levy have known each other since childhood. They lived in the same Laredo neighborhood, and their parents knew each other. But a four-year age difference can be big early in life, and they were not particularly close. “By the time I was leaving for college, however, she was beginning to look real cute,” says Levy, now an employment attorney in San Antonio. “And by the time I got out of college, she was really cute.” But life took them in different directions until they ran into each other years later at the Broadway 50/50 here in town, where both had relocated. They were wed a year and a half later. “We eloped to Las Vegas,” jokes Levy. “Yeah, with 75 black-tie guests in tow!” Person shoots back. We are sitting in the studio behind Levy’s law offices from where the pair now run their new film production company Groovy Movie Productions. After a short time with them, one gets a sense of their easy camaraderie, punctuated by Levy’s quick humor. For a few minutes they reminisce about their wedding, Person’s unorthodox outfit (she wore red fishnet stockings with a Vera Wang wedding gown), a sister-in-law whose hair caught fire, etc. Then come the jokes about who chased whom. They are clearly having fun with this. Nevertheless, after three children and only five years of marriage, the couple separated and eventually divorced in 2001. Why? is the obvious question.

“Honestly, we are just good friends,” offers Person, a tall, model-slim blonde who is developing a career as an “empowerment” writer and speaker. “We care about each other and our children, but there’s no romance. We are co-parents, and we will probably always be friends. We are not angry at each other.” Since the children were very young when they parted, Person says she needed the help of their father in rearing them, and to this day the former spouses share parental duties on an almost daily basis. There are no rigid rules, and they even occasionally take trips together as a family. Though both have had romantic relationships since the breakup, including a brief second marriage for Person, the boyfriends or girlfriends do not get introduced to the children unless serious commitment is involved. With their lives intersecting so frequently, it’s no wonder that they have on occasion joined forces in various projects, mostly related to charitable activities. Both are also artistic — she’s a painter, he a photographer — and they have often consulted each other about their creative output. What’s more, they share a daring spirit that leads them to try such things as fire walking (walking barefoot on hot embers) or fire swallowing.

So it was only natural for Levy to call his former wife when he was approached by a group of filmmakers about producing a movie. The latter included writer/director/actor Andrew Pozza, actor Derek Nixon and custom-home builder and theater set designer Kurt Wehner. Based on a script by Pozza, who also goes under the pseudonym Johnny Story, the film, titled A Schizophrenic Love Story, was shot in and around San Antonio in only a few weeks. Though still in postproduction, the movie has already won recognition. The screenplay was one of the four finalists from among 5,000 submissions at the 2010 Austin Film Festival and a semifinalist in the Big Break contest sponsored by Los Angeles-based Final Draft, Inc. Though he’s never directed anything since his school days, Levy shared directing duties with Dylan Thomas Ellis, and Person helped with fundraising and acted as producer. “It was fun,” she says. Schizophrenic is a romantic comedy in which an agoraphobic schizophrenic man tries to figure out whether a girl he met is real or not by consulting the three personalities he sees in his hallucinations: the Virgin Mary, Einstein and a vampire.

While working on the project, Levy and Person formed the afore-mentioned Groovy Movie Productions, which is already involved in a second film that started shooting in February. The studio where we are conducting the interview serves as the new company’s office for meetings, auditioning and editing. They have also acquired a warehouse where they hope to set up a sound stage someday. Like the Ernests, the two have found that emotional distance helps. “You can’t use love emotions to manipulate the issue when you have a disagreement,” says Levy. “She can’t say, ‘You’ll have to sleep on the couch.’ You have to communicate at a more intellectual level.” Though both love their new “baby,” they also maintain their separate careers. Levy’s law practice is still his primary focus, while Person, whose main income comes from ranching, has an active website and three books she is hoping to see published in the near future. Further down the line, she envisions starting a charity a la Bill Strickland’s job training center in Pittsburgh.

So would they like to find new marital partners?

“No, I am not eager to eat wedding cake yet,” responds Levy. “Yes, I would like to get married again,” says Person, who also makes the announcement that she “may be” in a relationship right now. That takes Levy a bit by surprise. Clearly, this is something she had not shared with him yet.

A time to part

Just south of 1604 off Blanco Road lies the short and rather nondescript W. Blanco Street, a surprisingly lively enclave of businesses in what you would expect to be a residential area. At the far end of it, you’ll find the cozy offices of Aria Medical Equipment, a local distributorship that Joe Begley started out of his house in 1992 and which now sells equipment to hospitals, labs, industry, schools and medical relief organizations throughout the United States. Among its clients are the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, Baylor University Medical Center, Toyota, Boeing and Texas A & M University. A month or so ago, however, Joe sold his ownership share to his former wife, Diana Begley, and decided to retire. They had been business partners for seven years, including a post-divorce period. When the Begleys met at a country-western dance back in 1997 — and eventually married six months later — both were already experienced business people. She ran an insurance agency, and he had Aria, which started life as Medical Resource USA. But a few years later Diana was ready to sell the agency to try her hand at landscape design, something she had enjoyed doing for a long time. It didn’t last long, however. Instead, she eventually found herself involved with Aria.

“In 2003 Joe asked me to help with a government contract they were trying to get,” recalls Diana, a petite, slim woman dressed casually in jeans and a white blouse. “I worked on it, we got the contract, and I never left.” While Joe was more the entrepreneur, she was the “worker in the trenches,” she says, who streamlined operations and kept the books updated and organized. Through their joined efforts, the company grew steadily along with its reputation for excellent customer service. Today, Aria does about $1 million of business every month and has some 2,000 clients and 600-plus vendors. Being the businesswoman that she is, at some point Diana asked to be made a partner, and Joe readily agreed. “I gave her one half of the ownership out of love,” he says. “I never regretted it. She’s been an asset to the company. She worked on the financial side of it, and I could rely on her. I was more involved in sales.”

While the business prospered, fissures started appearing in their relationship. Diana felt that she wasn’t being treated as an equal partner, for instance, as Joe would make decisions without consulting her. To him that came naturally. It was his business, after all. “There were decisions when I needed her input and others when I didn’t. It was still my show,” he states matter-of-factly. What’s more, work followed them home, where arguments often replaced previously harmonious evenings. “If it weren’t for the company, we would still be married,” says Joe. Diana cites other reasons for dissolving the marriage, but regardless of what ultimately pushed them to do it, they split up after 13 years of togetherness.

But they continued to work together for another year and a half. Though they both cared for the company and tried to stay out of each other’s way, some of the same issues from before persisted, and their ideas regarding the future became increasingly divergent. Eventually, the best option was to part company altogether. Now officially retired, Joe is philosophical about it. “A partnership has a life expectancy that has to do with the compatibility of the partners,” he notes. “People become partners because they bring equal contributions to the table. At some point you become unequal, and it’s time to get ‘a divorce.’ Now I have to let (the business) be hers. I should not interfere.” Both scared and excited to find herself solo at the helm, Diana has grand plans for expansion. She is eyeing large project management jobs where Aria would provide not just medical equipment but all the equipment needed to set up a new medical facility, from electrical fixtures and phones to office furniture, perhaps even staffing. She also hopes to become the “vendor of record” for members of various health care associations. “I believe that each of us has a destiny,” she observes. “You are where you are because you need to be there. This is where I am supposed to be, or I wouldn’t be here.”

As for Joe, he may not stay retired for long: “I am not done yet. I may start another business, something different.”

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