My First Time: Breaking Up

Originally published in the September, 2007 issue of STEP Magazine

Terry Marks once remarked to Ph.D’s Michael Hodgson that a business partnership is like a marriage with P&L sheets. In that sense, Hodgson and business partner Clive Piercy have been married for almost twenty years. On August first, however, that marriage came to an end. Twenty years ago, things were also going great between Sheree Clark and John Sayles. Their company, Sayles Graphic Design, was at the top of its game and the married couple were still very much in love. Although the couple split in 1999, they’ve managed to sustain and grow their professional relationship in a way that few can imagine.

We all know that a relationship—any relationship—is difficult to sustain. Client relationships come and go. Employees come and go. People date, breakup, marry and divorce. We tend to refer to the breakups as “failed” relationships, as if somehow the permanence of the relationship is expected and a condition of it being termed a “success.” Of course we all know people in relationships of convenience, whose longevity is more a measure of inertia than an indicator of mutual fulfillment.


It’s not you, it’s me

I stayed in my first job for eight years, which in hindsight was probably two too many. I liked the people there, and I was proud of the work we were doing. The days when I was frustrated to the point of wanting to quit always seemed to be followed by days in which we landed a cool new project or client. But I wasn’t growing, and the other principals (who were married to each other) were at a different place in their careers than I was. Quitting that job was the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my career — harder than any aspect of running my own business. We were like a family (I should mention that I too was married to a coworker), and just wanting to leave felt like an enormous betrayal. “Business is business,” my friends would counsel, “don’t take it so personally.” I always thought that was stupid advice; after all, as creative professionals, aren’t we supposed to put ourselves into the work? Doesn’t our craft require passion? And isn’t passion personal?

I was missing the point. At the end of the day business is a quantitative endeavor—those P&L sheets Marks was talking about. Friendships, on the other hand, are qualitative, subjective mysteries of personal chemistry, passions and interests. Yes, a business is made up of individuals and yes, the best businesses are those that treat people individually. But remembering that the two are separable is an important perspective to keep. When I finally gathered the courage to leave my old company I made a list in my head of all the things I might say if I was pressed on the issue, most of which boiled down to the familiar cop-out, “It’s not you, it’s me.” The founding principals were thinking ahead to retirement with a view to having me take over the business completely. I felt like I was robbing them of that option. I felt like I was insulting them because I didn’t want in on this business they had worked so hard to build. I felt like that forced smile you see a person make when they receive a gift that they truly abhor. I didn’t abhor the business or the people. I just wanted something different, something mine. So one day I said it, “I think I’m going to quit.” Then I braced myself for the hurt and anger I feared would follow. My boss replied succinctly with his most memorable one-liner. “Okay,” he said. And that was that. The business relationship was over. Our personal friendship never missed a beat.


It’s not business, it’s personal

Like me (and like many), Sheree Clark looks back on her relationship and realizes that the inevitability of her breakup was apparent years before she and John finally took action. What complicated matters was that the two had not only been business partners for ten years, they had been romantically involved for that entire interval as well. It was the personal relationship that they both wanted out of—the business, they hoped, would endure. But untangling those two relationships after a decade of weaving them together was a tricky business. Overnight the parameters of their lives had changed, but, as Clark points out, there was no space or time to heal. “Most divorced couples—even if they see each other often because they share custody of children—have ‘time out’ to repair, re-frame and regroup,” says Clark, “When I broke up with my first serious boyfriend [in college] we just sort of drifted apart. He represented the past and I was entering a new life at the time. It was painful, but it wasn’t scary. Later, with John, we were so immersed in each others lives that it wasn’t a drift thing at all. John moved out on a Saturday and on Monday morning we had to sit through a staff meeting together, then work an additional eight hours side by side.”

Ironically, and in an optimistic move, the ex-couple purchased a building together just two weeks after John moved out of house. As they literally moved out of each others personal lives and space they were moving into a new work space and becoming even more financially committed to one another. While it may seem like a counterintuitive move, Clark looks back on it as a smart idea. The new studio building needed some rehab so working together to repair and rebuild it gave the two a common place to direct their energy and emotion.

Having a common focus was certainly one of the factors that contributed to the duo’s ability to preserve the business relationship. Just as important, however, was the measure of separation afforded by their autonomous roles within the business. John leads the creative side of Sayles Graphic Design, while Clark handles the business side. “I don’t mess in his area and he doesn’t mess in mine,” Clark explains. That independence — and the trust that is implicit in it — allows both parties to carve out individual identities within the context of the partnership. By respecting the limits of their own roles they allow each other the freedom to contribute positively to the relationship. “Maintaining separate interests and separate networks of friends (in addition to the interests and friends shared in common) is important,” advises Clark, “John and I have tremendous professional respect for each other. Neither of us is perfect but we’ve both become much better at defusing potentially volatile situations before they arise. Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship knows that there are particular patterns of behavior—certain cues—that often precede an altercation. The trick is not just identifying those precursors, it’s in breaking the pattern.” It’s a skill that is easier said than done, but one that is essential to keeping business disagreements from turning personal. So far, it seems to be working.


Post doctorate

For nearly twenty years the thoughtful, charming, witty duo of Clive Piercy and Michael Hodgson have been synonymous with each other — neatly represented by the clever and fortuitous moniker, Ph.D. In August the two officially broke up, leaving us to wonder what would become of one of our favorite design firm acronyms. What kept these two together for so long, and why would such a successful partnership break it off now?

When they started out together in 1988, the namesakes of Ph.D certainly weren’t thinking twenty years ahead. “It’s almost like beginning to date someone,” muses Hodgson, “You don’t know how long its going to last, but you decide to go steady. Then at some point over the course of nineteen years you think to yourself, this is it, this partnership will sustain me until I retire.” Like most of us, Hodgson also had his moments of doubt during that span — days when something would trigger him to step back and look in on the studio, the work, the routine, and wonder, “Is this really what I want to be doing? The importance of that perspective and objectivity cannot be overstated. Continuing to question the value of the status quo — even when things are going great — is what keeps a creative business fresh and forward-thinking. For Hodgson, the opportunity to work with a talented staff (“always hire people more talented than you,” he advises, quoting Howard Schultz) and on interesting projects provided all the answer he needed. The combination of great projects, great clients and a great staff added up to a whole that, Hodgson says, “was greater than the sum of its parts.”

Against this backdrop of success, both partners eventually found themselves drawn toward slightly different visions of the firm. For Clive, that vision involved a smaller studio that could afford to be more selective with the work it took on, rather than needing to take on some projects simply to sustain the business. For Hodgson, it meant continuing to focus on creating visual personalities, but also concentrating more on environmental issues, pursuing his passion for book design, and exploring new opportunities in environmental graphics. In truth, their visions we’re not wholly incompatible, they each just wanted the freedom to focus on individual passions. The two had conversations off and on for a couple of years before they finally agreed to go their separate ways. It was not an easy decision or process for the two friends and business partners to part ways after 19 years. “We certainly didn’t do this without attorneys, but we realized in time that if we could work out as much as possible without turning it over to lawyers we’d both be a lot happier and a lot less poor,” laughs Hodgson, “So while it wasn’t settle on just a handshake, it was pretty close.”

“So now, at 55, it gives me the opportunity to be in complete control of the balance of my life,” says Hodgson. “Clive and I produced a lot of great work over the years, and there’s a lot for us both to be proud of. Now I’m looking forward to putting together a new body of work, to working with new and existing clients, and exploring new ideas.”

Hodgson will continue to operate as Ph.D. Asked what Ph.D will stand for in the absence of of the P, Hodgson replies, “Ph.D will continue to stand for well-crafted, well thought out design,” adding that he can foresee a time, perhaps ten years from now, when he may remove himself from the equation, leaving just the Design.