Roller coaster for two

Preparing couples for the wild ride of an entrepreneur's life

By Kevyn Burger
Monday, February 22, 2016

Ask a business associate, competitor or customer to characterize serial entrepreneur Larry Abdo and they would likely use words like shrewd, demanding and gutsy.

The same question put to his wife of 44 years would turn up a different description.

“Larry is very romantic,” says Caryl Abdo.

In the high-stress, high-stakes world of multiple million-dollar deals, Larry Abdo, 68, has found that success in his professional life is inextricably bound to his personal life.

“Entrepreneurs think they have to put all their energy into their business, but they have to put the same amount into their relationship,” Abdo says. “The most important thing in life is to be in love, to have a fine, true, real romantic interest.”

People start businesses the same way they start marriages — with optimistic intentions. But getting a business rolling is tough on relationships. Larry and Caryl Abdo have committed to letting young couples drawn to the entrepreneurial life know what they’re in for. They’ve hosted more than a dozen biannual couples’ dinners for MBA students or recent graduates of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. The evening has become so popular that there’s a waiting list for students eager to hear their candid message.

“It’s not a class; there’s no syllabus,” Abdo explains. “This has developed into an honest, open, unscripted conversation.”

The Abdos recently treated eight young couples to salad, steak and apple crisp in the private dining room of the restaurant at the Nicollet Island Inn, the charming stone hotel on the Mississippi that they happen to own. With an attentive wait staff prowling to keep wine goblets filled, the group sat shoulder to shoulder with Abdo, resplendent in a pink paisley shirt and light blue sport coat, presiding at the head of the table, his wife in elegant black seated at his side.

“She’s the CFO,” he says, then waits a beat. “The chief family officer.”

The Abdos open their unusual dinner parties to Carlson School couples who are in serious, long-term relationships — married or engaged. No same-sex couples have yet been included in the dinner, but Abdo says he’d welcome them. What matters to him is the pair’s commitment.

In some cases, the woman in the couple is the entrepreneur; in others, it’s the man. Abdo directs much of his advice to the non-entrepreneurial spouse.

“Being in a relationship with an entrepreneur is a roller coaster ride. Before you buy the ticket, you’d better understand what it’s going to be,” he tells the group. “A true entrepreneur will never be content unless they’re out there doing it. If you squash that, neither one of you is going to be happy.”

John Stavig, program director of the Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School, is a constant presence during the Abdo dinners. He says there’s little in the coursework that business students plow through that addresses the personal side of the ledger sheet.

“Any MBA curriculum tends to be heavy on the analytical side. But the emotional piece is so important. The exposure to Larry and Caryl gives these students a thorough and explicit conversation about the entrepreneurial career. Couples have to contemplate their level of risk tolerance and their communication.”

“The timing was good for us,” says Carlson MBA student Lorna Bartges, 27, who attended the dinner with her fiancée just weeks before their wedding. Currently working at Target’s corporate office, Bartges dreams of starting a business in the future, perhaps with her new husband.

“It made us talk about the trust you have to have when you take that risk,” she says.

“That’s some insight that you wouldn’t get in a textbook.” 

Abdo talks to the students in language they’re familiar with.

“Look at your relationship like it’s a balance sheet and build equity in it every day,” he says. “Every time you do something that’s good for the two of you, that’s equity.”

The Abdos met when they were a bit younger than the students attending the dinner. They were both studying business at the University of Minnesota; Caryl Roth, the daughter of a successful retail entrepreneur, was one of just two women students in their class of 286 business majors.

“I asked her for her notes and she gave me the brushoff. Every guy was after her; I had to work hard for her,” Abdo recalls.

“When we graduated in 1969, no one knew what to do with a woman with a business degree. When I went for an interview, they asked how fast I could type,” Caryl says. “At first, I did advertising for my father, then Larry and I started working together.”

Abdo’s first business was a brokerage house. He moved on to buying an ice distributorship, then food booths at the State Fair and the Renaissance Festival, operations that Caryl managed even as their children came along.

“I took our third baby with me when I worked our booth at the Renaissance Festival three weeks after he was born,” she recalls. “The two older kids came along, too. That’s the way we’ve done it; we didn’t separate business and family.”

By his count, Abdo has now bought and sold 29 businesses. He says he’s never had a boss  — or a guaranteed paycheck — but he’s found the uncertainty of the entrepreneurial life is balanced by the freedom that it offers. Currently he develops commercial real estate, and owns businesses in the hospitality and food industries, including the MyBurger chain. The four Abdo grown children work in different arms of the family’s holdings.

“Larry is the entrepreneur. He dreams up an idea and I’m a really good follower,” Caryl says. “He’s always got our family at the forefront. He’s built that trust.”

Carlson alum Justin Porter, 32, and his wife Genna, seated adjacent to the Abdos at the long table, were listening closely as the couple answered questions and shared their story. The Porters, high school sweethearts and parents of two young children, are balancing Justin’s work as a principal in an early stage tech company and Genna’s operation of her boutique real estate firm.

“Entrepreneurship is an intense career path,” says Justin. “In business, we come to view money as an indicator of success. But if your personal life is in shambles, money is not going to mean much. We wanted to hear about how to build a foundation that can weather any storm.”

Abdo warned the young couples seated before him that they are all but certain to face losses and heartache in their business and personal lives — those random, cruel twists of fate that he termed “God events.” Having adequate marital equity, he insists, can protect the marriage through the inevitable grievous times.

“Be conscious of building equity, because one day you may have to spend it. It may take everything you ever put into it to keep you together,” he said, turning to smile at his wife. “Sometimes I think we spent it all but a dollar and with that dollar we started again.”

When a marriage does falter, entrepreneurs often face stark consequences. While there are no specific statistics on the divorce rate for entrepreneurs, author Meg Cadoux Hirshberg is among those who suspects it outpaces that of the general public.

“Divorce is devastating for any couple, but for the entrepreneur, it means dividing the assets with the spouse. They’re usually tied up in the business, so people have to sell because they divorce. They lose their company,” warns Hirshberg, who has interviewed some 700 entrepreneurs for her column in Inc. magazine and her book, “For Better or For Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families.”

Hirshberg has more than an academic interest in the pressures that come home with an entrepreneur; she’s raised three children with husband Gary Hirshberg, CEO and founder of Stonyfield Yogurt.

“The fact is, most businesses fail in the first five years; it’s rough going. Even if the business survives and thrives, the startup years are trying on a marriage,” she says. “An entrepreneurial business can really suck the oxygen out of the relationship.”

As a deal-maker and developer, Abdo has cultivated a tough guy persona, but it melts away when he speaks of his spouse. He respects her as his adviser and partner, no doubt, but it’s clear that she still makes his heart throb.

“Never lose track that it’s a boy-girl relationship,” he says as the evening with the students wraps up. “I want her to be my girlfriend, not the mother of my children. I think about her all day, I’m strategic about us. That’s what makes it fun.”  

Since starting the dinners, the Abdos have received numerous heartfelt letters from attendees. They’ve repeatedly heard couples say that they had had their most frank conversation about their future on the ride home from the Nicollet Island Inn.

Abdo treasures those notes, but the one that may have meant the most was from an engaged couple who decided to call it off because of what they heard at the dinner.

“They decided they didn’t make the right team after all. I think I saved them a lot of heartache,” he says. “And a lot of money, too.”