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Think Running a Company Is Hard? Try Doing It With Your Spouse

Consider the stresses of running a mid-sized manufacturing company. You’ve got small clients whose supply chain might be entirely dependent on you. You’ve got big clients for whom you are a vital cog in the wheel of global operations. To your left are competitors threatening to innovate faster; to your right are investors eager for sizable returns. It’s no easy enterprise, this business of running a business. With great products comes great responsibility.

Now imagine the stresses of marriage—and throw them in with everything else. That’s what life is like for Christie Wong and Tom Barrett, co-owners of MacArthur Corp. and middle-market entrepreneurs who also happen to be husband and wife.

The couple’s company is no typical manufacturing enterprise. MacArthur Corp. uses advanced manufacturing, the integration of cutting-edge technology in the production of goods, to produce warning labels and cut industrial materials into custom shapes using dies. Advanced manufacturing was once a luxury for companies with spare profits to spend on research and development. In post-recession America, it’s a survival strategy. Gone are the days when companies could lumber through production with antiquated manufacturing techniques. Today, it’s adapt or die—or, for a company with as much foresight as MacArthur, adapt and thrive.

“Even in 2005, it was pretty clear that if we really wanted to move forward and survive, the culture of the business needed to change,” says Tom. That was a watershed year for MacArthur: Tom had just begun working for the company, joining his father, an owner since 1991, when its largest customer abruptly filed for bankruptcy.

“It was a pretty clarity-inducing moment for us as a business,” Tom notes. “We weren’t poorly run, but our management style hadn’t quite evolved into the latest and greatest. And we had to diversify our business significantly.”

But for a manufacturing company based just outside of Detroit in 2005, diversification was no easy task. Before Tom joined, MacArthur had primarily served the automotive industry. Both labels and die cuts are in high demand by car producers: The next time you read a seatbelt warning or get your gasket fixed, you might have MacArthur to thank.

But Tom’s instinct told him that the boom-and-bust cycle of the automotive industry might not be sustainable for a company firmly rooted in the middle market. He began reaching out to new clients in different fields, and soon MacArthur was producing labels for foodstuffs, beverages, electronics, and medical devices.

Thus began MacArthur’s makeover.

After successfully expanding the label side of the business, Tom began retooling MacArthur’s approach to die cuts. Traditionally, the company had concentrated on warning labels, using die cuts only sporadically. But they already had state-of-the-art die-cut technology; why not market their skills accordingly, Tom wondered. The gamble paid off. Within a few years, MacArthur had become even more competitive, increasing their share of the die-cut market and even embarking on a joint venture with a partner in Poland.

Taking risks like these isn’t easy. It requires flexibility—and enough capital to land on your feet if you stumble. That’s where the middle market excels. Because MacArthur lacked the huge layers of bureaucracy that weigh down large corporations, the company was able to innovate swiftly, taking advantage of their freedom to experiment. At the same time, its size allows MacArthur to devote greater attention to each client than a bigger company could ever give. Being a middle-market manufacturer, in other words, didn’t hinder MacArthur; it helped it.

Because Tom adapted his company to new global trends early, MacArthur weathered the recession with minimal damage and continues to thrive today. Two years ago, Christie became an official partner, helping to manage the business day-to-day while simultaneously planning, investing, and developing for the future.

Like any married couple, Christie notes, “we’re a team, both personally and professionally. And there’s always friction when working closely on a team.” Still, the couple sees their position as an advantage overall.

“Sometimes in a two-career family,” says Christie, “there’s friction at a macro level: Which job takes precedence? Who’s picking up the kids? When you work together in the same company, that friction disappears.” Plus, “I can always trust Tom to give me an honest point of view.”

Christie’s decision to become a partner came at a particularly serendipitous time: Soon after joining MacArthur, she was invited to participate in President Barack Obama’s Manufacturing Council, which advises the administration on policy decisions related to U.S. industry. Christie’s presence on the council ensures that middle-market manufacturers will have their voices heard as the president presses forward with his plan to grow American industry.

That’s good news for the whole country, because companies like MacArthur represent America’s best hope to regain its foothold in the global manufacturing market. Christie and Tom’s willingness to take big chances and to capitalize on new technologies, means they’re constantly at the forefront of new trends and demands. They have the flexibility to experiment and the agility to quickly meet their clients’ needs. From marriage to manufacturing, they’re a team—and they’re leading the way to the future of American industry.

Image: ThinkStock