Navigating business ownership with a partner

When Tom Sanceau and Bonnie Shearston landed in Brisbane nine years ago from the UK, they had no idea just how challenging the next chapter of their life would be.

Full of passion and good intentions, the pair turned their passion for good food and wine into the hospitality empire Happy Fat Group.

They’re not alone. Australians rank lifestyle high on their priority list, prompting many to try their hand at a business with their spouse or family members. In fact, around 70 per cent of Australia’s 2.1 million businesses are family-owned, making the family business sector a key part of the nation’s economy.

While not for everyone, family-run businesses represent a huge opportunity. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer in fact reveals that 54 per cent of shoppers prefer to work for a family business and 66 per cent are willing to pay more for products or services offered by family businesses.

Sanceau and Shearston’s Happy Fat Group has successfully cemented their reputation in Australia and globally with a range of successful bars and restaurants, including Public, Red Hook and Coppa Spuntino. Their latest project is Pollen in Los Angeles, California.

Being in business with family or loved ones can put a strain on any relationship. The stresses of running a business and knowing when to switch off from work can be difficult to navigate.

Tom admits it was far from easy. “It consumed us every day. I’d lay awake at night thinking about how to do things better. I knew I had to make it work. I put my life’s savings into the business and borrowed a little chunk of money for my parents.” Failure was not an option, he says. “It absolutely had to work.

By the end of 2014, their business partnership was thriving. Their relationship was not, however.

Running five businesses proved to be unsustainable. It was a case of too much growth, too soon. And on the eve of launching their fifth restaurant, the pair called it quits on their relationship.

Listen to how Sanceau and Shearston moved through calling it quits on their relationship but not their business partnership in episode four of Paper Cuts.