Couples in business together – how to make it work

Think 'board meeting' and you may perhaps conjure up sober, suited types trapped in an airless room where the only scenery is a PowerPoint and set of greige walls.

But at Corey and Megan Hall's company, they do things differently.

The pair, who own handcrafted wine label Harwood Hall with partners Digger and Deb Hennessy – conduct their business talks down on the beach. And the only 'board' in question is of the surfing kind.

The wild, unspoiled beauty of Bethells, in west Auckland, is where Megan and Corey are fortunate enough to live and work, with regular visits to Marlborough, where Digger runs the vineyard.

Yep, Corey and Megan's lifestyle – surfing the waves together whenever the fancy takes them, dropping off and picking up their two children from school every day, living in one of Auckland's most idyllic settings – is like something straight out of an Air New Zealand commercial… and you'd be forgiven for resenting them if it weren't for the fact that a) they're really rather likeable and b) they've had to work damned hard to get to this point – and have had their share of heartache along the way.

Any relationship is tricky, let alone one that straddles the personal and the professional.

But if you had to reduce this duo's ability to navigate the ups and downs of married life, raising children, and running a business to a mathematical formula, it would go something like this: Humour + Complementary Skillsets = Success. (They may quibble with the word 'success'; they are charmingly self-deprecating. But they do appear to have achieved that holy grail of modern times: work/life balance.)

"One of the best things about our relationship, and in business, is that we're very different," says 44-year-old Megan, who runs the sales, marketing and admin side of Harwood Hall.

"How we approach our work caused some friction, but the fact we have different skillsets was perfect. Corey didn't want to be in the office doing admin. He'd rather be that very creative, organic person."

This difference is apparent in the way they respond to NEXT's questions. Corey the jokey, slightly at-a-tangent contributor to the conversation; Megan friendly but focused, with rat-a-tat, rapid-fire responses.

Megan and Corey Hall of Harwood Hall

So yes, this relationship has an impressive 18-year vintage, but let's reel back to 2001, when the seeds were sown. Rotorua-born and raised Megan had just finished her university degree in Sports Science and Marketing in Hamilton and then Auckland, and was working in hospitality. West Aucklander Corey – with a degree in oenology – was winemaking for Matua Valley, and flatting with wine company rep Logan, an ex of Megan's.

Megan starts to tell the story. "Logan said 'I'm living with this guy; you should meet him, he's fabulous, you'll love him.' We did end up meeting. We did have that attraction…"

Corey erupts with laughter and bursts in: "You kicked my door down!!! What are you talking about?!"

Out with Logan one midweek night, she had apparently rung the flat and tried to get Corey to join them for drinks. He declined. Then according to Corey's telling – he jumps up from his seat to re-enact the encounter – she appeared at the flat an hour later and marched into his bedroom, where he was in bed. He refused to join them, but the following week he turned up to her birthday drinks… and the rest is history. That plus two kids and a lot of grapes.

In those early days, when Corey would wow her flatmates by turning up with boxes of wine, the world of winemaking seemed like this "magical, mystical thing", says Megan. "But when we started working together I saw how it really works – lots of long hours, negotiations, stress."

Fast-forward to 2006. By now married with first child Pepper (now 13; second child Minnie is 10), things took a drastic turn. Megan had taken six months' maternity leave from her job with a property company; Corey had been at Matua for a decade, and was feeling restless. They had gone from a family company to a big international one, and he was getting more away from what he loved doing – making wine for a small family business.

"He came home one day, I was breast-feeding Pepper, who was six months old, and he goes, 'Well, I've done it, I've quit', and I'm like [sharp intake of breath]. We knew it was happening but it was quite a shock."

The two had already discussed that if Corey did strike out alone, Megan would come in too, to take care of marketing, admin, distribution and sales – which at Matua was done by a massive team.

They started the Gem label, with a focus on making small batches of premium, handmade wines. Corey's mum Sue and brother Travis stepped in to help with the kids, as did Megan's mum Stephanie. In the first six months of the business, baby Pepper "would get carted down to Rotorua" to stay with her for a week a month so they could focus on Gem. Despite this, it proved unsustainable.

"It just sucked the life out of us," says Megan. "Two people starting a new business with a baby…" Then the GFC hit, making it a perfect storm. "At the end
of two years we weren't making any money."

They needed a product that was cheaper, that would turn over quicker. They also needed a third party, some "new energy".

With just two of them, arguments about the business were becoming personal, says Megan. "It was, 'Megan I want to buy five new French barriques [barrels] for our chardonnay and I say no, and it's like 'Oh she said no because she's this and that'… it becomes personal."

So new energy is what they got when, in 2008, they joined forces with winemaker Digger and his wife Deb to make Harwood Hall. They're still exporting Gem (named after Meg) – "It's my baby," says Corey – and have enough stock to sell (whether they continue to make it is up in the air), but Harwood Hall is now the main focus. And it's starting to take off – their wines are sold at New World and their Marlborough sauvignon blanc 2018 recently won Gold in the supermarket brand's wine awards.

It could so easily have all fallen apart – both the business and the marriage.

In 2011 both Corey's mum and brother died, and his two grandmothers. Two young children, a demanding business to run, and four funerals in a year. This would be enough to create serious cracks in any relationship.

"That was like a bomb going off in the room," says Corey. "And you think a) it sucks and b) that's life. You don't have long, so make sure you make time each day [for the things that matter]."

Megan agrees the reason they "made it stick" is that they've found balance. It's a skill she's had to learn, she admits.

"If I get to the end of the day and I want to go for a surf or a run and I haven't accomplished what I want, I ask myself 'Is this something I can deal with tomorrow?'. That's something I learned from Corey. For me it was 'when work's done, then you play'. Whereas he was, 'I've just come from a corporate industry and I don't want to work like that. If I want to take two hours off in the middle of the day to surf, then I will.'"

So yes, back to those board meetings. While they do have sit-down sessions – "If we're getting stressed, having a meeting and writing lists, figuring out where we are at, is good," says Megan – they also happen organically. "It'll be 1pm on a nice day and we'll spend half an hour walking down to the beach talking totally about work," says Corey. "Then we'll walk back [after surfing] and just be talking about the waves."

Megan took up surfing with Corey five years ago. They tried golf together, but she was "too impatient". "[Surfing] was a big breakthrough for me. That helped me to detach from work like nothing else has done. The minute you get into the water, everything disappears from your head."

The beach time is also effectively their 'date night'. The whole date night thing doesn't work for them. "We tried a couple of times," says Corey. "But we always end up calling mates so it becomes a 20-person date night!"

As for the opposite conundrum – getting space from one another – that's not hard. While the pair both pop down to Marlborough once a month to do tastings and catch up with the Hennessys, it's Corey who's there most, about three months of the year all up. "We regularly have little patches of time apart, which I love. I love having the bed to myself," emphasises Megan.

But even when they're both home, she works from an office out the back and he's in the house.

This has come with huge advantages – as well as "living at the beach", they can be flexible around school holidays and they've raised both kids without having to have a nanny.

What would they say to other couples contemplating going into business together?

"It will test your relationship," says Corey.

"I found it way more difficult than having kids or buying a house," agrees Megan.

Would they have done anything differently?

"We'd chop things that weren't working a lot quicker," reflects Corey. "For the first four or five years we struggled along on the same path because we had our heads down."

Megan adds that the "killer" was selling. It was far harder than they expected. They could make good wine, administer, do the packaging, but they needed an ace sales partner from the outset.

Still, while it "took a while to find where we were supposed to be," says Corey, they seem to have cracked it. Not just on the sales front, but in the way the two of them are managing the working day.

If Megan is really busy in the office, she'll go straight out there in the morning and Corey deals "with the kids and the mess", then at 9am he joins the office day. And vice versa, depending on who has the most on their plate. Sometimes it doesn't even need to be said.

"It's very fluid now; we've got into a rhythm," says Megan.

And, quite honestly, who wouldn't raise a glass to that?

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