The Heart of the Matter

Making it work when you work together.

Kimberley Wray
02/25/2019
Printer Friendly, PDF & Email
Erin Ben Napier

Statistics suggest that entrepreneurial couples have a much higher rate of divorce than other married people. While the five successful couples profiled on these pages will say there are obviously plenty of challenges in building a company with the one you love, there just may be something inherently different about the industry they’ve all chosen to conquer. Here, it seems, home is truly where the heart is. 

Ben and Erin Napier

Laurel Mercantile Co. 

Ben Erin Napier

Valentine’s Day will mark exactly one month since the premiere of season three of “Home Town” on HGTV (Mondays at 9/8c), and that seems perfectly fitting for the series’ stars. “We decided we would get married six days after meeting in college and have been together day in and day out ever since,” says Erin Napier. These days, their life as a couple plays out in front of millions of loyal viewers on one of the network’s most popular and highly rated shows.

“It’s so hard to believe we’ve made three seasons of this incredible show because things like this just do not happen to regular folks like us,” Erin Napier relates. “We believe that big progress blooms in small towns and a show like ‘Home Town’ gives people all over the country permission to believe in their communities again, whether it’s struggling after an industry left, or it’s finding its legs again as more and more people are joining the movement to revitalize our hometowns.”

Working together apparently came quite naturally to the graphic designer and youth minister cum woodworker who began their career in home simply enough: They purchased a house in downtown Laurel, MS, and began to renovate it themselves out of sheer necessity. It wasn’t too long before the two were also actively involved in revitalizing the town itself, opening Laurel Mercantile Co. on Front Street with two other couples, old friends from their college days. Erin Napier blogged and posted photos of the journey on Instagram, and Ben Napier began building furniture to satisfy his wife’s desire for expensive antiques they couldn’t afford in the early days. 

Last fall, they debuted their first furniture collection at Vaughan-Bassett to rave reviews. “We both design: He builds, I choose colors and finishes. I make art. Our tastes are very similar, and whether it’s a home, a piece of custom furniture or artwork, we give each other input beginning to end.”

“We probably tell each other too much, but there are no secrets, so nothing to fester and turn into an argument, as long as we’re communicating. We vent to each other, then vent to our parents, and then we handle it because we’re on the same team and we have each other’s best interests at heart.”

Indeed, she says, “The upside to working together is spending every day, all day together. The downside is that we are ALWAYS working!”

Christina and Angelo Marzilli, Sr. 

Decor-Rest Furniture

Christina Angelo Marzilli Sr

Most successful home furnishings manufacturers are committed to spending time at the High Point Market twice a year. Few, however, would describe it as a vacation spot, much less the ideal location for a honeymoon. But 47 years ago, when Christina Marzilli married Angelo Marzilli on Sept. 9, 1972,  that was the destination she suggested for the pair’s post-nuptial celebration. 

It seems the young bride was as committed to helping her new husband launch a small upholstery company as she was to her new husband. She had heard that High Point was the Furniture Capital of the World, so off they went. She remembers being “really happy” to learn they would be staying at the Holiday Inn on Main Street, right in the center of it all. Of course, the couple was blissfully unaware that, since it was early September, the bi-annual circus, as they say, was not in town. Arriving at 8 p.m., they went to bed hungry on their first night as man and wife, because at that hour, the restaurants in downtown High Point were as shuttered and dark as the showrooms. 

As the couple closes in on their 50th wedding anniversary, Decor-Rest Furniture has risen to become the leading upholstered furniture manufacturer in Canada. Angelo Marzilli, Sr. is Chairman. Christina is Managing Director, and their son, Angelo Marzilli, Jr., was named President of the North American whole home powerhouse in 2017. And today, the company’s 14,000-square-foot High Point showroom in Plaza Suites stands on the original site of that now-defunct Holiday Inn. 

Angelo Marzilli, Sr. always envisioned Decor-Rest as a family-owned and -operated company, but he says, “I actually told her to go work somewhere else in the beginning.” Back then Christina Marzilli was working in the apparel industry in merchandising and window display. “He told me I needed to learn about bookkeeping and get some experience in running an office,” she says. “I thought, ‘Okay, sure. Why not?’”

Christina Marzilli worked part-time at first, handling bookkeeping in the evenings and eventually applying her fashion skills to fabrics, design and marketing. Engineering, plant management and quality were Angelo Marzilli, Sr.’s aegis from the start. His tastes run more to the traditional. Christina Marzilli loves sleek, contemporary, high-fashion looks. “I’m quick to make decisions,” she relates, ”he has to dissect the pros and cons. 

“We do have disagreements, and I was brought up in an Italian family where the man has the final word. But as we grew, and I took on more and more leadership roles, I became more opinionated. We learned that as a family, we have to remind ourselves that we all have the same goals and that we all mean well.” Angelo Marzilli, Sr. nods. “We both have a passion for what we do and we respect each other. Starting and growing a business was difficult. We worked together, yet independently. The key in any business is respect, but in a family business, it’s the most important thing, because if you don’t create a good family, it’s worthless.” 

Randal and Sally Weeks

Aidan Gray

Sally Randal Weeks

Randal Weeks’ automated out-of-office reply last December likely elicited sighs and swoons from all who received it. Instead of the usual “if you need immediate assistance, please contact,” Weeks’ spoke of inviting his wife to London for two days of shopping, dining and Christmas lights. Describing “time as the best gift,” he said the trip was “a spontaneous burst of inspiration,” and added that the couple rarely gets away together. He noted they would be meeting back up with their three boys, friends and families for the holidays in 48 hours and checking in with customers, and then signed off by wishing all a merry Christmas.

Randal Weeks was overseas, on the tail end of long buying trip when one of their sons handed Sally Weeks the phone. “I want you to come meet me in London,” her husband said. “All the arrangements are made, and a ticket is on its way.” Sally Weeks responded, “Wait, what?” And then started to pack. 

“We don’t get much time by ourselves as a couple,” admits Sally Weeks, who along with her roles as wife and mother serves as Chief Financial Officer at Aidan Gray, the company her husband founded in 2003. That’s the same year Sally Weeks gave birth to the couple’s third child, for whom the company is named. “We have to strive to go out on date night, and inevitably, like all couples, we’ve got kids calling us. Those divorce statistics for entrepreneurs are probably because you are always busy ‘doing.’ Your lives are entwined with work and children, and those become the priorities instead of the two of you as a couple. It’s a lot to juggle. That’s why people look across the table at each other after 18 years of marriage and think, ‘I don’t really have anything to say to you anymore.’”

Luckily, that’s not the case here. “We absolutely love what we do,” says Randal Weeks, who envisioned the concept for Aidan Gray when he was in graduate school. “I used to search the back of Southern Accents and other magazines, searching for the products I saw in the pictures of the featured homes. Invariably, it would say that it was the customer’s personal antique imported from France. I kept thinking that I was probably not the only crazy person searching for items all the time that most people could not afford. The idea was to start a company that did antique reproductions from France that were more affordable.”

Sally Weeks helped process orders in the evenings during the early years, but maintained her own job as a representative for a medical implant company. “I was spending a lot of time in the OR teaching doctors how to implant our devices, getting up at 4 a.m. to attend surgeries. I was missing getting the kids up in the morning and being able to take them to school, and it just became too much.” 

“We were both working crazy hours,” Randal Weeks recounts, “and if Sally wasn’t working her job, she was helping me in the evenings.” When one of the boys called Sally Weeks by the nanny’s name, the couple knew it was time to rethink. 

“One of our biggest fears in Sally joining the company was that we were very cognizant of the fact that we didn’t want to be portrayed as husband and wife in the office. We did not want that to be a dynamic that people worried about. It’s not like a mom-and-pop shop where the employees have to worry that the two of us will gang up on anybody. Our working relationship is very corporate. While she doesn’t ever hold back when she doesn’t agree with something, she treats me like the President, and I treat her like a CFO.”

Still, the struggle for balance remains very real. “To be honest, the company does kind of rule our lives,” Randal Weeks says. “You just have to, as a couple, decide that there is a time and place to discuss work, and at home with the kids is probably not the time and place to do it.” 

Adds Sally Weeks, “I’m not Superwoman and things fall through the cracks. I’m not sure that I believe that as a woman you really get to have it all, working and raising kids. There’s a lot of sacrifice.” As for London? “It was a wonderful trip,” Sally Weeks says with a sigh.

Jason Oliver Nixon and John Loecke

Madcap Cottage

Jason Oliver Nixon John Loecke

John Loecke is from Des Moines, IA; Jason Oliver Nixon is from Tampa, FL. Both worked in shelter magazine publishing at various high-profile titles — Nixon at Hamptons and Gotham, Loecke at American Homestyle, but had never met. “You know that period of time when all of your friends are getting married?” Nixon asks. “I went to the wedding of a friend who was the health editor at Vogue, and at the reception, a woman across the table just kept peppering me with questions. It was a bit annoying. Then a couple of days later, she called and said, ‘I think you might like this friend of mine; let’s all go out on a date.’”

They met at the White Horse Tavern in the West Village. Not long after Loecke sent Nixon a book of short stories by Truman Capote. They started working together in 2005. “We got a job doing publicist Leslie Stevens’ house in Southampton. She owned the PR powerhouse LaForce+Stevens and had this dumpy little rental cottage right off Main Street. Primo location right off Meeting House Lane and a block from everything, and she wanted something quick and easy. I think we spent $40,000 and did it in a couple of weeks, a lot of high-low which is something that we love, and then Adam Glassman, the Creative Director of Oprah called and said, ‘We’re going to run it,’ and it ended up being eight pages in the magazine. While we didn’t suddenly turn into Nate Berkus, we thought, ‘We can do this.’”

The rest as they say is history. Loecke does the heavy lifting on the design front. Nixon is continually connecting, marketing and storytelling. “It’s a good Yin Yang. John has a three-room studio where all of the actual design happens. He’s in there painting wood floor tiles today, and I’m working on an Instagram strategy and sending thank-you notes.” 

Along the way, as Madcap Cottage has organically grown and evolved, there have been stints on the Home Shopping Network with a capsule collection (along with the excellent media training, they learned a lot about product development and how to manufacture), multiple licensing deals with the likes of Robert Allen (fabrics), Momeni (rugs), Port 68 (lighting) and others and, of course, a move from their home base in Brooklyn, NY, to High Point, NC, to be squarely in the thick of things. Just before they moved south, they headed to city hall for a ceremony meant to be followed by lunch at Cipriani and found out “it’s not like it happens in the movies. There’s a 24-hour waiting period, but we didn’t know. We thought you just walked in and got married. So we had to go back a couple of weeks later, and then we went to a deli and had a sandwich.”

Last month, the pair opened new office space in Thomasville, NC, in a building that once housed a radio station. “Johnny Cash and Tex Ritter used to perform here,” Nixon relates. Decorated in the whimsical style for which Madcap is known, the airy, cheerful space is filled with exuberant color, pattern and dogs. A disco ball hangs from the exposed rafters. “Our world is not reality,” Loecke says. “It’s kind of a mish-mash of English folly meets Edward Scissorhands topiaries.” It’s a sensibility the couple aims to apply to a boutique hotel among other goals, which include fashion and accessory partnerships, pop-up retail and a TV show of their own. “It’s not about being famous, it’s about creating content. We’re rethinking the wheel all the time and saying, ‘Let’s try something new.’ If we can make peoples’ lives better and happier, mission accomplished.”

Cortney and Robert Novogratz

The Novogratz

Cortney Robert Novogratz

“I picked Robert up at a party when I was a senior in college in Florida, and he was living in North Carolina. It was love at first sight. We shared common interests: flea markets, art, design and architecture, and we knew from the start we were stronger together as two than separate. We dated and were the kind of couple that would rearrange the furniture when we went over to friends’ apartments. Eventually, people started hiring us to do that (which was really nice) and we worked our way to New York.”

In what might sound like an inauspicious beginning, the young couple purchased a condemned building in Chelsea. “The neighborhood was not what it is today, it was down and dirty and people thought we were crazy. There wasn’t even running water. But we started doing everything ourselves, ripping up the floors and renovating, and we rented out half the house to help pay the mortgage. Songwriter Suzanne Vega came by and wanted to rent the whole house for lots of money, so we moved out and that kind of kick-started our career. She was paying us a lot of money in rent and that made it possible for us to go and do it again. Someone hired us to do a hotel and it just kept evolving. So in a sense, our career found us and we’ve never looked back. It was a balance of courage and naiveté, and that’s kind of how we approach life to this today.”

And what a life it is. As just about anybody in the home business knows, throughout the next 20 years, the fun, hip and artsy young couple would become known for rebuilding and transforming entire city blocks from the ground up, designing and developing many unique properties in Manhattan, Los Angeles and beyond. “We knew when we met that we wanted a creative life and the big city and a lot of kids. Robert comes from a family with seven children, and I’m from five,” Cortney Novogratz shares. Two sets of twins helped them quickly meet their goal. (There are seven children altogether.)

Over the years, Robert Novogratz would typically handle real estate and budgets “and a lot of the design, which people don’t suspect because they think, ‘well, he’s the man so he has more to do with the construction,’ but it’s kind of the reverse with us.” Cortney Novogratz would hunt down resources and handle the architectural plans. “He is over the top in love with art, to the point that sometimes I need to say we need to slow down and actually buy furniture, but in almost 30 years together now, we just know what needs to be done and we rely on each other. There are days when I’m not feeling my best and he’ll take over, and there are days when the opposite is true. We flip and flop roles constantly, wearing many hats.”

With their own tastes and aesthetics aligned, they specialize in designing for couples. “We want to provide people with amazing homes where they will both be happy. We try to make it fun, but sometimes we need to remind them that they found each other for a reason. People often lose sight of that because talking about money and home can be very stressful. And we get that, because it is in our own lives. But when it comes to design, we have very similar tastes. If we go to a flea market and we split up, no matter where it is in the world, when we circle back, we will have spotted the same things.”

CB2, a division of Crate & Barrel, helped move the pair into product design. “That was our first collaboration, and it was literally like going back to college because we learned so much. Working in Manhattan, we were catering to very wealthy people, but with a lot of kids and overhead ourselves, we really wanted to start selling to the masses, to help people get their hands on really neat products that feel high end, with great quality, in an affordable way. We’re designing for real life.”

Leave a Comment