When Mickey and Rich Swortzel were married in 1991, they had no idea that their decision to be partners in life would grow to mean partners in business, too.
The pair, both from the same town in Ohio, met for the first time right after college and hit it off. Mickey worked in finance, Rich was an engineer. Soon after saying “I do,” the Swortzels moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., so Rich could take an engineering job at General Motors. But the role didn’t work out, and after starting work at a tech firm, Rich felt restless. In 2000, he decided to start a software engineering company called New Eagle.
“When he asked me what I thought about starting a company, I said, ‘Sure, what do we have to lose?'” Mickey remembers. “I was working another job and just did the books for his company at night.”
Within two years, the company had taken off to such a degree that Mickey decided to leave her job and join Rich as a full-time business partner, with a focus on the financial side of the business. Now celebrating their 26th year of marriage and 17th year as business partners, Mickey says their success comes down to three key ingredients: the ability to make decisions, mutual respect and trust.
“Make sure you have a partner that compliments your skill set, not mimics it, and allow each other the autonomy to make your own decisions,” she says.
New Eagle is an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based engineering company that specializes in solving mechanical, electrical and software-related problems (a field called ‘mechatronics’) for the automotive industry. The company’s early days, Mickey says, were rough.
“It wasn’t my goal to go into business together, but that’s what happened,” she says. “We wouldn’t see eye to eye on many topics, so we’d fight it out until we came to a decision.”
Tension often revolved around business decisions, such as whether to hire more employees, that often seemed like a good idea from Rich’s growth perspective as President, but as risky from Mickey’s financial vantage point as CFO.
“He’d want to hire three people, and I’d say we only had the money for one person,” she says. “We worked it out and, amazingly, didn’t bring it home. Our relationship has always been really great, even when we haven’t agreed on business decisions.”
Mickey says it came down to an issue of time and priorities. The couple welcomed a son into their lives in 2002 as the business was booming, which redirected their attention a bit.
“Having our son and figuring out how to raise a kid became a natural diffuser and allowed us to leave things at the door,” she says.
Growth and pivoting
In 2003, New Eagle Software was acquired by Brunswick Corporation. Mickey and Rich assumed marketing and sales roles, respectively, but when the 2008 economic downturn hit, Brunswick got rid of their division (called MotoTron) and the couple had to act quickly.
“Within two months of finding out we were going to be let go, we decided to branch off with the business we’d built and start another company, this time focused on much more than software,” she says, adding that Brunswick allowed the pair to reabsorb their previous company.
The second time around, Mickey says that she and Rich don’t fight nearly as much thanks to their years of experience working together.
“Work and personal bleeds all the time, and we are fine with it,” she says. “I will say that in the last couple years we’ve taken vacation and turned off work, which has been nice, but boundaries have never really been an issue for us.”
But most of all, trust and respect have been the touchstones of the couple’s personal and professional successes.
“Honestly, that’s where being married helps,” Mickey says. “I already said, ‘I do,’ to Rich. He’s been vetted. I was already in the boat. Even if he rowed it a different way, we have always been in it together.”