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Partners in business and life: How these North Bay entrepreneurs learned balance

We’ve heard it before: “A couple who plays together, stays together.” But with apologies to Bill and Melinda Gates, what about the couple who works together and gets divorced?

Susan Griffin-Black, 55, and Brad Black, 59, have proven there’s life after divorce, even going on Dr. Phil’s television show in 2019 to talk about their amicable split.

The duo started EO Products three decades ago while they were married. Since their breakup, they have remained close personally and run the San Rafael manufacturer of essential oil and personal care products as co-CEOs.

Black was working in the clothing industry, when he met her in 1988. She approached him to get garments for a boyfriend going on a scavenger hunt.

“The moment we met we were friends,” he said. “It was amazing. She got me, and she got what I was trying to do. It wasn’t like a thunderbolt, but we resonated, and it’s been that way throughout our whole relationship.”

The duo got married in 1995 and have a daughter together, Lucy, 24.

“I think we’ll be in a relationship forever,” she said of the camaraderie. “I have trust and faith in that. Sometimes we’re not in line with our opinions, and we have to work through it. We’re just different people,” she said.

After a stint with couples therapy, the Blacks divorced in 2007. The change in their lives has sometimes worked to their advantage at the workplace where they oversee 170 employees.

“We disagree less and don’t get stuck in the anger. The love kicks in,” Black said.

They’ve grown to understand each other better. Instead of allowing a former spouse push hurtful buttons, the Blacks learned to revert back to an inner respect for one another.

“You have to ask yourself: ‘How deep are you willing to go in your vulnerable space’?” Black explained. “There’s a tenderness I feel from Susan.”

In turn, Griffin-Black supports their newfound boundaries.

“Each of us has done the personal work where there’s a lot of opportunity for growth,” she said.

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges. They both emphasized the struggles of the pandemic as they endured “bad cash flows” within their business in the past year.

“The issue with the pandemic is how we engage in discord. I think that’s one of our strengths. We have had every right to never want to see each other again, yet we chose to take our relationship deeper,” he said.

Since their separation, Black has stayed single and Griffin-Black has connected with a boyfriend for the last seven years.

“We just know we’ll always be in each others’ lives,” she said.

Laws of attraction, independence

Let’s be honest. Work is sexy, when you’re watching someone accomplishing unique tasks.

“My parents said never to marry someone not as smart as me,” said Sonoma County lawyer Rachel Dollar.

She describes her husband and law firm partner Glenn Smith as quick witted and sharp as a tack.

“That made him attractive. I respect him. He’s an amazing lawyer, and that helps,” she said.

The two have their own interests, and that works out for their personal lives. He likes muscle cars. She likes to cook. They run a namesake law firm in Santa Rosa, but that doesn’t mean they live their work.

“We have two different relationships,” she said. “Home issues do not come up at the office. At home, it’s: ‘What’s for dinner?”

The couple said they respect each other’s “alone” time.

“A lot of couples are needy,” Smith said.

Instead, it’s been a blessing for the two attorneys to have different wings at the office. They both work at home where the wings are now separate floors.

“The essence of our marriage is we started working together before we were a couple,” Smith said, referring to a time when they kept their dating a secret as peers at a large law firm.

The couple has been “together” for 22 years and got married seven years ago.

Their secret to wedded bliss while running their firm together is simple.

“We don’t take it home with us, even if we’re as angry as a mad hatter with each other,” she said, adding times have occurred when they view cases differently.

Argumentative diplomacy is ingrained in the legal world.

With a love of good food

Providing individual room to grow is the secret recipe for the working matrimony behind chef Josef Keller and his wife, Jill Keller-Peters.

“We do pretty well with giving each other space,” said the 70-year-old marketer and business partner of Chef Josef’s Gourmet Seasoning Blends.

Although it’s the 67-year-old chef’s name on the shingle over the last four years, the Keller-Peters combo adds up to an equal presence in the business with her knowledge of promoting a business. He’s the face of the business, drawing on 30 years of experience running restaurants, including La Provence and Josef’s Restaurant & Bar.

This new focus of developing gourmet seasonings has turned out to be successful, along with the couple’s marriage. The business’ first full year brought in $50,000 in gross sales while he worked at Meals on Wheels in 2019. The next year saw a doubling of sales. Keller hopes to rake in $150,000 by the time 2021 ends.

Keller-Peters said the couple’s online business has blossomed over the last few years, especially in 2020 during the pandemic. The gourmet seasonings are now found in about 100 stores, including Oliver’s Market and the Rodney Strong Winery. As business picks up more and more, the duo hopes to expand with a packing machine that produces 200 units per hour. For now, the packing is done by hand.

Keller loves to upgrade and experiment. He blends 10 different herbs and spices to create his unique mix of gourmet seasonings, including The Original Blend, Citrus Tarragon, Garlic Herb, Barbecue, Curry Basil and Lemon Dill.

“Most spice blends are made up of 70 to 80% salt. But ours have two thirds spices and one third salt,” he said.

The success of the business has resulted in the continued success of the couple’s relationship.

Keller’s penchant for whipping up scrumptious meals is acknowledged by his wife of 23 years.

Call it the way to a woman’s heart.

“I’ve been spoiled rotten with good food every day,” she said, laughing.

The couple was introduced to each other by her brother, who worked with Keller (no relation to restaurateur Thomas Keller).

“It was instant — a fairytale,” she said.

They know other friends who are working couples who become frustrated with each other. Most of the time, the finances become a burden and take their toll.

Do they disagree? Sure.

“If we have different views, we just find middle ground. You just have to find that, if you want harmony, you need to compromise,” she said.

The Kellers said they respect each other’s space and different personalities, which spill out at home and at work.

“It’s knowing what your strengths are and knowing each other,” Keller said of finding the right work-life balance.

Then, there are other considerations and benefits to working and playing together.

“She knows me, and we don’t have to worry about cheating,” he said jokingly.

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