JANE APPLEGATE

In the early '90s, America was in an economic slump, but Sally Sirkin Lewis believed that the "rich always stay rich."

Without telling her husband, Bernard Lewis, she rented a showroom in Manhattan's professional design and decoration building to showcase the contemporary, upscale, luxury furniture and fabrics she designed for J. Robert Scott Inc. Looking back, she believes that independent move was the last straw for the Lewis' 30-year marriage.

While a weaker person would have fallen apart, Sirkin Lewis launched into a high-growth mode at the Inglewood-based firm she started with her husband in 1972.

"Bernie wanted to sit in our house in Santa Fe and look at the mountains," said Sirkin Lewis in an interview. "He wanted me to open a little store there. He was always satisfied with what we had and never wanted to grow."

The Lewises are an example of the toll that living and working together takes on many entrepreneurial marriages, according to Azriela Jaffe, author of "Honey, I Want to Start My Own Business: A Planning Guide for Couples" (Harper Business) and "Let's Go Into Business Together: Eight Secrets to Successful Business Partnering" (Avon).

"For the Lewises, it sounded like an issue of incompatible life goals," said Jaffe. "They co-existed for a number of years successfully, but they were clearly a couple at a fork in the road. She wanted to go down one road, and he another."

Jaffe said it's fairly common for couples who work together to avoid dealing with serious issues until the problems tear apart the marriage and the business.

"As they aged, she wanted more power, and he wanted retirement," said Jaffe. "They reached a point where she probably felt, 'Do I hold myself back from going for the success I want for myself?' "

It cost Sirkin Lewis millions to buy out her husband's and stepson's interest in the business they named after their three sons, but at last, it was all hers.

"My husband told my daughter that the doors would be closed in six months," said Sirkin Lewis with a laugh. "I haven't seen or heard from him in five years, but I know he's aware of my success."

Although she was in her 60s when she took over the family business, Sirkin Lewis was determined to achieve all her personal and business goals. The company, with showrooms in Chicago, Los Angeles, London and Washington, is expanding into the European market and developing a line of furniture and fabrics for younger families with children.

Sirkin Lewis holds more than 50 U.S. design patents for furniture, and continues to create award-winning designs. "I regret that I didn't (take over) sooner," she said. "I'm so much older now. I could have done so much of this when I was in my early 40s."

Some company insiders said things worked best when Sirkin Lewis stayed out of the executive office and left all the business matters to her husband.

"Bernie treated Sally like a Beverly Hills housewife," said one source close to the company. "When she asked hard questions, he'd say, 'That's OK, honey. Why don't you draw something or go shopping?' "

Bernard Lewis said it was very clear that he was running the business, and she was the design person. "She always said, 'I'm not a businessperson, I'm a decorator,' " Bernard added.

After Bernard left the company, Sirkin Lewis hired a chief financial officer. Based on new designs and a renewed marketing campaign, sales began to skyrocket. Sirkin was finally free to promote the company and take full credit for its success in the trades and business press.

Her next step was to hire a team of consultants to help her deal with complex software and staffing problems. One consultant was Ward Wieman, founder of Management Overload in Santa Monica.

"Sally is a brilliant designer who was used to running a company where she saw every piece of furniture and dealt with every employee, every day," said Wieman, who specializes in helping companies cope with rapid growth.

"She's still working much too hard, but it's her passion and her life, and she loves it."

No longer hampered by disagreements with her husband, Sirkin Lewis is finally free to grow the company as big as she wants to.

Bernard Lewis acknowledges that they had reached a crossroads. "The divorce had nothing to do with the business, it was totally personal."

An admitted workaholic, Sirkin Lewis said she has absolutely no intention of retiring. She works seven days a week, heading up a furniture and fabric empire with 200 employees and annual revenues approaching $40 million. An internationally known and respected designer, she was named one of the top 100 interior designers by Architectural Digest.

Sirkin Lewis is often credited by colleagues with creating the "California look," a casual, elegant style of home decor. She was one of the first designers, for example, to use sisal (a woven straw) as a floor covering and colorful, batiked fabrics as upholstery.

For many years, she was kept in the dark about company finances. Now that she's responsible for the financial and creative sides of the business, she's trying to groom and mentor successors.

"I'm a good teacher," she said. "I love to recognize talent in somebody as much as I love it in myself. I've allowed people here to really grow."

Although she had a small, solid management team and many long-term employees, she admits being "scared to death" just prior to the divorce.

"I asked myself, 'How am I going to manage this?' " she said. "But I had the most fantastic support network of employees, attorneys and therapists to help me."

Priding herself on her independence, she drives her 16-year-old Bentley to the office, arriving most days by 8:30 a.m. She rarely leaves before 7:30 p.m. At home, evenings consist of a quiet dinner, a bath and some television before bedtime. (She likes watching Geraldo Rivera). She doesn't date and rarely goes out with friends. She has a pair of wire-haired terriers to keep her company.

"I never go away," she said. "I work at home on the weekends. There are always new products to design, new furniture, fabric and lighting accessories." To relax, she enjoys hand-painting party invitations and cards.

"The reason the business has grown is because I follow my instincts," said Sirkin Lewis. "I'm very confident about what I do, and my ideas are generally right."

She admits that she "really cared for Bernie" and never thought they would split up.

"It was more his decision to divorce because I did not want to retire," she said. "There was no other way out."

When asked how employees reacted to the news that he was leaving the business, she said there was a "big sigh of relief."

"They were thrilled, and I was shocked," she said. "They really rallied around me. Bernie always told me I was impossible and demanding, but now people tell me I'm the best boss they've ever had."

Jane Applegate is a syndicated columnist and author of "201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business." For more resources, visit jane@janeapplegate.com.

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