Updated: Thursday, January 4, 2018, 10:33 AM
If Kalina Gendel never spoke to her mother again, it would be understandable.
Kathy Gendel, founder and CEO of the Gendel Girls, the Chester County company behind QVC’s largest intimate-apparel line, has rehired her oldest daughter’s ex-husband, Michel Larocque, to serve as director of business development at the 24-year-old family business.
Or “challenging,” as Kalina put it at the company’s headquarters on the Gendel family farm in Chester Springs, as the man to whom she was married for 12 years and who fathered their two children sat across a big round table from her. Kalina acknowledged restraint in choosing that word, “because it’s going to live forever” in print and online.
And because, Kalina said, there’s an upside to this post-divorce working relationship with Larocque, a former goalie with the Chicago Blackhawks whom she met in college at Boston University. He had a two-year contract with the Blackhawks, playing in just three games. They married in 2001. Their children are 13 and 6.
“The things that help us co-parent very well – facing challenges, coming up with solutions to problems – those have actually helped our business relationship,” said Kalina, 40. “Our working relationship is better now than it was before.”
She and Larocque attributed that to the same thing: space. Living apart provides the work-life balance they didn’t have when they were married and working at the Gendel Girls.
“I wouldn’t say it ruined the marriage,” Larocque, 41, said of not having a life separate from work. “I would say it definitely played a part.”
The rigors of family businesses are many even without a marital split among principals. “Rare” are the couples continuing on in business after divorcing, Mary Nicoletti, then-director of the Initiative for Family Business & Entrepreneurship at St. Joseph’s University, said in a 2016 interview.
“It’s pretty unique,” said T.L. Hill, associate professor of strategic management at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. “No matter how much fortitude you have, there are going to be days when it’s going to be tested.”
Indeed, the Gendels had decided it wasn’t an ideal arrangement for their company and Larocque agreed, leaving the company in 2015 after about 10 years as vice president of operations. He oversaw production with Kathy’s husband, Craig, a longtime veteran of the intimate-apparel industry and creator of the patented odor- and stain-control fabric technology behind their Breezies brand bras and panties.
“We were devastated,” Kathy said. “I was thinking, ‘How are we going to go forward with production?’ As an owner of the business and a mother-in-law, you just kind of feel empty.”
Attention, she said, turned to Kalina and the business: “Life went on, as it does.”
For Larocque, that involved starting a coaching business, ML28 Hockey, in West Chester, which he still operates.
Last year, he got a phone call from his former mother-in-law. “She asked me: ‘Would you be interested in coming back? I have a perfect project for you,’ ” Larocque recalled.
He called Kalina, chief operating officer, to ask if she’d be OK with his return. When she said she was, “I jumped on board and it’s been nothing but a good experience,” said Larocque, whose rehiring was announced in November.
Said Kalina: “I felt let’s do what’s best for the business.”
Kathy isn’t ready to disclose the business opportunity that triggered her bringing Larocque back, beyond saying the company wants to diversify and grow the brand.
“It has nothing to do with retailing, but it will be using our patented fabric,” she said. “What we’re doing is probably going to take a lot of time and patience.”
Larocque, she said, is “the only person that can do this.”
Rehiring him is an understandable move, though Hill, at Temple, said he would have advised Kathy “to look really hard, that maybe there is someone else.”
Then again, when it comes to business development, Hill said, it’s “hard to find people who do it really well. In that sense, I kind of get it if she found someone who’s good.”
Kathy ticked off a number of superlatives in describing Larocque, including humble, honest, disciplined, and aggressive.
She acknowledged that marrying into the family business would not be easy for anyone, because it entails taking a backseat, in large part, to her daughters, all but one of whom join her live on QVC four to five times a week. Catherine, 30, creative marketing manager, helps set up product for the shows and handles the company’s social media. The Gendel Girls line debuted on QVC in 1994, the first intimate wear to be sold on the home-shopping network, Kathy Gendel said.
“These are the stars,” Kathy said of her daughters. “Without them, we don’t have a business. It takes a big person to really be somebody’s wingman.”
The middle daughter, Laurissa, 32, president, is also divorced and the mother of two. Her ex-husband had been the Gendel Girls’ accountant. She declined to talk about that.
The company of 11 employees – four are not family members – does not disclose revenues, but says annual average growth has been about 22 percent with “millions” of bras and panties sold worldwide.
“Now it’s about the challenge of the next thing – growing the business, evolving the product, technology,” Larocque said.
He called the industry “a little bit antiquated,” with “opportunity to get the end user more comfortable.” His ex-wife called it “very cyclical” with consumers sometimes demanding bras with support, other times prioritizing comfort. Maidenform, Lunaire, and Le Mystere are considered their primary competitors.
With Larocque no longer a member of the family, Temple’s Hill said, his performance must be judged “on something visible and measurable” through a “clean, fair process,” absent the informality present in so many family businesses.
“Erring on the side of process and measurable results is probably best for long-term harmony,” Hill said.
As an “outsider,” Larocque said his work at the Gendel Girls has “a lot more appeal now. … I get to go home. I have the separation from work that I never had.”
But he still calls Kathy “Mom.”