Till death do them part -- in business, anyway

Lori Topiel and Michael Colino kept their cleaning business going together, Topiel says, because “we had employees we didn’t want to let down.”

Lori Topiel and Michael Colino shared not only a business, but a life together.

Sadly, only the business has survived.

"It was not having a separation between work and a social life," Topiel said of what led to their divorce in 2006 after 14 years of marriage. "At 11 o'clock at night, we would still be talking work."

At the COIT of South Jersey cleaning franchise in Somerdale, Camden County, they opened in 1996, four years after they married, Topiel, 50, and Colino, 53, literally shared an office.

"It was almost impossible to get untangled," she said.

With extraordinary openness and a comfortable ease with each other, the Voorhees residents talked to me about their decision to separate in one aspect of their life and stay together in another.

In keeping COIT going, they cited the same thing so many couples who stay in failing marriages do: the other people involved. In their case, it was employees, not children.

"We had employees we didn't want to let down," Topiel said. "I felt responsible for everybody."

What they said about each other as business professionals was touching.

"She's a hard worker, very conscientious and detail-oriented," Colino said of his ex-wife. "We make a pretty good team running this thing."

Topiel said of her ex-husband: "I wouldn't want to be in business with anyone else. He's trustworthy, hardworking. We have never really had a fight about anything."

A native of Northeast Philadelphia, Topiel majored in business at the former Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, now Philadelphia University, and was living her dream working at Knit Wit, a high-end women's boutique in Center City. Colino grew up in Cherry Hill and also majored in business, at Wilkes University. Around 1986, Colino and his father bought five dry cleaners, three Laundromats, and a card-and-gift shop, all within a few miles of one another in Camden County.  

Topiel and Colino met in 1990 at a club in Voorhees and married two years later. She started helping out in his family's dry-cleaning business, Paree, where cleaning draperies that covered the massive windows of McMansions throughout the region had become a lucrative niche. In 1995, COIT -- a San Francisco-area company founded in 1950 as a small dry cleaner -- was making a big push to get better known around Philadelphia with a range of cleaning services and franchise opportunities.

"So we jumped on that," Colino said.

He and Topiel started with one truck. Focused on drapery and carpet cleaning, they tripled sales in a year. They went on to add air-duct and dryer-vent cleaning and, in 1998, opened a side business, Specialized Restoration Dry Cleaning, to handle fire-related cleanup. That work wound up generating 60 percent of revenue and providing the capital to keep the COIT franchise going, Topiel said.

By 2000, COIT had retreated from Philadelphia, leaving Topiel and Colino with the only franchise in this area. Of its other 35 franchises, the closest is in Maryland.

When the recession hit, "it was like everyone turned off the phones," Colino recalled. But Mother Nature would present an opportunity that now constitutes the biggest source of revenue, 60 percent, for the company of 35 employees: restoration work, including water mitigation and mold removal. Revenues this year are expected to be close to $3 million. Last year, the business won COIT's Franchise of the Year award and, in 2014 was its Emerging Franchise of the Year, said Richard Burton, director of franchising.

That Topiel and Colino are excelling while divorced "is an incredibly unique situation," Burton said. With other franchise owners who have found themselves no longer compatible for marriage, "it usually all goes downhill quickly. As bad as you can imagine. What was that movie, War of the Roses?"

With 3.7 million U.S. businesses jointly owned by husbands and wives, and 40 percent to 50 percent of marriages ending in divorce, "rare" are those couples continuing on as copreneurs after splitting, said Mary Nicoletti, director of the Initiative for Family Business & Entrepreneurship at St. Joseph's University.

That Topiel and Colino, parents to a 17-year-old daughter, have not transitioned ownership of the business to just one of them, maintaining their 50/50 partnership, is "even more impressive," said Nicoletti. She began her career in addictions counseling and has an expertise in family dynamics and dysfunction.

Any married couple considering going into business together should establish in writing a shareholder agreement and processes for decision-making and resolving business conflicts "even if you trust each other," she said. "It's so much easier to put these guidelines in place when people are getting along."  

Personally, Topiel and Colino have moved on. Each has remarried.  Understandably, they no longer share an office.

"I just need my own space," Topiel said.