Bring on a business partner and live to tell about it

In business, working with someone you trust implicitly is significant. And when you're business partners with someone you've known for a long time, it's just one of numerous benefits you'll encounter. Not that such a relationship is challenge-free, but to hear it from several longtime business partners here in the region, any drawbacks are far outweighed by the positive aspects of this kind of arrangement.

The BN spent time talking with business partners from four different industries… read on for their stories:

"It made perfect sense"

Considering the parallel education and career choices they've made, it's not entirely surprising that architects Tom Nemitz, 49, and John Dancer, 50, ended up in business together. Both 1977 graduates of Traverse City Central High School, the friends went on to attend Northwestern Michigan College and then Lawrence Technological University, where they roomed together and met their respective wives.

Their paths diverged following graduation – Nemitz moved to Grand Rapids while Dancer relocated to Colorado. But the pair remained close friends, keeping in touch to share family news as well as talk shop since both became commercial architects. They even entered architectural contests together, meeting up in cities for events.

"We've always had really similar design interest," said Dancer, whose career climb included working for large firms in Chicago and Atlanta.

It was after having his second child with wife Barb that Dancer began thinking seriously of returning to Traverse City.

"I couldn't really take that lifestyle anymore," Dancer said of living in the big city, juggling a two-child, two-income family which involved a lot of travel for both him and Barb. "With two small kids, it was not a good life…I wanted to try to find a way back home."

Around the same time, Nemitz, also a father of two with wife, Luann, wondered how he could get back to Traverse City. He'd opened Cornerstone Architects in Grand Rapids and while he was successful with projects there, he wanted to have a presence up north as well. Knowing Dancer wanted to return to the area, he spoke with him about the possibility.

"It made perfect sense to me," Nemitz said. "I wanted someone I knew and trusted to start an office up here."

In 1995, the longtime friends made it happen. And the business partners haven't looked back.

"We literally have the same server and work on the same projects," Dancer said.

"It works great," added Nemitz, who continues to live in Grand Rapids, taking weekly trips north to spend time in the Traverse City office.

The friends-turned-business partners agree what helps their firm is their like-mindedness as well as their distinct skill sets. For example, Nemitz has considerable experience with historic building renovations while Dancer specializes in new construction.

Having known each other since childhood is helpful as well. The partners also work with Dan Iacovoni, an associate principal in their firm, who also attended high school and NMC with them.

"We're not afraid to tell each other when one of us doesn't like what the other is doing – there's not that worry of hurting feelings," said Nemitz, who likes that they can build off one another's ideas.

"In the end, it's always the client we are serving," Dancer said. "It's not about our own individual piece."

The partners also enjoy working on projects in their hometown, including renovations and new builds for clients such as Traverse City Area Public Schools, Interlochen Center for the Arts and Northwestern Michigan College.

"We certainly care what happens to Traverse City, and that helps," Nemitz said. "We've been very fortunate to get some good projects."

"We don't step on each

other's toes"

A decade after meeting, Cindy Dickson, 46, and Marcie Wolf, 47, are enjoying operating together the successful web design company AlphaGeek.

While the pair now consider themselves best friends, their relationship started through a business connection.

"She helped me get started in web work," said Wolf. "She had that background, and I had the strength in graphic design, development and marketing."

The women talked about wanting to own their own businesses.

"There was a need for affordable web site services," Wolf said.

The partners founded AlphaGeek Web Design in 2002 as Harbor Springs Web Design. In 2006, they changed the name to AlphaGeek, and moved their offices to Petoskey the next year.

That Wolf and Dickson brought specific skills to the table has been key, the women said.

Both meet with clients, but "we don't step on each other's toes," Wolf said. "I feel that's really important – to make sure you are not competing against each other. I've seen that (in other business partnerships). Be sure you're both working together."

With just the two of them in their office, they "take on what we can handle" to ensure they provide their clients with optimal personalized attention, Dickson said.

Wolf and Dickson acknowledge that some friends wonder how the pair can be so close both professionally and personally. In addition to spending the workday together, they'll often hang out during happy hour and get together over the weekend. They also like to keep in touch through text messaging.

The business partners simply say it works for them, and even makes the business run better.

"Both friends went through tough times in the past year – Wolf went through a divorce, Dickson lost her mom to cancer – and having the other there was huge, they said.

"It's an incredible advantage

in business"

Like his older brother John, Traverse City attorney Mark Dancer, 48, has found success partnering with someone he's known since childhood.

It would take seven years, but Dancer and lifelong friend Daniel Dingeman, 47, reconnected in 1993 to create the law practice known today as Dingeman, Dancer & Christopherson in downtown Traverse City.

"It was time to move back," Dancer said of deciding to leave a prominent law practice in Los Angeles to return to northern Michigan with his wife Catherine and their two children. "I really didn't want to raise my kids out there."

As successful as he was on the West Coast – clients included Fortune 100 companies and well-known entertainers – Dancer said his long work commute grew old and he liked the idea of practicing alongside someone he'd known and kept in touch with for years.

"If I was going to go back, I wanted to do it with my friend," he said.

"I know I can count on him and he on me," Dingeman said. "It's an incredible advantage in business."

The friendship clearly is a close one, given the one-liners they throw out during a conversation about their intertwined paths and eventual business partnership.

"He's always looked up to me as an older brother," Dancer quipped.

Or, when discussing how Dancer moved from the big city to his hometown, Dingeman said: "I like to say it was his big break."

Dancer and Dingeman remembered meeting each other in junior high.

"We both had similar interests – skiing, sailing," Dancer said. "We both worked together early on, as bus boys at the Holiday Inn."

Following high school graduation, Dancer opted to head west, to attend school in Colorado. Dingeman, meanwhile, chose Michigan State University. That summer, the friends started what would become a summer tradition: "Drift Trips," excursions that have taken them across the country.

Both pursued a career in law; they studied for the Bar together as well as worked on Capitol Hill together one summer.

The friends stayed in touch despite living thousands of miles away from each other, taking part in their respective weddings and fitting in "drift trips" now and again.

As law partners – they've since added two additional partners to their practice – they not only work well together, but maintain a close friendship.

"We're really like family at this point – it's ridiculous," Dancer said.

The friends also have gone into real estate investment together, purchasing property in downtown as well as in Key West, Fla.

"We've been sounding boards for each other … We continue to share information with each other," said Dingeman, who has three children with wife Denine. "That's been an important part of our partnership."

"We just clicked"

With just the two of them there to work with customers, things can get a bit hectic at times for Cindy Lyskawa and Gayle Gallagher of Copy Queenz.

But the longtime business associates and friends take it all in stride, knowing they have each other to turn to for assistance.

"We've gotten to the point if one needs help, we kind of know. It's a silent thing," Lyskawa said.

"You step in, you know what she needs," Gallagher said.

Indeed, Lyskawa, who owns the full-service copy shop, and Gallagher seem to have their routines down to a science. Both feel strongly about personalized attention toward each customer who walks through their doors.

"Our work ethics mesh really well," Lyskawa said.

"(Customers) always get the attention first and that's the way we work," Gallagher said,

The friends go back more than a decade, when both worked at another local copy shop.

"Cindy actually trained me," Gallagher said. "We worked real well together. Cindy was always very kind, just pretty laid back. We just clicked really well."

When Lyskawa decided to go off on her own, she turned to Gallagher when she needed to hire help. She knew she could count on her, that she should share many of the business decisions with her because she could trust her.

"If I had someone else, I'd have to spend more time watching over them," she said.

Bouncing ideas off each other – like the idea of expanding the shop's wedding stationery offerings – is incredibly helpful, they said.

"There's a comfort having each other here," Lyskawa said. BN

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