Me and my partner: Cut from the same cloth

After a career in social work, Philip Geller went into business with Elliott Cohen, his brother-in-law, in 1999. Their company I&G Cohen recycles and exports clothing and textiles, with a turnover of £1.5m
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Elliott Cohen

Elliott Cohen

I met Phil when he was a student in Manchester and he was going out with my sister. But it was another 20 years before he joined the company. He was looking to move on from his social work. He'd heard we were considering bringing someone else in and he approached me and said that he was interested.

The fact he was my brother-in-law probably made it easier. When you are running a business a lot of it is built on trust. We have had bad experiences with managers who stole from us, so I was very wary of giving that kind of responsibility to just anybody.

Phil comes from a completely different background. It gives him a more objective eye sometimes. He didn't bring any preconceived ideas so he gives us experience that I don't have. He is very good at the daily administering of the business. He looks after the book-keeping, he looks after the health and safety, he looks after the paperwork side of things. I tend to be more passionate and creative in what I do. I look after the warehouse, the buying and the selling. But when it comes to business strategy, we both have an equal input.

Our roles are reasonably well defined, although there is always a crossover. We both have a relationship with the customers for example, but I will deal with them on production issues, whereas he tends to deal with them on financial issues.

Initially, it was difficult to get used to delegating certain functions and responsibilities to Phil because for so long I'd done it myself. But it was made easier by the fact that I kept hold of many of my responsibilities. The ones that Phil took over, like the accounting issues and the paperwork, had previously been done by my mother. I hate that side of things. Phil is much better at it than me, although he's not so excited by it these days.

We do have our disagreements from time to time. With any kind of partnership nothing ever runs totally smoothly all the time. But like with everything, we try to work it out. At the end of the day, we're both here for the same reason: we're both here to try to make a profit. And I like to think that I'm a reasonable person. Phil certainly is a reasonable person. We both think that if the other person has got very strong reasons why they don't want to do something or why they do want to do something, then providing it's not going to be to the detriment of the company, we can work something out.

Since we started working together, I've learnt that he is very capable at what he does. He's a very conscientious person. Our skills are complementary. He's far more cautious in business than I ever am. I am often like a bull in a china shop and plough ahead with my ideas. If it works out, great. If it doesn't, never mind, we'll try again next time. Sometimes I need somebody who has got their head screwed on a bit more. Someone to say, hang on a minute, let's not rush anything - let's consider what is best for the business. So we do complement each other in that way.

We have always been a very close knit family. A lot of the extended family have also worked together in different ways. It seems to be a natural way of doing things. It gives the business that extra strength.

Philip Geller

My background is in social work for a local authority, but I've always been interested in finance - my degree was in economics - and I had an aptitude for it.

I decided that my career options were limited in the public sector. I felt the time was right for a change. I was looking for something where I could have more control over my own life and what I do. It happened to coincide with a time when Elliott was looking for someone to come in at a senior level and help him run his business.

I've known Elliott for over 20 years, but not that well. He's a little bit older than me and we only really came across each other at family functions. I knew a bit about the business. It is inevitable if you are in the same family. But obviously there's a world of difference from hearing about a business and actually working in it.

I did come in on a few occasions before I made the final decision to move, just to have a look at it. And I'd done a few bits of consultancy for him, setting up accounting and production systems. So I had a flavour of what it was going to be like.

I was fairly optimistic that things would work. He had a lot more experience but he was open to ideas and I did feel that I could bring something different.

When you're going into a family business it is a very serious commitment. If things don't work, then it is not just your job that's at risk - it could jeopardise family relationships. So it was quite a big decision. And we do try to keep things as separate as possible. You must have boundaries.

There was an initial adjustment in our relationship as it moved from a personal into a business environment. But it's worked out very well. I'm quite a placid character and he's more of the passionate, fiery type. Elliott is a very creative person. He is very adept at sizing up a situation and coming up with solutions. He doesn't shirk a challenge and is good at thinking on his feet. At times we have different ways of reaching decisions, but hopefully we've got it right more times than not.

We see a lot of each other at work. We did share an office for a while, but we decided that it wasn't really a very effective way of working because we were sharing too much.

We do have quite clear roles in terms of responsibilities. We worked that out over the first two or three years I was here. I look after the administration and the financial side. He deals with production and sales, and there are some things we both deal with.

We do disagree occasionally. I think that's inevitable in any business. Sometimes one of us will have a bit of a shout about it. But we always try to reach a consensus in decision-making. It is either a very heated debate or a very calm one and then we'll come to some conclusion. We try to make sure that the other person has had a chance to give their view and then the decision will be made between us. It doesn't happen a lot because there aren't that many issues that we fundamentally disagree on.

Working together has brought us closer. It has to. It can only go one of two ways and the alternative could be disastrous. It has made the relationship stronger without question. We have a very strong loyalty to each other and we know that we can rely on each other 100 per cent.