Couples Who Reinvent

Would you—could you—work 24/7 with your husband? These women all launched companies with their mates and, incidentally, enriched their marriages

by Jennifer Margulis
couples who start a business
“You need to have an indestructible relationship,” says Jane Hendler, who cofounded Ajne with her husband, Rex Rombach.
Photograph: Micheal Todd

The Scents of Success In the Carmel, California, showroom of Ajne perfumery, the ambience manages to be both opulently baroque and coolly high tech, with filigreed flacons and gilt-edged antiques surrounding a computer that helps visitors choose the right fragrance for their personality and body chemistry. But downstairs in the lab, the atmosphere turns clinical. Here, co-owner Jane Hendler blends essential oils into what she calls liquid art. This morning she lines up 48 different oils—vials of lavender, sandalwood, pink grapefruit, agarwood (about $1,800 an ounce wholesale, more costly than gold)—and, working quietly with pipettes and beakers, produces a new batch of the signature fragrance she developed exclusively for Rob Lowe.

For Jane and her husband and co-owner, Rex Rombach, this 21st-century perfumery, with its clientele of celebrities, hotels and spas, is the culmination of a dream they had one evening nine years ago on California’s Mount Shasta. As the couple sat by the fireplace in a rustic cabin, they talked long into the night about wanting to find a deeper level of meaning in their work. Jane, a marketing executive for a jewelry-design company, shared childhood memories of breathing in the heady scents of roses, lilacs and magnolias growing near her grandmother’s house. Then she said aloud something she’d been mulling for a while: “I want to be a perfumer.”

Rex, the owner of a hair-products distribution firm, confessed a dream of his own: He longed to grow things and work with his hands. The couple started fantasizing about making perfume from the oils of organic plants they would cultivate on a three-acre property they owned near Carmel. Eight months later, Jane quit her job and enrolled in the Santa Cruz, California, College of Botanical Healing Arts to become a master essential-oil therapist. Rex sold his company, and they turned their land into an organic farm planted with lavender, bergamot and yuzu. In 2005, with a $750,000 initial investment, they launched their company, Ajne (ajne.com), from a 300-square-foot store in Carmel. Rex took charge of the accounts and designed the recyclable packaging. Jane hired her best friend, Kathy Pape, as the public relations director. Pape reached out to her Hollywood and media connections, and Ajne took off. “The first year was idyllic,” Jane says.

Hoping to boost sales, they relocated to Carmel’s swankiest street, Ocean Avenue; that set them back more than $96,000 in annual rent. But the move did not produce the anticipated revenue, and the pair fought constantly about how to expand the business. On one occasion, Rex grew so frantic about the company’s finances, he wrote Jane a lengthy resignation letter (though he never actually gave it to her). “There were plenty of times one of us slept in the guest cottage,” Jane says. Finally, just as each was almost ready to quit, they agreed to a radical scale-back.

Today their showroom is in a different Carmel location: on Mission Street, where the rent is more reasonable. Their accounts look a lot healthier—$800,000 in gross revenues for 2010 and a 5,000 percent increase in Internet sales. And both say their personal relationship has deepened. “There’s comfort, excitement and joy in creating together,” says Jane.

“I love spending time with Jane and taking on challenges together,” says Rex. “She grabs on to the joy of life.”

At the end of her morning blending session, Jane leaves her lab and bounds up the stairs to Rex’s office. “Try this,” she says, dabbing scent on his wrists. They both sniff, and Jane nods approval: Rob Lowe will be so pleased.

 The Cupcake Couple

One night in April 2008, Pam Turkin returned to Detroit from a business trip in New York carrying a box of cupcakes from the Magnolia Bakery. “There are people waiting in line there and spending $3 for one!” she told her husband, Todd. An avid baker (“It’s an art form for me,” says Pam), she had been observing the country’s cupcake craze during her travels and had noted that no one was selling the treats in Michigan. So, she thought, Why not the Turkins? That night she told Todd, “We’ve got to do this!”

First Published January 3, 2012

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