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No shop talk at dinner: Acorn Food Services

An emphasis on balancing work and home keeps both sides of this family's life running smoothly.

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At the LePera household, there are rules: Dinner marks the end of the workday. No discussion about business is allowed at the table. And weekends are sacred.

Deborah LePera, who launched Acorn Food Services in Philadelphia in 1990 with her husband, Robert, makes sure that those tenets are observed, and he is grateful she does.

"Debbie's really good at demanding balance, and that's been really healthy for me," says Robert. "She'll say, 'You gotta get off that computer! You gotta get out of the office!' I'll try to sneak work in, but she'll give me a dirty look and that's all it takes for me to feel terrible."

Their business, which employs 100 full-time workers and administers food service contracts for corporate and military clients, was Robert's idea. It runs smoothly, competing against billion-dollar industry giants, in part because of his management experience. But Deborah drives the sales, attending bidder meetings and appointments with customers.

"I'm the face of the business," she says.

A few years ago they adopted two infant boys, and what could have been a source of stress for any partnership has instead motivated them to fine-tune their business and strengthen their relationship. Deborah decided to cut back to about 20 hours of work a week and spend more time at home. Even though sales fell by half, Robert was pleased with her choice.

Their goal now is to maintain a growth rate they're comfortable with. "We're pickier," says Robert. "We look at what is profitable rather than just taking on business to say we're growing." The strategy seems to work: Revenues are lower than in 2001 but still a healthy $7 million a year. And the company's profit margins have remained consistent.

With the boys in school, Deborah, who is president and owns 51 percent of Acorn, has increased her workweek to about 30 hours.

"We'd like to live like this over the long term," she says. They try to cook at home as much as possible, and both pitch in with the kids' school projects and the dishes.

Deborah's 21-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Jessica Proctor, finds the arrangement comforting.

"I love seeing my parents helping each other out and being their own boss," she says. "And if they are working together well as business partners, that reassures me that they're working together as husband and wife."

Meantime, Robert has happily adjusted to a more deliberate pace. In the early years of their partnership, when Deborah had yet to lay down the law, he spent the bulk of their Hawaiian honeymoon on the phone closing up a deal.

"But we hope to fly out again," insists Robert. This time, they'll leave business behind. - Phaedra Hise, with additional reporting by Ingrid Tharasook.

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