Susan Southerland and Michele Butler weren't just employer and employee -- they were best friends. They worked together all day at Southerland's company, Orlando, Fla.-based Just Marry!, talked on the phone at night, went out together socially and were there for each other through the deaths of their fathers, births of their children and both of their divorces. "We spent most of our time together, confided in each other, supported each other," Southerland recalls.
"We were a huge support for each other during any trauma and drama in our lives," Butler agrees. "We spoke daily and often. We were inseparable. We were very much like sisters, actually."
But when the recession hit Just Marry! hard, Southerland had to make one of the toughest decisions since she started the business: She had to lay off her best friend.
It was a measure that Southerland had tried to avoid for as long as possible. She had already laid off all her other employees, stopped using contractors and had even stopped taking a salary for herself. She had cut Butler's salary and taken away some of Butler's benefits, such as reimbursing for dry cleaning and mileage. But when Southerland had to take out a $80,000 home equity line to help cover business expenses, she knew she couldn't keep her friend employed any longer. "I was taking personal funds to be able to continue to pay her," Southerland said.
Though Southerland said she was trying to drop hints for Butler, Butler said she was surprised when she was let go. "We had struggled before and had come out of it, so I figured this would be the case again," Butler said. "She had said that she would make it work and I believed her, but this was obviously a different situation and we weren't the only business being negatively affected by the economy."
Butler said the layoff felt more like a divorce. "Outside of any break-ups and deaths I’ve experienced in my life, the loss of what we had as friends causes me the greatest pain," she said. "We managed to stay friends, but our friendship has never been what it once was."
Still, both women somehow emerged from the experience not only on good terms personally but with increased success professionally. Butler went on to start her own business, Michele Butler Events, an event planning company specializing in weddings and social parties with four full-time and several part-time employees.
And Southerland has experienced significant revenue increases, written a book, "The Susan Southerland Secret," and booked numerous speaking engagements. Not surprisingly, her decision to let her best friend go is a topic that often comes up.
Michele Butler was your first hire, six years after you started your business. Do you remember your first impression when you met her?
She was bubbly and fun, with just a wonderful personality. She seemed very similar to me, and I thought we would have a good time working together.
And you ended up becoming best friends. Is there a moment that stands out that illustrates to you how close you were and how much you went through together?
I vividly remember when her dad passed away. She called me to tell me her dad died, and said, "What do I do, how am I going to get through this?" I was with her throughout that whole process, helped her clean out her parents' house and get her mother resettled. That was a very difficult time.
When your business started suffering in the recession, was it further affected because you were so close personally?
Looking back, there were decisions I could have made for the business that I didn't make because of my relationship with her. For most of the time we were together, she was helpful in making decisions and taking the business in a certain direction, and it was all very positive. But when the recession started and financial decisions had to be made, that's when it became difficult.
You actually took her to the bank with you once when you had to transfer personal funds into the business?
It wasn't as melodramatic as it sounds -- we just happened to be out and she came with me to the bank and saw me transferring that money from my private account into the business.
But you were hoping she'd get the hint and quit?
Yeah, I'd say that I was too chicken to really pull the trigger myself on this and finally say "I love you, this has been great, but I can't keep doing this." She was probably also feeling "Susan is not able to pay me as much, I don't know where this is going, maybe I should do something about it." I think both of us, because of our friendship, were hesitant and had a fear of the unknown.
Was it also difficult to let her go because you knew she was in the middle of a breakup with her fiancee and was a single mother without child support?
When you are so entangled with someone, there never really is a good time. It was like going through a divorce. It wasn't as simple as "your services are no longer needed." And my personality was more nurturing than cutthroat. I would sacrifice things for myself to help other people, whereas I learned a valuable lesson, that I have to put the business first, because that's something my family depends on.
And when you had to finally fire her in February 2009, what was that talk like?
I think it had been so much of a struggle for so long, it was more of a fizzle than a boom. It was a phone call. It was upsetting for both of us, but she didn't specifically express anything like "you're a horrible person." It wasn't anything dramatic. It was more like, "I'm going to figure out what I'm going to do now."
Were you surprised that what she did do was start her own business in the same industry?
My intent was never to put her in a situation where she couldn't earn a living, so I let her take her clients and photos of events she did, so if she was going to build a business, she'd have the tools to start with.
But your friendship was affected?
Yes, it was definitely affected, I think more so because of outside forces. We'd run into chatter all over the place from different vendors. That was probably the most difficult part.
Have you been able to repair your friendship?
She traveled all the way from Colorado to be part of my wedding two years ago. Her mother just passed away, and while we're no longer best friends, I was there for the funeral and there for her, and I'm expecting a baby in a couple of weeks, so she'll be there for that. I can't say we even speak once a month, but we do run into each other very often. We're certainly more than acquaintances but not as close as we were.
Do you miss her as a best friend, even though you made the right decision for your business?
She was with the company about 10 years, and now she's been gone three. I miss that she brought out a sillier side in me. I was always a very serious and driven person, and some of the most ridiculous, fun times I've had were with her. I miss those. On the flip side, when I went to hire again, I found people who did not have similar skill sets as me, and that has allowed me to do other things I wanted to do and brought in new revenue streams that I didn't have before.
And knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently?
We have said this to each other: Had we known it was going to turn out all right for everybody involved, we would have done it sooner, which would have made it less financially taxing on me and less mentally taxing on her. And I learned subsequently, in talking with other people about difficult things you need to do in business, that sometimes letting someone go is the best thing you can do. Sometimes you can be just as much of an anchor to them as they are to you.
Name: Susan Southerland
Company: Just Marry!
Location: Orlando, Fla.
Employees: 5 full time, 2 part time, 10 contractors
2012 Projected Revenue: 150 percent over-the-year increase in revenue