Hugs their recipe for workplace bliss

How many couples would relish being partners at work and at home? Steven Russell met a husband-and-wife team who are just that. One of the secrets, apparently, is regular hugs

Steven Russell

How many couples would relish being partners at work and at home? Steven Russell met a husband-and-wife team who are just that. One of the secrets, apparently, is regular hugs . . .

RUNNING a business together must be a doddle for the Wattleworths after spending 18 months of early married life living cheek by jowl while sailing their 42ft yacht from the UK to New Zealand. “Our first dual-handed crossing was across the Atlantic . . . very nearly the last,” laughs Karen. She's referring to a bit of a scare on the way down. “Bad weather is an understatement,” explains Stephen. “I think it was called 'a severe storm'. We even had a Nimrod fly over us almost at mast height and call us up on channel 16, to check we were OK.” His wife recalls: “He had a lovely voice - just like Sean Connery!” Joking apart, it was a dangerous episode, “because we went through the eye of the storm,” says Stephen. “We took the sails right down. We still did four or five knots.”

The couple had an experienced yachtsman with them down to the Canary Islands, but after that they were on their own. Thankfully, it was plainer sailing, though they did just avoid another tempest as they approached the end of their voyage. “We were literally just ahead of the storm,” remembers Stephen.

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They'd seized the chance of adventure when the company for which they worked - where they met, in fact - hit trouble, with its Ipswich operation shut down. Taking to the seas was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and they took it.

The Wattleworths spent more than two years living and working in New Zealand, having their first son there and Karen falling pregnant with their second, before returning to Suffolk. They then sought a working life that would dovetail with a young family and so, about 12 years ago, started their own business.

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Stephen knew all about the long hours of the blue-chip grind - balanced, it ought to be said, by the excitement, satisfaction and rewards - having climbed the corporate ladder during his career.

At manufacturing giant Hawker Siddeley, for instance, he'd worked at board level, as a financial analyst to the directors. Going to New Zealand, and fatherhood, altered perspective. “When I came back here, someone said 'You could always work in London,' and I thought 'Yeah . . . If you add up all the commuting hours . . .' You make your choices. I couldn't hack that.”

They have run ZooBooKoo, designing and manufacturing educational gifts and games, for more than 12 years. Today, operations are split between a warehouse at Bentwaters Park, the former United States Air Force base in Rendlesham, and offices at their home near Woodbridge. In the early days, their garage would be full of boxes - “and most of the house!” admits Karen.

ZooBooKoo games are exported far and wide - to Russia, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand, and Greece, for example - as well as being found across the UK. Harrods was an early stockist, and still is.

It can't be easy working in each other's pockets, and the business world can be a jungle. As well as moments of triumph, there are low spots: like having to overcome a legal challenge over rights - the news delivered in a lawyers' letter opened over breakfast. Winning the day cost a five-figure sum, plus all the energy it consumed. “It probably made us stand still for two years,” Stephen reckons. So how do they keep a twinkle in their eyes, as well as staying friends?

They make time for each other, says Stephen. “We go out for dinners or lunches; we plan events for us or for the family and holidays - to look forward to; we celebrate every small success story and we get the kids involved.”

Karen adds: “It's important to get dressed up and to try not to speak business, though we often do - but getting better. Most important of all is to hug and laugh several times a day, especially after stressy board meetings!”

Stephen's hot on the need for business structures “with systems and procedures - which Karen likes to bend a little.” he chuckles, “but it works well for us.”

They have clearly-defined roles, too, and very different styles. “Karen is an 'implementer' - she likes to get things done, preferably as quickly as possible. Whereas I am more of a 'shaper' - always challenging the way things are done, striving to move forward and grow. So we do clash occasionally. But it works - it's a healthy, creative clash - and then there's the making up . . . !”

Stephen spent most of his formative years in the Worcester area. He studied at Aston University before heading for London and working as an accountant. He was in the oil industry for about 10 years and with Hawker Siddeley for five.

Wanting to move from London in the 1980s he landed a job at Burton, Son and Sanders - down on the dockside in Ipswich - and worked as finance director.

Karen, meanwhile, grew up in Perthshire. Actor-to-be Ewan McGregor was in the year above her at secondary school. At university in Edinburgh she studied interpreting and translating (French and German) and came south for a job as exports executive for a coin-counting-machine company in St Albans.

In 1990 she headed east to Ipswich, joining Burton, Son and Sanders - as European export manager, she thinks. “It all seems a long time ago!” And that, of course, is where the couple met.

While it was all going swimmingly on a personal front, the 1990s were not proving so great for the company. Supermarkets were decimating the high street bakery trade, and those outlets represented core business for Burton's bakery and confectionery products. As profits fell, the parent company sold the business and the Ipswich operation was shut down.

For the Wattleworths, it proved a chance to do something different. Stephen had caught the sailing bug, taking a Yachtmaster theory course at Suffolk College and studying Oceanmaster theory in London.

He and Karen bought a boat in the Mediterranean and had it refitted at Fox's Marina, on the Orwell at Ipswich. “Our wedding list was interesting,” she smiles.

So it was that they sailed away from East Anglia in 1993, not long after getting married.

The voyage to the Antipodes was everything one would expect: both thrilling and challenging. “You imagine you would have long, lazy days crossing the Atlantic and the Pacific, but there's always something to do,” says Karen. “Revolves a lot around food, I have to say!”

When the spinnaker pole broke - a device that supports and helps control a sail - Stephen did some improvised engineering to repair it with the aluminium casing of old fire extinguishers!

During their time in New Zealand he worked as the general manager of a dairy company. Son Bradley, now 13, was just over a year old when the family returned to Britain - Karen about eight months pregnant with Douglas when they left the southern hemisphere. They didn't sail back, by the way: the boat was sold in New Zealand.

The couple felt incredibly privileged to have had their adventure down-under. “The experiences of each month were the equivalent of working for about a year in an office back in England,” says Stephen. “I always remember thinking it was awesome.”

At the heart of ZooBooKoo was the notion of a cube with a twist - one that folds itself inside-out. (See the video at to see one in action.)

The couple had seen a cube in New Zealand with artwork on it. “It was just a coffee-table piece. We were both playing with it and Karen said 'Maybe we can make a cube and do something with it.' So I went away and reverse-engineered it by seeing how it all worked.”

They had the idea of making 12-page mini-encyclopaedias; being newish parents, educational possibilities were at the forefront of their minds. The first four “Cube Books” were launched, featuring times tables, the alphabet, dinosaurs, and animal parents and offspring.

Today, there are more than 15 titles, including Kings and Queens, the Human Body and Planets.

The range has grown. There are Magic Mats: double-sided, re-useable activity placemats for children to write on and wipe-off. Hidden answers are revealed by rubbing “magic boxes“, with the answers disappearing after four minutes.

The Secret Scholar collection - re-useable booklets on maths, handwriting, science and French - employs the same “magic”.

There are addictive games, too, that hone mental maths by throwing dice and doing the sums presented. The highest score in each round wins a little Demon character and the aim is to secure all three. There are word dice-games, as well.

About to be launched are Bear Essentials: groups of five little teddies with a set of letter- or number-tiles. Karen says they lend themselves to 14 fun activities, such as learning colours, numbers and letters.

As ZooBooKoo was getting established, and then developing, Stephen picked up temporary assignments in the world of business - “interim management work” - and also became managing director of some small companies in the Ipswich area. More recently, though, he's been taking fewer outside assignments and the time is fast approaching when he'll have to devote all his energies to the family company.

With the couple trying to shoulder much of the workload, life can be very hands-on. During really busy spells they bring in staff to pack orders, but on a day like today they are both in the warehouse, dealing with goods.

And one eye, at least, has to be on the future, with new lines to be introduced and fresh ideas developed. One current initiative is Primary Stars: people can earn money by hosting parties where ZooBooKoo games are demonstrated to family and friends.

Whatever happens, the Wattleworths are determined not to lose sight of the rationale behind the business: earning a living while being able to spend time with their children, rather than having to rush hither and thither and ending up frazzled.

They like the apocryphal yarn about a village fisherman (probably on one of the Greek islands or somewhere similar) who sits on a pier, catches when he needs, and enjoys time with his son.

An American businessman comes along one day and says “You could borrow money, buy a big fleet of fishing boats, earn heaps and retire early - and then have time to sit on the pier and fish with your son.”

“Of course,” says Stephen, “the guy already has that. He's content.”

Of ZooBooKoo he says: “To be honest, I wouldn't want it to be a multi-million-pound-turnover company, because you'd be back to square one.”

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ZooBooKoo 10 top tips for successful “company couples”

Have a clear division of duties. Write it down, Change it (with agreement) if necessary

Have disciplined time management - you may have to keep each other motivated and on track

Plan regular fun time out - don heels (ladies!) for dinner out, cinema etc

Plan events - try something different (for example, a Friday down to London Eye or Tate)

Remember to hug each other several times a day (especially if you were cross or stressed)

Laugh loudly and often - share jokes and funny stories

Celebrate even the smallest success - a crisp ros� and a takeaway, shopping, massagw . . .

Be careful not to bore family and friends by talking about your business

Be respectful and say “sorry” as often as required

Share business issues/challenges/new product ideas with the kids

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