Bill and Debbie Penkethman have been married 35 years. Any couple married that long has shared a lot, and Bill and Debbie have shared even more than most. That’s because in addition to being marriage partners, the two of them are business partners, working together at their custom clothing business, Suit Yourself, for the last 23 years. Bill is the “creative genius,” marketing manager and sales manager, while Debbie handles client contact and managing the books.
“We work together pretty much 24/7,” Debbie says. “A lot of couples just don’t understand it, but for us, we love it.”
Bill and Debbie’s working relationship actually goes back further than their romantic relationship. The two of them met when Bill was working out of New York as a sales and marketing manager for a band uniform company and Debbie was a representative for the same company in Tennessee and Kentucky.
“I went down to train her and kept going back and eventually, asked her to marry me,” Bill says.
Three years after their wedding, Bill and Debbie moved from the East Coast to the small north Missouri town of Brookfield, where Bill served as vice president of sales and marketing for another band uniform manufacturer. For two people who grew up in large cities — Debbie in Memphis and Bill in the suburbs of New York City — Brookfield was a new adventure.
“It was a big change going from the East Coast, high cost of living, jam-packed with people to renting a farmhouse in the middle of a pig farm in Brookfield, Mo.,” Debbie says with a laugh.
“We bought a dog and a pickup truck and a pair of boots, and it was a nice change,” Bill says.
But neither ever saw themselves settling down on a farm for good. In 1990, Bill received an offer to work for a different band uniform company in Fulton, and he and Debbie were both glad to move to Columbia. Then, about a year after their move, the Fulton business closed.
“Bill said, ‘Let’s figure out something we can do to stay here,’ because we really loved Columbia,” Debbie says.
Their solution was Suit Yourself. In his sales work, Bill had acquired an appreciation for sharp dressing, and he had contacts among fabric suppliers, tailors and others in the clothing industry. He and Debbie decided they would like to have a men’s retail business — but without retail hours, inventory or receivables.
“So it made perfect sense to make it all custom, by appointment,” Bill says.
Although Bill and Debbie had experienced working together, starting a business together was different. Debbie recalls being so stressed at the beginning that she had trouble sleeping. She got in the habit of getting up and working, and then when Bill woke up, she’d have a list of questions to fire at him.
“Finally, one day, he said: ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. We’re going to have to change this. Let’s have coffee first,’ ” Debbie says. “And I thought: ‘Oh, OK. That’s a good idea.’ ”
Some 20 years later, Bill and Debbie continue to have that morning coffee together. Usually, the two of them have at least three cups, which takes a good 45 minutes. They talk about family, upcoming plans, friends, whatever — just not business. Both Bill and Debbie are committed to this relationship ritual and get up as early as is necessary to make it happen, even when that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.
Why so early? It’s not the suit business that demands it. Bill and Debbie also partner together in a different work: Christian ministry.
Christianity has been a central force in Bill and Debbie’s relationship since Bill became a Christian in 1979. Debbie had grown up attending church but had easily given it up when she started dating Bill. He wasn’t interested, and she didn’t really care if she went or not. Then he became a Christian, and Debbie saw faith making a real difference in his life.
“He was already a great person — I mean, I married him because I loved him — but when he got saved, instantly, his language cleaned up, and it wasn’t even an effort,” she explains. Other changes she saw included Bill losing his desire to drink — which he had done more than he liked — and he started wanting to go to church. He also spent time reading the Bible.
“That was something I had heard him mock, and suddenly he was reading it,” Debbie recalls. “I just looked at him and said, ‘So you believe everything that’s in there now?’ and he said, ‘Absolutely,’ and I was just stunned.”
Three months later at a Bible study at a friend’s home, Debbie also decided to follow Jesus. From that time forward, Bill and Debbie made Christian service an important part of their marriage. But about 15 years ago, Bill met a man, Larry Glabe, who began showing him the importance of not just working for God but also growing spiritually to become more like Jesus. Through Glabe, Bill discovered the difference a Christian mentor could make in encouraging and leading a Christian toward spiritual maturity, which Bill came to believe should result in a desire to share the message of salvation in Jesus Christ with others.
Bill was more excited to be a Christian than he had ever been, and his excitement was catching. Debbie saw the difference in Bill — his newfound peace and satisfaction — and in 2007, she encouraged him to go on staff with The Navigators, a Christian ministry focused on discipleship — or on mentoring Christians into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.
It was no small decision. Bill’s joining the ministry would mean cutting back on Suit Yourself, and to make up for that lost income, Debbie would need to find an outside job. She did within just a couple of days of beginning to search, an administrative assistant position at a law firm.
Bill started off leading small groups of four or so men. After the first two years, Bill had enough to do between Suit Yourself and his ministry for Debbie to quit her outside job and go back to working with him. Now along with her support role at Suit Yourself, she also helps Bill manage his ministry. Today, most of his ministry is to large groups of men, mostly through a ministry at The Crossing church called Men of IMPACT: Intentional Men Pursuing a Christlike Transformation. The ministry takes men through a course that equips them to change their lives, and the lives of other men, through truths found in the Bible. Bill leads groups at The Crossing, in Mexico, Mo., and at Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City, as well as overseeing ministry leaders in Guatemala.
Some of Bill’s meetings with men take place early in the morning, with him leaving the house before 5. Those are the mornings when coffee might be at 3:30 a.m.
“We don’t miss,” Debbie says.
Between Suit Yourself and Bill’s ministry, Bill and Debbie stay busy. They used to take trips to islands and Mexico but haven’t done much of that for a while now. And both are OK with the lack of vacations because everyday life is so enjoyable.
“I’m just enjoying the fact that after 35 years of marriage, I love him more than the day we were married,” Debbie says, “and I’m just so grateful that we love one another, that we have our health, that God has allowed us to work together and to live in Columbia, and there’s just a real sense of peace and contentment.”
“I would say this point in my life is more rewarding and more significant than it’s ever been,” Bill adds. “I really love what I’m doing, both in ministry and suits. These are good times for us.”