Family businesses have been the bedrock of economies forever, whether they are an old banking dynasty like the Rothschilds, modern media moguls like the Murdochs, or humble village carpenters like the family of you-know-who.
Forbes business advisor Steve Parrish believes that recording the history of a family business can help it to manage a cherished asset – its legacy. He says that, while the history of a publicly held company is interesting, the story of a family-held business is usually much more compelling – and focussing on the human element as well as the business side of a company offers practical benefits for its future.
These are the areas he advises a would-be company genealogist to concentrate on:
– The family’s involvement in the business over the course of its history. Did the family found the business, or acquire it?
– The effect the business has had on the family. Has it caused infighting? Has it generated great wealth for family members?
– Write up your research. Recording the history and culture of a business can highlight its long-term value. The family aspect of the business can be “the anchor by which the business is grounded when times get tough.”
– Use the past to plan for the future. The history of the business can underline the motivation for keeping the family involved in it, and the steps needed to preserve its family nature.
It can also expose what Mr Parrish calls “the 1,000 pound gorilla in the room” – who will take over the business in future. He says that many business owners put off succession planning because they don’t want to face this question. Is the daughter a better candidate than the son to take over as CEO? Is a son-in-law or daughter-in-law with a different surname the right person to run the business?
Mr Parrish says that certain scions of successful families can drag its reputation through the mud (he doesn’t say precisely who he had mind with his examples of the DuPont and Hilton families, but we can guess), but their actions alone don’t determine the value of a family business name in the long run. A look backwards can determine the path forwards and provide necessary insight for the future guardians of the company’s legacy for generations to come.
That legacy can, in the right hands, last for centuries. Professor William O’Hara said in his 2004 book, Centuries of Success: “Before the multinational corporation, there was family business. Before the Industrial Revolution, there was family business. Before the enlightenment of Greece and the empire of Rome, there was family business.”
The family business is one of the most enduring institutions in human history, and some existing companies are so old they haven’t just survived recessions, but wars, plagues and famines too. However, the 21st century is seeing some of them peter out.
The oldest family business founded in the US is the Tuttle Farm, in Dover, New Hampshire. It was established in 1632 by John Tuttle, who sailed from England to the New World (surviving a shipwreck en route) bearing a land grant of 20 acres from King Charles II. The farm’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed down 11 generations of fathers and sons, and its current owner, Will Tuttle, has put it up for sale. He cites exhaustion, age (he is currently in his sixties) and the younger generation of Tuttles showing little interest in farming. Mr Tuttle recalls his grandfather once telling him: “Be careful where you set foot on this farm because that footprint is going to be there for the rest of time, you’re gonna leave your mark on this farm.” But on selling up, he said he “had to take the weight of our ancestors off the decision, they’re not here to advise us. I think probably most of them died with their boots on.”
The oldest continuously trading family business in the UK is R J Balson & Son, a butcher from Bridport, Dorset. It was founded by John Balson, who set up a market stall selling sausages and bacon in 1535. The company’s current owner, Richard Balson, said: “It’s not always gone directly from father to son. Sometimes it’s gone to a brother and sons, but it has been in the family all the time. My son has come into the business to run the online side. He’s got a son too, so hopefully it’ll keep going. The family joke is that we’ve just never made enough money to be able to retire.”
R J Balson & Son will still need to be around in 3000 AD to beat the world’s oldest family business – Kongō Gumi Co. Ltd. The Japanese construction company traces its origins to 578 AD, when it built a Buddhist temple for Prince Shōtoku, and over the centuries has built many of Japan’s historical landmarks. The business has been in the family for around 50 generations, though sons-in-law joining the clan took the Kongō family name, ensuring the line continued through both sons and daughters. Unfortunately, the company fell on hard times and went into liquidation in 2006 and it now operates as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Takamatsu Corporation.
It’s mantle as the world’s oldest continuously-run family business passed to Hoshi Ryokan, a Japanese hotel founded in 718 AD. Its current premises in Komatsu accommodates 450 people in 100 rooms, and Zengoro Hoshi is the 46th generation owner.