Ancient regimes – the oldest family businesses in the world

Planning your family business dynasty? Some of these firms have been at it for over a thousand years.

On the global scale, even the oldest Australian family businesses are just babies. Lionel Samson & Son claims to be the oldest, founded in 1829, but it was recently discovered that a little-known Tasmanian farm called Summerville was actually founded 18 years earlier. It had always flown under the radar, letting the Samsons take the glory but now we know who the real senior citizen of the sector is (Australia's oldest family business, July 18). But the truth is, where age is concerned, we can't hope to compare with world's family business grandparents.

In 2006, Kongō Gumi was sold after 14 centuries as a family business.

Founded in 578, the Japanese construction company specialised in Buddhist temples and castles. The company had over 100 employees and made around ¥ 7.5 billion per year. But as the 40th generation, Masakazu Kongō was taking over as president, the company was in deep trouble.

During Japan’s economic bubble in the 1980s the company borrowed a large amount to invest in real estate. When the bubble burst in 1992-93 the assets plunged in value. This, coupled with a fall in demand for new temples, spelt the end for the world’s oldest family business. The Kongō family company was absorbed by Takamatsu Corporation and continues to operate as a subsidiary.

While it’s a shame to see such an amazing company lose part of what made it so special it shows that no matter how old or young a company is, none are immune from the garden variety business traps that can bring them down.

Just 13 per cent of Australian family businesses survive past the third generation (Clearing the third generation hurdle, April 18). This certainly does not make them failures, in fact, depending on the individual goals of the family, selling the business is likely seen as a huge success.

But the few businesses that aim to stand the test of time and stay family owned could take a few lessons from the oldest and the biggest.

So, which company holds the title of oldest family business in the world?

Here’s the top 5:

Hoshi Ryokan, Japan – Founded 717.

Hoshi Ryokan is one of the oldest hotels in the world and has been run by the Hoshi family for 46 generations. According to legend, the god of Mount Hakusan told the family to build a spa on a nearby hot spring. The spa became the inn that is still there today. It currently has 100 rooms and a 450 person capacity.

Château de Goulaine, France – Founded approximately 1000.

It is unclear when the Goulaine family sold its first bottle of wine but, according to Family Business Magazine (USA), it is the third oldest commercial enterprise in the world. The family owned the castle up until 1788, when it was sold to a Dutch banker. A member of the Goulaine family reacquired the estate in 1858 and it is still family owned today. This period of Dutch ownership actually helped save the building from destruction during the French revolution.

Pontificia Fonderia Marinelli, Italy – Founded 1040.

The Marinelli family has been making bells the same way for nearly 1000 years. You’ll find the family’s work in New York, Beijing, Jerusalem, South America and South Korea, even the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It only employs 12 people and produces just 50 bells a year but is kept busy by the Roman Catholic Church.

Barone Ricasoli, Italy – Founded 1141.

Italy’s oldest winery may not have started selling its wine to the public right away, but all 32 generations have worked to keep Chianti in competition with French wine. As if the family didn’t have enough to brag about, Bettino ‘the Iron Baron’ Rocasoli was Italy’s second prime minister.

Barovier & Toso, Italy – Founded 1295.

It was originally just called Barovier and made some of the finest glass in the world, but in 1936 the Barovier family merged with the rival Toso Glassworks and the joint company remains in these two families. The company now has its own museum that primarily houses glass collections from 1880. However, the museum is home to the ‘Bariovier Wedding Cup,’ a blue enamel cup that is one of the finest surviving glass pieces from the Renaissance. What you can guarantee is that, despite the age of these businesses, they’re never completely safe from going bust. As shown by Kongō Gumi, a spectacular family business can meet a decidedly unspectacular end.

As the saying goes, ‘the first generation starts the business, the second grows it and the third generation stuffs it up or sells it.’ Perhaps in Japan it’s more like ‘the first generation starts it, the second builds it and the 40th generation stuffs it up.’ 

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