Family businesses, more than any other type of business, are about continuity. Indeed, many family businesses were there before any other type of business going right back to ancient times. Many have outlasted governments, nations and cities. The world’s oldest family businesses are testament to that fact.
According to an analysis of the world’s 100 oldest family businesses by Professor William O’Hara, the president emeritus of Bryant College in Rhode Island, there are five countries over-represented in the list. They are France (with 17 out of the 100), the UK (16), the US (16), Italy (14) and Germany (14). Countries like Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, South Africa, Mexico, Ireland, Chile and Portugal only have one family business each stretching back hundreds of years.
Why is this the case? Much of it comes down to geographic and historical factors like wars and moving borders.
Not surprisingly, the oldest family businesses in France are in the wine trade. The oldest is Château de Goulaine, which was established in approximately 1000 and is said to be Europe's oldest family business. Goulaine is a fort dating from the Middle Ages and the family has always lived there, except between 1788 and 1858 (when it was occupied by a Dutch banker), selling wine from the vineyards.
Another ancient French winemaker still going strong is Baronnie de Coussergues, established in 1495 when Pierre Raymond de Sarret bought the estate from King Charles VIII, who was selling royal property to pay off his expenses. The Sarret family sells 1.5 million bottles a year and has won gold medals for its wines.
The oldest Italian business on the list is Fonderia Pontificia Marinelli, a bell foundry established in 1040. The company’s bells toll in New York, Beijing, Jerusalem, South America and Korea. The 20 employees there include five descendants of the founding Marinelli family, with Pasquale Marinelli the current managing director.
Two of Italy’s oldest family businesses are in wine. Barone Ricasoli was set up in 1141 when the Ricasoli barons were given their land by the Republic of Florence. Their Brolio Estate covers about 3600 acres and part of it is also used to cultivate olives. Francesco Ricasoli, the 32nd Baron of Barone, manages the company.
Then there is the Antinori family which has been in the business since 1385, specialising in Chianti, probably the best-known and most iconic of all Italian wines. Marchese (or “Count”) Piero Antinori, and his three daughters have a system of vineyards in Italy, the US, Hungary, Malta and Chile. The company has been operating out of a Florentine palazzo since 1506.
The oldest family business in Germany is William Prym established in 1530. A brass and manufacturing business, it was established in Aachen in North Rhine-Westphalia. The Prym family, who were protestants, lost their guild rights in the catholic city of Aachen so they moved to nearby Stolberg where they developed the first finished products of brass, iron, and steel. They later manufactured the first mechanically-produced metal haberdashery products. The company’s managers are Michael Prym and Axel Prym.
The second oldest German company is von Poschinger Manufaktur. The company was established in 1568 when Joachim Poschinger took ownership of a glass factory near Frauenau, close to the Czech border. The company still specialises in glassworks but has now also branched out into farming and forestry.
The origins of Britain’s oldest family business go back to the time of Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries. John Brooke & Sons, established in 1541, began when Roger Brooke picked up some land in Yorkshire which the nuns had used for grazing sheep. His son John Brooke, a yeoman farmer, leased a mill and the company developed thriving wool business. Renowned for its fine wool, John Brooke & Sons provided fabrics for British troops at the Battle of Trafalgar and during World War Two.
In the 19th century, it had 220 looms and 900 employees, but with the decline of the British fabric industry, the company’s chief Mark Brooke and his brother Massimo have abandoned manufacturing and have instead created an entrepreneurial development park in the company’s old mill buildings.
Then there’s R Durtnell & Sons, the oldest building contractor in Britain. Founder John Durtnell and his brother Brian built their first house in 1593. The company has been handed down from father-to-son for thirteen generations.
The oldest family businesses in the US go back to the days before independence. The Shirley Plantation, Virginia’s oldest plantation, was settled in in 1613 and operated as a tobacco and grain farm until 1952 when it was converted into a tourist attraction. The land was acquired by Edward Hill in 1638 and has been managed by his descendants ever since.
The Seaside Inn and Cottages in Maine were set up in 1667 by John Gooch who, at the request of Fernando Gorges, an agent for King Charles II, resided on the peninsula to ferry travellers across. He provided rooms and operated a tavern for travellers. The property was passed down for generations to the first-born son. When the Gooch family had only daughters four generations ago, the name Severance was introduced. Patricia Mason, the 12th generation innkeeper and daughter of Mike and Sandy Severance, run the business with her husband Ken.
These are awe-inspiring stories for a country as young as Australia, where the oldest family business is Summerville, a farm established near Hobart a mere 200 years ago. But if nothing else, they are an inspiration for family businesses the world over.