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The World’s Oldest Family Companies

Cheers to the survivors.

By Leah Kristie

Wine is classic—it improves with age and doesn’t go out of style. The winemaking families on our list of the world’s oldest family companies would certainly drink to that. A total of 19 family companies from nine countries have continued for more than two centuries as producers of wine, beer, sake or liquor. The “youngest” on our list, Mexican tequila company Jose Cuervo (tied for 96th), was founded in 1758; the oldest, France’s Château de Goulaine (tied for second), dates all the way back to 1000.

Family business researchers estimate that less than a third of all family companies make it to the second generation. So the odds that a family enterprise will survive to the 46th generation, like Japanese innkeeper Houshi Onsen (first on our list), are long indeed. Here, however, are 100 family companies that have survived for at least seven generations. The frustrating part? There appears to be no universal formula for survival.

The companies on our list operate in a wide range of industries—from the practical, like paper (France’s Richard de Bas, #7) and pencils (Germany’s Faber-Castell, tied for #100), to the indulgent, like perfume (Farina Gegenüber of Cologne, Germany, #71) and licorice (Amarelli Fabbrica de Liquirizia of Rossano Scalo, Italy, #82). Perhaps the secret to success lies not in what the companies produce, but in how they adapt. In 1697 Folkes Group (#65) began making chain mail and swords. Now, they’re in real estate.

Even the most adaptable companies will meet difficulty, though. In 2001, when we published our first list of this kind, Kongo Gumi, a Buddhist temple construction company founded in 578, ranked as the world’s oldest family firm. But in 2006, Kongo Gumi closed, burdened with decreasing demand and $343 million in debt. (See story below.)

“Even a well-managed family business will, over time, have to deal with death, incapacity, recessions and the fading of the entrepreneurial spark,” wrote Charles Batchelor of the Financial Times in July 2007. “Despite these obstacles, some businesses have shown a remarkable ability to survive within family ownership.”

The companies on our list truly deserve a toast.

Leah Kristie served as a student intern at Family Business in summer 2007. We extend special thanks to Professor William T. O’Hara, founder and executive director of Bryant College’s Institute for Family Enterprise in Smithfield, R.I., and his associate Peter Mandel, who conducted the research for our earlier list with support from John Gunasti.


In with the old; out with the older

With temple-builder Kongo Gumi no longer under family ownership, Houshi Onsen, a Japanese spa and inn, is now the world’s oldest family firm.

By James Olan Hutcheson

The king is dead; long live the king.

When Osaka temple-builder Kongo Gumi, founded in 578, succumbed in 2006 after struggling for more than a decade to deal with overextension and recession in its primary business, a new—so to speak—company assumed the mantle of world’s oldest family firm still in operation.

Houshi Onsen, a spa and inn located in the mountains a few hours from Tokyo, was founded in 718, by which time Kongo Gumi was already more than a century old. In 2146, assuming it lasts that long, Houshi will add the title of longest-lived family firm of all time to its list of honors. That should give survival-minded family business leaders the world over plenty of time to figure out what characteristics of these two companies allowed them to attain such remarkable longevity.

An adaptable company gets carried away

In the case of Kongo Gumi, the company benefited from the start by having what amounted to a royal dispensation to begin in business. It all started when Japanese Prince Shotoku invited Korean carpenter Shigemitsu Kongo to come to the island nation to construct the country’s first Buddhist temple. Kongo’s creation still stands, having been rebuilt a number of times over the centuries by the company Kongo started and passed down to his descendants—40 generations of them by the time it came to an end.

Kongo Gumi also benefited by serving a then-new industry—Japanese Buddhist temple construction—that has grown steadily and stably for the most part ever since. A key part of the company’s durability was undoubtedly that it existed not only for profit, but also for principle. Its legacy of specialized building techniques was passed down to succeeding generations of carpenters, each of whom was expected to treat the near-sacred subject with equivalent reverence.

What kept Kongo Gumi a family business was a set of flexible succession principles at odds with some prevailing Japanese practices. Chief among these were a willingness to pass the reins on to someone other than the eldest son, if that person had the makings of a better leader. This included females; the 37th Kongo to lead the company was the grandmother of the man who presided over its eventual liquidation and takeover by a much larger construction concern.

The circumstances that led to Kongo Gumi’s dissolution were, almost by definition, unusual. They were based on the astounding runup in Japanese real estate values during the 1980s, as well as the equally shocking collapse of the country’s land prices that followed in the 1990s. What seemed reasonable adventures into real estate speculation thus led to $343 million in debt, which proved unsustainable as Kongo Gumi’s temple-building business, affected by a secularization trend in Japanese culture, also declined significantly.

The public company that now runs Kongo Gumi as a wholly owned subsidiary, Takamatsu Construction, has brought it back into the black with the help of tight cost controls and a modest rebound in Japanese temple building and maintenance. The current president, a Takamatsu employee with no connection to the Kongo family, identified reliance on overly expensive longtime suppliers and excessive executive perks as problems he has dealt with as part of his turnaround.

Prizing heritage over glitz

So much for Kongo Gumi. What about Houshi? In this case, the company’s founding inspiration was not just royal —it was divine. According to legend, a famous monk was directed by a god to the location of a hot spring with healing powers. The monk told a disciple to build and run a spa at the site. The 46th generation of descendants of that disciple does so today.

Unlike Kongo Gumi, which built temples and other buildings across a wide swathe of Japan, Houshi has a single location. The jewel-like setting of the spa has been preserved by very limited expansion over the centuries. To say that the company has been run without much regard for monetizing its well-regarded name is like saying that the moon’s tourist potential is untested. Although it’s a profit-making business, Houshi is operated as a trust that is nearly holy in its nature.

While this approach may seem odd to Western observers, it’s more in tune with Japanese business practice. Japanese business leaders are, in fact, still trying to get their arms around Western-style management with its emphasis on building shareholder value. Specific techniques such as laying off employees in order to boost short-term profits are very much at odds with the Japanese style of management, which considers harmony a goal approximately as important as profit.

In fact, the similarities between Houshi Onsen and Kongo Gumi are more striking than the differences. And they are shared by many other Japanese companies. Japan is perhaps the world’s most amenable society for long-lived family business. As many as 100,000 Japanese businesses are more than 100 years old, and nearly 100 are more than 600 years old, according to some estimates.

Struck by these figures, a group of Japanese academics is studying several hundred Japanese firms that have been around for 300 years or more. While the research is not complete, early indications are that common characteristics of these Methuselahs are that they base their businesses on principles, impart these principles to employees and others with mottoes and slogans, and emphasize trusting relationships with their clients.

Given the complexity and challenge inherent in keeping nearly any business open for even another day, let alone a millennium or more, these benchmarks seem almost ludicrously simplistic. How is a catchphrase going to promote a new location or push through a price hike? Maybe it won’t, and maybe that’s the point.

The world’s most expensive hotel room is said to be the Ty Warner Suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York City, which rents for $30,000 a night and includes a private chef on round-the-clock call, a waterfall in the bedroom, and a 700-square-foot-library. On the other hand, a room at Houshi Onsen, where the glitz is considerably reduced but the heritage goes back 1,289 years, is less than $200.

James Olan Hutcheson (jim@regeneration-partners.com) is a principal at ReGENERATION Partners, a consulting firm devoted exclusively to assisting family enterprises.

For further reading

• “Kongo Gumi: Building a Future On the Past,” by David Pilling, Financial Times, October 19, 2007.

• “Traditional Values Stand Test of Time,” by Yuki Senda, Yomiuri Shimbun, May 19, 2007.

• Houshi Onsen website: www.ho-shi.co.jp/jiten/Houshi_E/history.htm


The World’s Oldest Family Companies * denotes new listing

Editor’s Note: This list is based on the best information available to us. Family Business is seeking information on venerable family companies, from Japan and elsewhere, that we inadvertently omitted from our list. Please contact Barbara Spector, Editor-in-Chief, at bspector@familybusinessmagazine.com.

RankYear
Founded
CompanyIndustryLocation
1718Houshi OnsenInnkeepingKomatsu, Japan
(tie) 2 1000Château de Goulaine Vineyard, museum, butterfly collection Haute Goulaine, France
(tie) 2 c. 1000Pontificia Fonderia Marinelli Bell foundryAgnone, Italy
41141Barone Ricasoli Wine, olive oilSiena, Italy
51295Barovier & Toso GlassMurano, Italy
61304Hotel Pilgrim Haus InnkeepingSoest, Germany
71326Richard de Bas PaperAmbert d’Auvergne, France
81369Torrini Firenze GoldsmithFlorence, Italy
91385Marchesi Antinori SrlWineFlorence, Italy
101438Camuffo ShipbuildingPortogruaro, Italy
111494Baronnie de Coussergues WineMontblanc, France
121500Grazia Deruta CeramicsTurin, Italy
131526Fabbrica D’Armi Pietro Beretta S.p.A. FirearmsGardone, Italy
141530William Prym GmbH & Co. Copper, brass, haberdasheryStolberg, Germany
151541John Brooke & SonsWoolensHuddersfield, United Kingdom
* 161545Touwfabriek G. van der Lee B.V.Rope factoryOudewater, Netherlands
171551Codorníu WineSaint Sadurní d’Anoia, Spain
181552Fonjallaz WineLavaux, Switzerland
191568Freiherr von Poschinger GlasmanufakturGlassmakingFrauenau, Bavaria, Germany
20c.1575Hacienda Los Lingues Wine, hotelSan Fernando, Chile
211590Berenberg Bank BankingHamburg, Germany
221591R. Durtnell & Sons ConstructionKent, United Kingdom
* 231594Royal Tichelaar Earthenware, tileMakkum, Netherlands
241596Eduard Meier ShoesMunich, Germany
25pre-1600Toraya ConfectionersTokyo, Japan
261601Tissiman & Sons Ltd. Tailors, outfittersBishop’s Stortford, United Kingdom
27c.1602Enshu Sado School Ceremonial tea schoolTokyo, Japan
* 281603Hacienda Alhué VineyardOficina Providencia, Chile
291610Takenaka ConstructionOsaka, Japan
301613Mellerio dits Meller JewelryParis, France
311615Cartiera Mantovana Corp. PaperMantua, Italy
321623Zildjian Cymbal Co. CymbalsNorwell, Mass.
(tie) 33 1630Akerblads HotelTällberg, Sweden
(tie) 331630Kikkoman Soy sauceNoda, Japan
(tie) 331630Sumitomo Corp. ConglomerateTokyo, Japan
361635-38Tuttle Farm AgricultureDover, N.H.
371637Gekkeikan Sake Company Ltd.SakeFushimi, Japan
381638Shirley Plantation Historical siteCharles City, Va.
391639Hugel et Fils WineRiquewihr, France
401642Barker Farm AgricultureNorth Andover, Mass.
* 411650Jean RozeSilk upholstery fabricsSaint-Avertin, France
421657Ulefos Jernvaerk Metals, milling, forestryTelemark, Norway
* 431660Petit & Fritsen B.V.Bell foundryAarle-Rixtel, Netherlands
441662Van Eeghen GroupTrading companyAmsterdam, Netherlands
451664Friedr. Schwarze GmbH & Co.DistilleryOelde, Germany
461667The Seaside Inn and CottagesInnkeepingKennebunkport, Maine
* 471668Merck KGaA Pharmaceuticals, chemicalsDarmstadt, Germany
* 481669Okaya & Co. Ltd.Global trading companyNagoya, Japan
* 491670Perner Bell FoundryBell foundryPassau, Germany
501672C. Hoare & Co. BankingLondon, United Kingdom
* 511674B. Metzler seel. Sohn & Co. KGaAPrivate bankFrankfurt, Germany
521676James Lock & Co. HattersLondon, United Kingdom
531677Firmin & Sons Ltd. Uniforms, insigniaBirmingham, United Kingdom
541679Viellard Migeon & Cie. IronForges de Morvillars, France
* 551680Saunderskill FarmAgricultureAccord, N.Y.
* 561683Lukas Meindl GmbH & Co. KG Shoes, apparelKirchanschöring, Germany
(tie) 57 1685Gradis Corp. Wine tradingBordeaux, France
(tie) 571685Toye, Kenning & Spencer WeaversLondon, United Kingdom
(tie) 591690Delamare et Cie. Packaging materialsCriquebeuf-sur-Seine, France
* (tie) 591690Walaker Hotel HotelSolvorn, Norway
(tie) 591690Yamamotoyama TeaTokyo, Japan
621691Nolet Distillery (Ketel One) DistillerySchiedam, Netherlands
* 631695De Kuyper Royal Distillers B.V.DistilleryScheidam, Netherlands
* 641696Oliefabriek c. de Koning TillyOilHaarlem, Netherlands
651697Folkes Group Real estate, engineeringLye, United Kingdom
661698Berry Brothers & Rudd Ltd. Wine merchantsLondon, United Kingdom
671700?Allandale Farm AgricultureBrookline, Mass.
* 681703Royal Joh. EnschedéPrintingHaarlem, Netherlands
* 691704Ferdinand Pieroth WineBurg Layen, Germany
* 701707AkafukuConfectionaryUjinakanokiri-Cho, Japan
711709Farina Gegenüber FragrancesCologne, Germany
* 721710Twee Jonge Gezellen/the House of KroneWineTulbagh, South Africa
* 731712The Orchards of ConcklinAgriculturePomona, N.Y.
* 741715John White & SonWeighing machinesFife, Scotland
* 751719Bavaria BreweryBreweryLieshout, Netherlands
* 761720?Smiling Hill Farm/Hillside LumberDairy, lumberWestbrook, Maine
771722Nourse Family Farm AgricultureWestborough, Mass.
781723Tissages Denantes ClothGrenoble, France
* 791726Vergeest Metaalbewerking B.V.Metal productsDruten, Netherlands
* 801728Clark Farm AgricultureDanvers, Mass.
811730MöllerGroup GmbH & Co. KG Plastics technology, leather processingBielefeld, Germany
821731Amarelli Fabbrica de Liquirizia LicoriceRossano Scalo, Italy
831733Fratelli Piacenza Corp.WoolensPollone, Italy
* (tie) 841741The Howell Farm Agriculture, cattleCedarville, N.J.
(tie) 841741Lyman Orchards AgricultureMiddlefield, Conn.
861742John Whitley FarmAgricultureWilliamston, N.C.
871743BoplaasAgriculture Koue Bokkeveld, Cape Town, South Africa
(tie) 881745Fonderia Daciano Colbachini & FigliBell foundryPadua, Italy
(tie) 881745J.D. Neuhaus Hebezeuge Winch manufacturersWitten-Heven, Germany
901748Villeroy & BochHousewaresMettlach, Germany
911750Parlange Plantation AgricultureNew Roads, La.
(tie) 921756Franz Haniel ConglomerateDuisburg, Germany
(tie) 921756Riedel Glas GmbH GlassmakingKufstein, Austria
(tie) 94 1757Lanificio Conte S.p.A. WoolensSchio, Italy
* (tie) 941757MeerlustWineStellenbosch, South Africa
(tie) 961758Jose Cuervo TequilaTequila, Mexico
* (tie) 961758Frenckellin Kirjapaino OyPrinting houseEspoo, Finland
981759Waterford Wedgwood Crystal, china, cookwareDublin, Ireland
991760Creed Perfume PerfumesParis, France
(tie) 100 1761Faber-Castell Writing instrumentsStein, Germany
* (tie) 100 1761Great Brook FarmAgricultureCanterbury, N.H.

The world’s oldest family companies
— by country

CompanyFoundedRank
Austria
Riedel Glas GmbH175692 (tie)
Chile
Hacienda Alhué160328
Hacienda Los Lingues157520
Finland
Frenckellin Kirjapaino Oy164296 (tie)
France
Baronnie de Coussergues149411
Château de Goulaine10002 (tie)
Creed Perfume176099
Richard de Bas13267
Delamare et Cie.169059 (tie)
Gradis Corp.168557 (tie)
Hugel et Fils163939
Mellerio dits Meller161330
Jean Roze165041
Tissages Denantes172378
Viellard Migeon & Cie167954
Germany
Berenberg Bank159021
Faber-Castell1761100 (tie)
Farina Gegenüber170971
Freiherr von Poschinger Glasmanufaktur156819
Franz Haniel175692 (tie)
Hotel Pilgrim Haus13046
Eduard Meier159624
Lukas Meindl GmbH & Co. KG168356
Merck KGaA166847
B. Metzler seel. Sohn & Co. KGaA167451
MöllerGroup GmbH & Co. KG173081
J.D. Neuhaus Hebezeuge174588 (tie)
Perner Bell Foundry167049
Ferdinand Pieroth1704?69
William Prym GmbH & Co.153014
Friedr. Schwarze GmbH & Co.166445
Villeroy & Boch174890
Ireland
Waterford Wedgwood175998
Italy
Amarelli Fabbrica de Liquirizia173182
Barone Ricasoli11414
Barovier & Toso12955
Camuffo143810
Cartiera Mantovana Corp.161531
Fabbrica D’Armi Pietro Beretta S.p.A.152613
Fonderia Daciano Colbachini & Figli174588 (tie)
Fratelli Piacenza Corp.173383
Grazia Deruta150012
Lanificio Conte S.p.A.175794 (tie)
Marchesi Antinori Srl13859
Pontificia Fonderia Marinelli10002 (tie)
Torrini Firenze13698
Japan
Akafuku170770
Enshu Sado Schoolc. 160227
Gekkeikan Sake Company, Ltd.163737
Houshi Onsen7181
Kikkoman163033 (tie)
Okaya & Co., Ltd.166948
Sumitomo Corp.163033 (tie)
Takenaka161029
Torayac. 160025
Yamamotoyama169059 (tie)
Mexico
Jose Cuervo175896 (tie)
Netherlands
Bavaria Brewery171975
De Kuyper Royal Distillers B.V.169563
Nolet Distillery (Ketel One Vodka)169162
Oliefabriek c. de Koning Tilly169664
Petit & Fritsen B.V.166043
Royal Joh. Enschedé170368
Royal Tichelaar159423
Touwafabriek G. van der Lee B.V.154516
Van Eeghen Group166244
Vergeest Metaalbewerking B.V.172679
Norway
Friedr. Schwarze GmbH & Co.166445
Ulefos Jernvaerk165742
Walaker Hotel169059 (tie)
Scotland
John White & Son171574
South Africa
Boplaas174387
Meerlust175794 (tie)
Twee Jonge Gezellen/The House of Krone171072
Spain
Codorniu155117
Sweden
Akerblads163033 (tie)
Switzerland
Fonjallaz155218
United Kingdom
Berry Brothers & Rudd Ltd.169866
John Brooke & Sons154115
R. Durtnell & Sons159122
Firmin & Sons, Ltd.167753
Folkes Group169765
C. Hoare & Co.167250
James Lock & Co. Ltd.167652
Tissiman & Sons Ltd.160126
Toye, Kenning & Spencer168557 (tie)
United States
Allandale Farm170067
Barker Farm164240
Clark Farm172880
Great Brook Farm1761100 (tie)
Howell Farm174184 (tie)
Lyman Orchards174184 (tie)
Nourse Family Farm172277
Orchards of Concklin171273
Parlange Plantation175091
Saunderskill Farm168055
Seaside Inn and Cottages166746
Shirley Plantation163838
Smiling Hill Farm/Hillside Lumber1720?76
Tuttle Farmc. 163536
John Whitley Farm174286
Avedis Zildjian Co.162332
   
Removed since 2004:

BusinessCountryFoundedNotes
Kongo Gumi Japan 578Acquired by Takamatsu in 2006.
Wachsendustrie Fulda Adam Gies Germany1589Company’s existence could not be confirmed.
J.P. Epping of PippsvadrGermany1595Company’s existence could not be confirmed.
G.C. Fox Ltd.United Kingdom 1646Company’s existence could not be confirmed.
R.H. Levey & Son United Kingdom 1649Company’s existence could not be confirmed.
William Adams & SonsUnited Kingdom1650Company is now owned by Wedgwood.
Early’s of Witney United Kingdom 1669Closed in 2002.
Miller Farm United States1684Company’s existence could not be confirmed.
Shepherd NeameUnited Kingdom 1698Not continuously owned by one family.
William Dalton & Sons United Kingdom 1710Company’s existence could not be confirmed.
Cooke Farm United States1720?Company’s existence could not be confirmed.
Taittinger Champagne France1734Not continuously owned by one family.
Aubanel Publishing Co.France1744Company’s existence could not be confirmed.
Zenith Pipe CompanyNetherlands1749Acquired by Delft.
Marie Brizard & Roger InternationalFrance1755Acquired by Belvedere in 2006.
GrisetFrance1760Acquired by Diehl in 1997.
William Clark & Sons. Ltd.Northern Ireland1736Now owned and managed by Ulster Weavers Apparel Ltd.
Joseph DrouhinFrance1756Family’s current business was actually fouded in 1880.

Superseded by newly discovered companies:

BusinessCountryFounded
Bachman Funeral HomeUnited States1769
Bianchi 1770 GroupItaly1770
Osborne GroupSpain1772
Editions Henry LemoineFrance1772
Stuart Land Co. of VirginiaUnited States1774
JB Fernandes & SonsPortugal1778
St. John Milling Co.United States1778
Laird & Co.United States1780
Ditta Bortolo Nardini Italy1779