Before the iron throne, there was family business

By Bill Rock

In Game of Thrones, the hit HBO series based on books by George R.R. Martin, families ruthlessly protect their interests. While it may be a stretch to describe them as “family businesses,” through real estate ownership (including castles), various trading relationships and support for broader stakeholders in the communities they oversee, they resemble many “family enterprises” we have profiled in Family Business. And, like family enterprises, they focus on creating long-term value for the family — which in Game of Thrones means over centuries.

In this issue of Family Business, in partnership with EY, we highlight the 100 oldest family businesses in America, along with lists of the 100 largest family businesses in the United States and globally. Stretching back as far as 15 generations, with some older than the United States itself, many of the country’s oldest family companies approach the longevity of Game of Thrones family enterprises. The Avedis Zildjian Company dates from 1623, Lyman Orchards was founded in 1741 and Bachman Funeral Home was established in 1769. The “youngest” family businesses to make the U.S. list were founded in 1850. All are still being run by the founding families.

At our recent Transitions Spring conference, speakers from fourth-, fifth- and even sixth-generation companies discussed what it takes to create an enduring organization. Members of Zildjian’s 15th generation were in attendance. What all these families have in common is a commitment to providing long-term value to their many stakeholders, including their employees, customers and communities. It is difficult to sustain a business for decades without a focus on multiple stakeholders, which, in turn, creates long-term value for the shareholders.

This is in stark contrast to many public companies, which often focus on short-term shareholder return. Directors & Boards magazine, a sister publication of Family Business, has commented that many public companies are beginning to re-examine their character and purpose, including whether to continue with a short-term shareholder supremacy lens. When they outline a model to emulate, they are frequently describing a view long maintained by many family businesses.

Many of the companies on our list of America’s oldest family businesses also have established values-driven cultures. For some families, these values derive from their faith; for others, they are developed from secular views shaped over time. In many instances, the cultures resonate throughout the organization and are built and strengthened over generations. These values-driven cultures provide a backbone for the business and help ensure success during ownership and leadership transitions.

While we have a long way to go to match the longevity of the oldest family businesses in America, as a third-generation family member of MLR Media, it has been my honor to continue to build upon a legacy created by my grandfather, father and mother. Their focus on creating long-term, sustainable value, support of multiple stakeholders, and creation of a values-driven culture has enabled our business to thrive for 30 years. And while we worry about disruption undercutting our business, at least unlike the families in Game of Thrones, we don’t have to worry about dragons being a disruptive force. 

Copyright 2019 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

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May/June 2019

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