The world's oldest family companies

By Leah Kristie

Cheers to the survivors.

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.

 

Rank Year
Founded
Company Industry Location
1 718 Houshi Onsen Innkeeping Komatsu, Japan
(tie) 2 1000 Château de Goulaine Vineyard, museum, butterfly collection Haute Goulaine, France
(tie) 2 c. 1000 Pontificia Fonderia Marinelli Bell foundry Agnone, Italy
4 1141 Barone Ricasoli Wine, olive oil Siena, Italy
5 1295 Barovier & Toso Glass Murano, Italy
6 1304 Hotel Pilgrim Haus Innkeeping Soest, Germany
7 1326 Richard de Bas Paper Ambert d’Auvergne, France
8 1369 Torrini Firenze Goldsmith Florence, Italy
9 1385 Marchesi Antinori Srl Wine Florence, Italy
10 1438 Camuffo Shipbuilding Portogruaro, Italy
11 1494 Baronnie de Coussergues Wine Montblanc, France
12 1500 Grazia Deruta Ceramics Turin, Italy
13 1526 Fabbrica D’Armi Pietro Beretta S.p.A. Firearms Gardone, Italy
14 1530 William Prym GmbH & Co. Copper, brass, haberdashery Stolberg, Germany
15 1541 John Brooke & Sons Woolens Huddersfield, United Kingdom
* 16 1545 Touwfabriek G. van der Lee B.V. Rope factory Oudewater, Netherlands
17 1551 Codorníu Wine Saint Sadurní d’Anoia, Spain
18 1552 Fonjallaz Wine Lavaux, Switzerland
19 1568 Freiherr von Poschinger Glasmanufaktur Glassmaking Frauenau, Bavaria, Germany
20 c.1575 Hacienda Los Lingues Wine, hotel San Fernando, Chile
21 1590 Berenberg Bank Banking Hamburg, Germany
22 1591 R. Durtnell & Sons Construction Kent, United Kingdom
* 23 1594 Royal Tichelaar Earthenware, tile Makkum, Netherlands
24 1596 Eduard Meier Shoes Munich, Germany
25 pre-1600 Toraya Confectioners Tokyo, Japan
26 1601 Tissiman & Sons Ltd. Tailors, outfitters Bishop’s Stortford, United Kingdom
27 c.1602 Enshu Sado School Ceremonial tea school Tokyo, Japan
* 28 1603 Hacienda Alhué Vineyard Oficina Providencia, Chile
29 1610 Takenaka Construction Osaka, Japan
30 1613 Mellerio dits Meller Jewelry Paris, France
31 1615 Cartiera Mantovana Corp. Paper Mantua, Italy
32 1623 Zildjian Cymbal Co. Cymbals Norwell, Mass.
(tie) 33 1630 Akerblads Hotel Tällberg, Sweden
(tie) 33 1630 Kikkoman Soy sauce Noda, Japan
(tie) 33 1630 Sumitomo Corp. Conglomerate Tokyo, Japan
36 1635-38 Tuttle Farm Agriculture Dover, N.H.
37 1637 Gekkeikan Sake Company Ltd. Sake Fushimi, Japan
38 1638 Shirley Plantation Historical site Charles City, Va.
39 1639 Hugel et Fils Wine Riquewihr, France
40 1642 Barker Farm Agriculture North Andover, Mass.
* 41 1650 Jean Roze Silk upholstery fabrics Saint-Avertin, France
42 1657 Ulefos Jernvaerk Metals, milling, forestry Telemark, Norway
* 43 1660 Petit & Fritsen B.V. Bell foundry Aarle-Rixtel, Netherlands
44 1662 Van Eeghen Group Trading company Amsterdam, Netherlands
45 1664 Friedr. Schwarze GmbH & Co. Distillery Oelde, Germany
46 1667 The Seaside Inn and Cottages Innkeeping Kennebunkport, Maine
* 47 1668 Merck KGaA Pharmaceuticals, chemicals Darmstadt, Germany
* 48 1669 Okaya & Co. Ltd. Global trading company Nagoya, Japan
* 49 1670 Perner Bell Foundry Bell foundry Passau, Germany
50 1672 C. Hoare & Co. Banking London, United Kingdom
* 51 1674 B. Metzler seel. Sohn & Co. KGaA Private bank Frankfurt, Germany
52 1676 James Lock & Co. Hatters London, United Kingdom
53 1677 Firmin & Sons Ltd. Uniforms, insignia Birmingham, United Kingdom
54 1679 Viellard Migeon & Cie. Iron Forges de Morvillars, France
* 55 1680 Saunderskill Farm Agriculture Accord, N.Y.
* 56 1683 Lukas Meindl GmbH & Co. KG Shoes, apparel Kirchanschöring, Germany
(tie) 57 1685 Gradis Corp. Wine trading Bordeaux, France
(tie) 57 1685 Toye, Kenning & Spencer Weavers London, United Kingdom
(tie) 59 1690 Delamare et Cie. Packaging materials Criquebeuf-sur-Seine, France
* (tie) 59 1690 Walaker Hotel Hotel Solvorn, Norway
(tie) 59 1690 Yamamotoyama Tea Tokyo, Japan
62 1691 Nolet Distillery (Ketel One) Distillery Schiedam, Netherlands
* 63 1695 De Kuyper Royal Distillers B.V. Distillery Scheidam, Netherlands
* 64 1696 Oliefabriek c. de Koning Tilly Oil Haarlem, Netherlands
65 1697 Folkes Group Real estate, engineering Lye, United Kingdom
66 1698 Berry Brothers & Rudd Ltd. Wine merchants London, United Kingdom
67 1700? Allandale Farm Agriculture Brookline, Mass.
* 68 1703 Royal Joh. Enschedé Printing Haarlem, Netherlands
* 69 1704 Ferdinand Pieroth Wine Burg Layen, Germany
* 70 1707 Akafuku Confectionary Ujinakanokiri-Cho, Japan
71 1709 Farina Gegenüber Fragrances Cologne, Germany
* 72 1710 Twee Jonge Gezellen/the House of Krone Wine Tulbagh, South Africa
* 73 1712 The Orchards of Concklin Agriculture Pomona, N.Y.
* 74 1715 John White & Son Weighing machines Fife, Scotland
* 75 1719 Bavaria Brewery Brewery Lieshout, Netherlands
* 76 1720? Smiling Hill Farm/Hillside Lumber Dairy, lumber Westbrook, Maine
77 1722 Nourse Family Farm Agriculture Westborough, Mass.
78 1723 Tissages Denantes Cloth Grenoble, France
* 79 1726 Vergeest Metaalbewerking B.V. Metal products Druten, Netherlands
* 80 1728 Clark Farm Agriculture Danvers, Mass.
81 1730 MöllerGroup GmbH & Co. KG Plastics technology, leather processing Bielefeld, Germany
82 1731 Amarelli Fabbrica de Liquirizia Licorice Rossano Scalo, Italy
83 1733 Fratelli Piacenza Corp. Woolens Pollone, Italy
* (tie) 84 1741 The Howell Farm Agriculture, cattle Cedarville, N.J.
(tie) 84 1741 Lyman Orchards Agriculture Middlefield, Conn.
86 1742 John Whitley Farm Agriculture Williamston, N.C.
87 1743 Boplaas Agriculture Koue Bokkeveld, Cape Town, South Africa
(tie) 88 1745 Fonderia Daciano Colbachini & Figli Bell foundry Padua, Italy
(tie) 88 1745 J.D. Neuhaus Hebezeuge Winch manufacturers Witten-Heven, Germany
90 1748 Villeroy & Boch Housewares Mettlach, Germany
91 1750 Parlange Plantation Agriculture New Roads, La.
(tie) 92 1756 Franz Haniel Conglomerate Duisburg, Germany
(tie) 92 1756 Riedel Glas GmbH Glassmaking Kufstein, Austria
(tie) 94 1757 Lanificio Conte S.p.A. Woolens Schio, Italy
* (tie) 94 1757 Meerlust Wine Stellenbosch, South Africa
(tie) 96 1758 Jose Cuervo Tequila Tequila, Mexico
* (tie) 96 1758 Frenckellin Kirjapaino Oy Printing house Espoo, Finland
98 1759 Waterford Wedgwood Crystal, china, cookware Dublin, Ireland
99 1760 Creed Perfume Perfumes Paris, France
(tie) 100 1761 Faber-Castell Writing instruments Stein, Germany
* (tie) 100 1761 Great Brook Farm Agriculture Canterbury, N.H.

 

The world’s oldest family companies
— by country

 

Company Founded Rank
Austria
Riedel Glas GmbH 1756 92 (tie)
Chile
Hacienda Alhué 1603 28
Hacienda Los Lingues 1575 20
Finland
Frenckellin Kirjapaino Oy 1642 96 (tie)
France
Baronnie de Coussergues 1494 11
Château de Goulaine 1000 2 (tie)
Creed Perfume 1760 99
Richard de Bas 1326 7
Delamare et Cie. 1690 59 (tie)
Gradis Corp. 1685 57 (tie)
Hugel et Fils 1639 39
Mellerio dits Meller 1613 30
Jean Roze 1650 41
Tissages Denantes 1723 78
Viellard Migeon & Cie 1679 54
Germany
Berenberg Bank 1590 21
Faber-Castell 1761 100 (tie)
Farina Gegenüber 1709 71
Freiherr von Poschinger Glasmanufaktur 1568 19
Franz Haniel 1756 92 (tie)
Hotel Pilgrim Haus 1304 6
Eduard Meier 1596 24
Lukas Meindl GmbH & Co. KG 1683 56
Merck KGaA 1668 47
B. Metzler seel. Sohn & Co. KGaA 1674 51
MöllerGroup GmbH & Co. KG 1730 81
J.D. Neuhaus Hebezeuge 1745 88 (tie)
Perner Bell Foundry 1670 49
Ferdinand Pieroth 1704? 69
William Prym GmbH & Co. 1530 14
Friedr. Schwarze GmbH & Co. 1664 45
Villeroy & Boch 1748 90
Ireland
Waterford Wedgwood 1759 98
Italy
Amarelli Fabbrica de Liquirizia 1731 82
Barone Ricasoli 1141 4
Barovier & Toso 1295 5
Camuffo 1438 10
Cartiera Mantovana Corp. 1615 31
Fabbrica D’Armi Pietro Beretta S.p.A. 1526 13
Fonderia Daciano Colbachini & Figli 1745 88 (tie)
Fratelli Piacenza Corp. 1733 83
Grazia Deruta 1500 12
Lanificio Conte S.p.A. 1757 94 (tie)
Marchesi Antinori Srl 1385 9
Pontificia Fonderia Marinelli 1000 2 (tie)
Torrini Firenze 1369 8
Japan
Akafuku 1707 70
Enshu Sado School c. 1602 27
Gekkeikan Sake Company, Ltd. 1637 37
Houshi Onsen 718 1
Kikkoman 1630 33 (tie)
Okaya & Co., Ltd. 1669 48
Sumitomo Corp. 1630 33 (tie)
Takenaka 1610 29
Toraya c. 1600 25
Yamamotoyama 1690 59 (tie)
Mexico
Jose Cuervo 1758 96 (tie)
Netherlands
Bavaria Brewery 1719 75
De Kuyper Royal Distillers B.V. 1695 63
Nolet Distillery (Ketel One Vodka) 1691 62
Oliefabriek c. de Koning Tilly 1696 64
Petit & Fritsen B.V. 1660 43
Royal Joh. Enschedé 1703 68
Royal Tichelaar 1594 23
Touwafabriek G. van der Lee B.V. 1545 16
Van Eeghen Group 1662 44
Vergeest Metaalbewerking B.V. 1726 79
Norway
Friedr. Schwarze GmbH & Co. 1664 45
Ulefos Jernvaerk 1657 42
Walaker Hotel 1690 59 (tie)
Scotland
John White & Son 1715 74
South Africa
Boplaas 1743 87
Meerlust 1757 94 (tie)
Twee Jonge Gezellen/The House of Krone 1710 72
Spain
Codorniu 1551 17
Sweden
Akerblads 1630 33 (tie)
Switzerland
Fonjallaz 1552 18
United Kingdom
Berry Brothers & Rudd Ltd. 1698 66
John Brooke & Sons 1541 15
R. Durtnell & Sons 1591 22
Firmin & Sons, Ltd. 1677 53
Folkes Group 1697 65
C. Hoare & Co. 1672 50
James Lock & Co. Ltd. 1676 52
Tissiman & Sons Ltd. 1601 26
Toye, Kenning & Spencer 1685 57 (tie)
United States
Allandale Farm 1700 67
Barker Farm 1642 40
Clark Farm 1728 80
Great Brook Farm 1761 100 (tie)
Howell Farm 1741 84 (tie)
Lyman Orchards 1741 84 (tie)
Nourse Family Farm 1722 77
Orchards of Concklin 1712 73
Parlange Plantation 1750 91
Saunderskill Farm 1680 55
Seaside Inn and Cottages 1667 46
Shirley Plantation 1638 38
Smiling Hill Farm/Hillside Lumber 1720? 76
Tuttle Farm c. 1635 36
John Whitley Farm 1742 86
Avedis Zildjian Co. 1623 32
   
Removed since 2004:

 

Business Country Founded Notes
Kongo Gumi Japan 578 Acquired by Takamatsu in 2006.
Wachsendustrie Fulda Adam Gies Germany 1589 Company’s existence could not be confirmed.
J.P. Epping of Pippsvadr Germany 1595 Company’s existence could not be confirmed.
G.C. Fox Ltd. United Kingdom 1646 Company’s existence could not be confirmed.
R.H. Levey & Son United Kingdom 1649 Company’s existence could not be confirmed.
William Adams & Sons United Kingdom 1650 Company is now owned by Wedgwood.
Early’s of Witney United Kingdom 1669 Closed in 2002.
Miller Farm United States 1684 Company’s existence could not be confirmed.
Shepherd Neame United Kingdom 1698 Not continuously owned by one family.
William Dalton & Sons United Kingdom 1710 Company’s existence could not be confirmed.
Cooke Farm United States 1720? Company’s existence could not be confirmed.
Taittinger Champagne France 1734 Not continuously owned by one family.
Aubanel Publishing Co. France 1744 Company’s existence could not be confirmed.
Zenith Pipe Company Netherlands 1749 Acquired by Delft.
Marie Brizard & Roger International France 1755 Acquired by Belvedere in 2006.
Griset France 1760 Acquired by Diehl in 1997.
William Clark & Sons. Ltd. Northern Ireland 1736 Now owned and managed by Ulster Weavers Apparel Ltd.
Joseph Drouhin France 1756 Family’s current business was actually fouded in 1880.

Superseded by newly discovered companies:

 

 

Business Country Founded
Bachman Funeral Home United States 1769
Bianchi 1770 Group Italy 1770
Osborne Group Spain 1772
Editions Henry Lemoine France 1772
Stuart Land Co. of Virginia United States 1774
JB Fernandes & Sons Portugal 1778
St. John Milling Co. United States 1778
Laird & Co. United States 1780
Ditta Bortolo Nardini Italy 1779

 

 

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