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So You Think Your Family Business is Old

This past weekend I discovered an interesting article about the World’s oldest family businesses. The article made me curious – curious to learn what is the oldest family business in the world and which are the oldest family-businesses in the United States.

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This past weekend I discovered an interesting article about the World’s oldest family businesses. The article made me curious – curious to learn what is the oldest family business in the world and which are the oldest family-businesses in the United States.

The World’s Oldest Family Business

According to a few sources, the oldest family business in the world is the Hoshi Inn in Komatsu, Japan that began in 717 or 718. The Hoshi Inn is being operated by it’s 46th or 47th generation – guess their succession planning has worked-out pretty well!

What Happened to Former Oldest Business?

What is really interesting is what happened to the former oldest business. Until 2006, the oldest family business in the world was Kongo Gumi, which was founded in 578 AD. One reason Kongo Gumi was successful for 1500 years was that its business served a stable industry – Buddhist temples. They were a construction business that was renown as a Buddhist temple builder. And, even as late as 2004, 80% of their revenue came from temple construction. However, after the Japanese economy softened in the 1990s and Japanese citizens lowered donations to Buddhist temples, the company began investing in real estate – and they did it with debt.

In 2006 when the banks continued their pressure on Kongo Gumi, they sold-out to Takamatsu, a large Japanese construction company. While I’m sure their 40th and last family president, Masakazu Kongo, was saddened to be the person at the helm when they sold, he should know they did what so many other families have done over the centuries – diversified into a business they knew little about.

Next Five of the Word’s Oldest Family Businesses

According to an article, The World’s Oldest Family Companies written by William T. O’Hara, a Professor from Bryant College, the world’s next five oldest businesses are:

  • Château de Goulaine (Vineyard, castle, museum /France) Founded in 1000. The Goulaine family has owned this establishment for more than 1,000 years. The castle houses a rare butterfly collection and wine is available for sale at the castle’s vineyards.
  • Barone Ricasoli (Wine and olive oil/Italy) Founded in 1141.The Ricasoli barons were first given their land by the Republic of Florence in the 12th century; today their Brolio Estate covers about 3,600 acres. The family’s main focus is its wine production and 26 acres are used for olive cultivation.
  • Barovier & Toso (Glass making/Italy) Founded in 1295. For centuries the Barovier family has produced crystalline glass, mother-of-pearl glass and gold-free cornelian red on Murano Island, about a ten-minute ferry ride from Venice. The Baroviers merged with the Toso family in 1936.
  • Hotel Pilgrim Haus (Innkeeping/Germany) Founded in 1304. The Hotel Pilgrim Haus is located in the town of Soest, about 110 miles north of Frankfurt.
  • Richard de Bas (Paper/France) Founded in 1326. Richard de Bas has a longstanding reputation for high-quality papers – it has supplied paper for limited-edition works by Braque and Picasso.

Oldest Larger Family Businesses in the United States

According to Forbes Magazine, the 15 oldest large family businesses in the United States are really very young by global standards. The oldest, C. W. Follett, which was founded in 1873 and is an educational publishing and management company in Illinois, is one of only nine larger companies founded prior to 1900. Here are the remaining 15:

2. Gilbane (1873) Commercial construction company headquartered in Rhode Island.

3. Kohler (1873) Iron foundry and plumbing products company headquartered in Wisconsin.

4. S.C. Johnson (1886) Home cleaning products company (Johnson’s Wax and Pledge) headquartered in Wisconsin.

5. Belk (1888) Nation’s largest privately owned department store headquartered in North Carolina.

6. Young’s Market (1888) West coast distributor of alcoholic beverages headquartered in California.

7. Gordon Food Service (1897) Food service distributor headquartered in Michigan.

8. Walsh Group (1898) Midwest construction company headquartered in Chicago.

9. Bechtel (1898) Global engineering and construction company headquartered in California.

10. Day and Zimmerman (1901) Large engineering, construction, and government service company headquartered in Philadelphia.

11. H.E. Butt Grocery (1905) A large regional grocery chain headquartered in Texas.

12. Mars (1911) Global candy company headquartered in McLean, Virginia.

13. Delaware North Company (1815) Hospitality, food service, and sports entertainment company headquartered in Buffalo, New York. They own and operate the Boston Bruins and TD Garden.

14. Wegman’s Food Market (1916) Northeast and mid-Atlantic grocery chain headquartered near Rochester, New York.

15. Demoulas Super Markets (1917) Northeast grocery chain headquartered in Massachusetts.

While I do wonder if this list is accurate (e.g. my reading of the Follett history seems to show that no members of the original Barnes founder are in the business today), it does give us a sense of both how young family businesses in the United States are relative to the rest of the world and how difficult it is to sustain a family business.

(Writer’s Note – The Forbes article seems to exclude farms and smaller businesses. I found some evidence that there may be dozens of smaller farms and enterprises that go back prior to 1873.)