The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jan 4, 2008

Old Business

When was the last time I used a pencil? I can't remember. I use a (ball-point) pen almost daily, but only to scribble a small note or telephone number. Writing longhand has died a quiet death. In fact, the last time I tried it, my writing came out all wonky and my muscles ached with the unaccustomed strain. Far easier to type out a missive and print it and sign it and send it. Who writes anymore these days?

Therefore it comes as a surprise to me that the great pencil makers of the world - the likes of Faber-Castell and Schwan-Stabilo and Staedtler - are moving higher up in the value chain by manufacturing luxury pens. These houses, established in 1761, 1855, and 1835 respectively, find themselves outgunned by cheap Chinese manufacturers of pencils, so they come up with innovative designs and fancy inks and designer biros and fountain pens.

My fascination for these companies is occasioned mainly by their longevity. To survive in their essential business for two or three centuries implies several things: they produced high-quality products in niche markets that others found it difficult (or uneconomical) to break into; they innovated constantly and adapted to changing demands for their products; they had managers with foresight. And, in the case of family-run enterprises like Faber-Castell, they had clear lines of inheritance established in favour of capable successors, so that the companies were not broken up on the death of their heads.

In this, a long-lived company is not that different from an imperial dynasty. Inevitably, the most dynamic royal family ends up producing pusillanimous incompetents or debauched wastrels who exhaust their realms. Unless kings of quality ruthlessly establish their heirs by culling the deadwoods, and unless there are successors of ability to take over the enterprise, it is doomed to failure.

Consider, therefore, the famed glass-making company of Barovier and Toso that has been in Murano for seven hundred years. Nineteen generations of the family have run it and it has prospered despite severe competition from (and cheap counterfeiting by) less illustrious glaziers. Will it survive into the next generation? The prospects are not bright. The current head, Jacopo Barovier, joined the family concern reluctantly several decades ago. Now he finds that his siblings and children are not keen on running the show. He is philosophical about this. They have had a good run.

The oldest extant family-run concern in the world is Japanese. This is an example of an extremely niche market in which the company has a monopoly. Founded in the year 578, Kongo Gumi are contractors and builders and restorers of temples. The current head is the fortieth of the dynasty to run it. Interestingly, the Kongo family was brought to Japan from Korea to build the Shitennoji Temple in Osaka. A far cry, I guess, from the rampant discrimination Koreans have faced in the last century or so from the Nipponese.

The next oldest family concern is also Japanese. It is an inn, Hoshi Ryokan, in Komatsu, run by the Houshi family since AD 718. The first European outfit that enters the list is a French vineyard that dates back to AD 1000. Château de Goulaine in Brittany also runs a museum and offers its chateau for formal events.

For a comprehensive list, check out the site1 in the Reference section.

I'd like to mention Ede & Ravenscroft, tailors set up in 1689 and surviving to this day in the City of London. This is not truly a family concern - from its history, it appears to have changed hands several times, although each time to an associate or apprentice of the owning family. It was founded by the tailoring Shudalls and appears to have been taken over by an Ede, who then married into the Ravenscroft wig-making family. Hence the double-barrelled name! They have been involved in dressing up the Royal family for twelve successive coronations, starting with that of William and Mary in 1689. If the Royals can wear their outfits, I don't see why I can't. In fact, I did! I have a (very small) soft spot for this traditional concern because they were the purveyors of the elaborate gown I had to don for my graduation from Cass Business School. Buggers socked me a pretty penny, but it was worth it in the end.


1. The Oldest Family Companies in the World.


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