Five important lessons from some of Britain’s oldest family businesses

POSTED: 22nd April 2014
IN: Guides

The business world evolves and innovates so much these days that it’s hard to imagine that some of the UK's oldest family businesses have survived for almost 500 years.

According to the Institute for Family Business (IFB), there are around three million family firms in the UK, equating to two thirds of all private firms and 40% of private sector employment.

There’s no doubt that these family-run enterprises are fundamental to the UK economy, and with some of them surviving for centuries, it seems they know a thing or two about success. Steeped in history and bursting with small business advice, the eight companies mentioned below are thought to be among the UK’s oldest.

Aldermore investigates the secret of these small family businesses’ resilience.

Keep it personal

From humble beginnings as a rented market stall in the "Shambles" (an open-air meat market) of 16th century Bridport in Dorset, independent butcher, RJ Balson & Son (est. 1515) continues to retain a firm presence in the town. The stall is still run by descendants of founder Robert Balson, and over the last 500 years, has survived much more than the recent credit crunch - an attack of the bubonic plague almost wiped out the entire town during the 17th Century!


Current owner, Richard Balson, who still uses the same recipes as have been handed down through the generations puts the company’s success down to personal and attentive customer service. In fact, Richard admits that he tries to sort out his customers' problems from behind the counter. "Usually if they've got a problem it's because they are not eating enough meat!" he adds.

Likewise, independent bank C Hoare & Co (est. 1672), which today boasts two branches in London, puts its success down to solid core values and ethos.

Through the years, the company has been forced to evolve with the times, including opening headquarters on Fleet Street in 1929 where they began issuing cheque books and introducing online banking in 2008. However, the family credit their good manners with the business’ success, saying they endeavour to, "treat others as we would wish to be treated".

Innovate to accumulate

Since the financial crash of 2008 over 7,000 UK building firms have gone out of business, but R Durtnell and Sons (est. 1591) based in Brasted, Kent, has remained afloat. Now with everything from country houses to cottages and council estates under their belt, Durtnell's originally started life as carpenter builders.

Spotting new ways of working has helped the company thrive and in the early 1800s, owner at the time, Richard Durtnell, made a crucial decision to bring together all the craftspeople he needed, such as glaziers and bricklayers, in one yard. As a result of this innovation, he became one of the UK’s first general builders.

And Cheshire-based miller Mornflake’s (est. 1675) is another example of a company that has relied on innovation to thrive. Now in its 15th generation of trading, current owner John Lea states, “Obviously technology has moved on and we have new equipment especially to keep up with the demand for our oats, but the general milling principle has stayed the same.”

This was particularly evident during the period of the Second World War, when home-grown, sustainable food was a necessity. According to the history books, then-owner Philip Lea was ordered by the Ministry of Food to leave the RAF and return home to Britain to "feed the nation".

Location, Location, Location

The second of our aged businesses to have been affected by a spell with the plague, hatters James Lock & Co (est. 1676) were actually born from the ashes of this national disaster. Following the great plague of 1665 and the great fire of 1666, wealthy residents from the City of London moved to the west of the city in search of clean air. Resolute shopkeepers spotted the exodus and opened up businesses in the emerging West End.

With a shop close to St James Palace, the firm became milliners to the gentry and the military. It now holds the Royal warrant to supply hats to the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales as well as Hollywood film stars and rappers.

But it might never have happened were it not for their entrepreneurial ancestors selecting the right location all those centuries ago.

Stay true to your roots

Specialising in commercial property development and investment, West Midlands-based property and construction firm, Folkes Group (est. 1697), is now in its ninth generation under current managing director, Constantine Folkes.




Feeling that staying true to the family's roots has been crucial to keeping the business going, Folkes continues to live in the area where the firm was first created.

Likewise, the owners of Salts Healthcare (est. 1701) which manufactures surgical instruments, believes that staying close to their heritage has served them well through the years. This includes, “listening to our customers and developing products to meet individual needs, as well as being committed to improving quality, we’ve never forgotten the value of cost-effectiveness.”

However, the company recognises the importance of remaining adept and responding to social change. This was especially evident, when during WWI, the company started to make artificial limbs for injured soldiers.

Stay Relevant

Finally, medals and regalia specialists Kenning & Spencer (est. 1685), has learnt that evolution with the times has been the key to victory. Over the years, the firm has adapted with the times from making detailed trimmings for soldiers in the Crimean war to making silks trimmings for working men’s groups like friendly societies.

Speaking about the company, Fiona Graham of the Institute for Family Business (IFB) commented, “Family firms are experts at evolving, ensuring they remain competitive over the generations and relevant in the modern world."

Over to you

For small business owners today, taking heed from these eight determined family firms can throw some light onto the path to accomplishment. The five basic principles have demonstrably worked to keep business ticking over for centuries - but would they have a place in your company’s strategy?

What do you think? Do these success stories inspire you, or would you like to see some examples of small businesses that have employed more risky strategies to achieve high levels of growth?

Aldermore believes that UK SMEs form the lynchpin of the country’s economy. That’s why we specialise in business finance solutions that are tailored to support their needs and best interests. To find out more about Aldermore business finance don’t hesitate to get in touch to speak with one of our expert advisors.

Images used courtesy of Wikipedia and Elliott Brown, Flickr

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