The UK’s oldest family businesses share advice for young British companies
With 250,000 small businesses predicted by the ONS to fold in 2021, and over 400,000 new businesses estimated to have launched in 2020 (Sky News), the COVID-19 pandemic has created both crisis and opportunity for British SMEs and entrepreneurs.
To help small businesses survive and flourish in the post-pandemic era, we approached 10 of the UK’s oldest family-run companies, asking them to provide a single piece of advice that they would give to young British businesses.
All with histories going back centuries, the family-run firms have survived world wars, civil wars, revolutions, plagues, and countless waves of societal and technological change. Therefore, as part of our ongoing mission to support and foster British SMEs, we decided to ask these businesses to share pearls of wisdom from their cumulative 3,577 years of family ownership and entrepreneurial heritage.
Peter Freebody & Co
Boatbuilders | Maidenhead | Date of foundation - 1257 | 12 generations of family members
With origins dating back to 1257, Peter Freebody & Co.’s longevity is astounding. Richard Freebody attributes this to years of methodical risk assessment and long-term thinking.
Richard Freebody (Owner):
“Working for such a well-established family business, you really feel like more of a custodian of the business, with so many generations having previously been at the helm. My sisters and I are doing our bit for our generation to preserve the business, and maintain the good customer relationships that the previous generation built. My mindset is very much to prioritise the protection of the business and stay resilient. We are constantly evaluating risks, looking at the long-term impact on the business, rather than looking to make quick gains.
That would be my main advice to new businesses. Though start-ups have to take more risks in the beginning, it is still important to look at the longer term, and assess the risks and impact that decisions could have on the business.
We have been very lucky to have been able to remain mostly open during the pandemic, but our business has changed with the times. The origins of the business date back to 1257, when Freebody fishermen decided to build their own boats, which then expanded to building boats for others. As the use of the Thames changed over time, so did our business. We were involved in the commercial transportation of goods up and down the Thames, but now the river is mostly used for pleasure boating, and that’s what we’ve been focusing on since around the 1890s. It’s important for any business to be able to adapt, and to be flexible with the changes in the specific work environment.”
R J Balson and Son
Butchers | Dorset | Date of foundation - 1515 | 25 generations of family members
(and, according to the Institute for Family Business, the oldest continually trading family business in the United Kingdom).
With the pandemic drastically affecting the way communities interact and communicate, Richard Balson places specific onus on working to support and facilitate the needs of the local community.
Richard Balson (Owner):
“Being around for as long as we have, there have been plagues, wars, fires, floods, and in 1979 we had water up to the letterbox. These situations, not to mention recession and health scares have brought on difficult times. COVID-19 is just another obstacle. Thankfully for us, during this pandemic, we were considered an essential business – so have remained open throughout. But, the COVID-19 guidelines have made things challenging and we have lost a lot of trade business from the closure of the hospitality industry.
There has been such a surge in support for small and independent businesses. People are looking to boycott the bigger supermarkets, because of the large crowds, and have welcomed a return to a more traditional way of shopping. Smaller shops feel a bit safer.
Breaking the habit of robotic shopping, people have embraced our style of good old-fashioned service. We prioritise great and personal customer service with real conversations and, in a time where personal interactions have been limited, I think that’s what people wanted.
For new businesses, my advice would be: prioritise your local community. We know our customers and we have been a part of the community for centuries. We have tried to do what we can to support the community. We’ve been offering phone orders that we can deliver locally to those self-isolating or shielding. Any business starting out should look to act in ways that benefit their local customers. They should also be ready to adapt and diversify in ways that benefit customers.”
Lock & Co. Hatters
Hatmakers | London | Date of foundation - 1676 | 7 generations of family members
Despite an ever-changing societal backdrop, Ben Dalrymple maintains that any business can succeed by upholding the highest standards of material, craftsmanship, and services.
Ben Dalrymple (Managing Director):
“Lock & Co. has been in business for 345 years, through wars, depressions, recessions, and pandemics. Since 1676, we’ve had a winning formula – and we’ve stuck to it. We sell the finest quality products in beautiful materials, made expertly and well, rather than quickly. We provide traditional, world-class advice and product knowledge, and we care about every client and their hats from the very first purchase. There’s true value in owning a cherished possession that could give you decades of loyal service, and knowing that our hatters and milliners are on hand to repair and restore if the hat gets a little too-loved over time.
Lock’s never stands still; we innovate, invent and create. However, our motive, ethos, and method have not changed a great deal: Careful ownership, good governance, and a reputation for excellence founded on great experiences and products. Even on our digital platforms, that is how we plan to do business for the next three centuries and beyond.”
Dege & Skinner
Bespoke Tailors | London | Date of foundation - 1865 | 5 generations of family members
Despite being able to draw on over 150 years of wisdom, Dege & Skinner continue to change and adapt with the times, placing the needs and wants of their customers before anything else.
William Skinner (Managing Director):
"If we've learnt anything over our family business' 156-year history, it's to be flexible. This has never been more apparent than with the recent and unprecedented restrictions due to Covid-19. Be willing to adapt, listen to your customers, and do whatever you can to give them reassurance that their continued custom is well placed and very much appreciated.”
Real Estate Developers | West Midlands | Date of foundation - 1697 | 8 generations of family members
Easy as it is to marvel at profits and growth, Amy Folkes suggests that fortune favours the prudent. Being able to rely on a loyal workforce to carry out expansion during the good times, and work hard during the bad times, is key.
Amy Folkes (Director):
“The secret to long-term success is not only to increase profitability but also to watch out for potential weaknesses which might expose themselves (sometimes terminally) in bad times, which will inevitably appear unexpectedly. Never be complacent as the good times won’t last forever, so adaptability is key. Move with the market and explore new ventures as times change, but never expose yourself to such an extent that unchartered waters could sink the buoyant ship - better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
Diversifying assets or product lines helps in managing cyclical trends most industries are affected by. Surround yourself with the best personnel you can afford in the key expertise your business requires. Always lean upon your own common sense, instinct, and judgement to interrogate their advice as no one will think through all the angles as thoroughly as the business owner – that’s called the 3am grey hair time.
100% loyalty and 80% efficiency from staff trumps 80% loyalty and 100% efficiency. Maintain strong relationships with your funders and maintain an open dialogue with them even if times are tough – they don’t like shocks! If your funders have faith in your business and have witnessed a proven track record, they will help you expand in good times and support you during tough times.”
Funeral Directors | South East England | Date of foundation - 1690 | 10 generations of family members
With funerals being the subject of debate and attention during the pandemic, Jeremy Field notes that the importance of finding the balance between staff protection and customer satisfaction has proven key to their continued success.
Jeremy Field (Managing Director):
“As the UK’s oldest funeral directors and a 10th generation family managed and run business, our advice would simply be to strike a balance between retaining your businesses' rich heritage, whilst driving sustainable innovation. We remind ourselves and our colleagues daily to focus our efforts and energy on, not only supporting our customers but ensuring we look out for each other in the process as well.
At C.P.J Field, we’ve experienced firsthand a greater understanding and empathy for the role played by Funeral Directors, being recognised as key workers during the pandemic. Together with the challenges that have been many and varied, we’ve drawn upon our innovation and quickly learnt to adapt to ensure we have been able to continue to deliver the very highest standards of service to families in our care, despite the restrictions placed upon us. Continuing to care for both the living and the dead, whilst keeping our colleagues safe and well for their families too.”
Oat Millers | Crewe | Date of foundation - 1675 | 15 generations of family members
John Lea suggests that by operating with an adaptable and streamlined workforce, Mornflake has been able to feed the nation for over three centuries.
John Lea (Managing Director):
"With a heritage stretching back nearly 350 years, Mornflake has helped to feed the country through two world wars and a global pandemic. In supplying food banks and the NHS throughout COVID-19, Mornflake staff have been working tirelessly to keep the country fed. Our longevity is in no small part due to our ability to be flexible when things change. We would advise new businesses to aim to adapt quickly, and to realise that a small team can allow you to communicate better and make the right decisions fast."
Manufacturers of State Insignia & Regalia, high-end jewellery and fashion accessories, medals, special commissions, trophies, embroideries, woven products and headwear
London | Date of foundation - 1685 | 10 generations of family members
Constantly tapping into the zeitgeist of the time, Freddie Toye believes that calculated risks are great chances to adapt and grow, not something that should be shied away from.
Freddie Toye (Director):
“Having survived two world wars, eight recessions, and a fair few pandemics, Toye, Kenning & Spencer is no stranger to hard times. Being a small family firm, managing our own production from start to finish in the United Kingdom, has allowed us to adapt quickly to change. For one such example, when the British Army transitioned from its famous red tunics to khaki in the late 1800s, William Henry Toye lost a large proportion of his trade. Under William’s direction, it was very clear the company had to look to new markets to survive; the company turned towards clubs and societies, as well as more general fashion, to adapt. Our business even took the risk of producing the now-famous regalia for the suffragette movement, a controversial decision at the time that fortunately lies on the right side of history today.
Devastation at the loss of a large part of our traditional trade in the late 1800s turned to exuberance as the new markets ushered in a golden age for the company as it moved into the early 1900s. Today, as global supply chains creak and companies too slow to change fail, the company ethos of taking risks and owning the totality of its production in the United Kingdom is looking just as relevant today as it did in 1685.”
Perfumers | London | Date of foundation - 1730 | 9 generations of family members
Placing flexibility and customer care at the centre of their business, Edward Bodenham has committed to sharing the importance of fragrance with not only existing Floris customers, but the new generation of users also.
Edward Bodenham (Director):
“Having been an independent family business for nearly 300 years now, we recognise the huge importance of understanding and listening to our customers, and we always try to be as flexible as possible in order to cater to the requirements of our wonderfully loyal Floris fragrance advocates as well as the new generation of customers who are discovering our collection for the first time. We place huge importance on details and on how things should be done ‘the Floris way’ and in harmony with our company and family ethos.
We also share the sentiment with many of our customers that the emotive power of scent can be incredibly uplifting and bring so much comfort, that in good times as well as more difficult times, there is always something reassuring about having your favourite fragrance to hand.”
Suppliers of costumes to film, TV, and theatre (and supplier to thirty-seven movies that have received Best Costume Oscars)
London | Date of foundation - 1840 | Seven generations of family members
Tim Angel attributes years of success and consistency to remaining loyal to his company’s founding principles. Whilst adaptation is a vital part of business, he explains that it should not come at the cost of quality.
Tim Angel (Chairman):
“Remember and appreciate the roots of your business: The founding principles on which your company might grow and thrive.
Focus on your current market but never to the extent that you cannot change your strategy to reflect the times. If there were graveyards for businesses, they would be filled with once-great companies which failed to adapt.
However, even if you have to alter your model or move into new markets or spaces, never deviate from the core values of the business. Angels was built on the quality of product and service, competitiveness, trust, and reliability. Have these as your guiding stars and I hope you too will experience business longevity like Angels.”