How to build a company to last for centuries

The companies that endure are clear about their purpose, says author John Simmons.

by John Simmons
Last Updated: 22 Feb 2018

John Simmons is one of the authors of Established, a book that tells the stories of some of the world’s oldest companies. Here, he shares some of their secrets to success.

It was a simple proposition. Twelve business writers would each identify a business that’s been around for a long time – centuries not decades – and ask them ‘How did you manage it?’

We were curious. What did these business survivors have in common and what useful lessons did they have for companies today?

One conclusion is that ‘Your business is like every other; but unlike any other’. Each company was unique and each company was clear above all about its identity, i.e. what is it that makes you you?

Closely related to that was the need to embrace change while being completely focused on their purpose. Even as the environment for a business changes – it always will, that’s the only certainty – it’s important to make sure that a business has a sense of purpose that drives it. There needs to be depth to that purpose – to go beyond ‘make money’. What really motivates you and those who work with you?

For example, in the case of Cambridge University Press – the world’s oldest publisher, founded in 1534 – the purpose is ‘to advance learning, knowledge and research’. How it achieves its purpose might change with technology but the fundamental purpose is not deflected by such changes. The why is fixed, the how is flexible.

Firms that survive have to adapt but there’s almost certainly a craft or expertise involved, adding layers of experience that enrich the company’s story: manufacturing measuring equipment (John White & Son); delivering goods (The Shore Porters’ Society); making sausages (RJ Balson & Son); hosting communities (The Brazen Head). Sometimes that craft can literally carve your place into history, as the John Stevens Shop in the USA found, moving through the generations. First carving local gravestones then, in time, chiselling away at a deepening craft, becoming the creators of national monuments, one character at a time.

New technologies come along but there’s always a truth in the company’s historic stories that continues to inform the business and create relationships with customers. A bell-maker’s manufacture of the US Liberty Bell (cracked on arrival but all the more potent as a symbol of a desire for independence); a chewing gum maker’s withdrawal of its product from general sale during the war except to supply the troops (reaping the post-war loyalty dividend); the sense of communion created by a drink (building audiences worldwide by generating a mystique about its essence). Whitechapel bells, Wrigley’s gum, Guinness stout.

Big companies or small, there are principles that should not be secrets, principles that should be shared. The problem might be that we have allowed some truisms to be accepted as truths: you always need to question long-held beliefs. It’s a quality that all these enduring companies have embraced without necessarily following the guidance of management text books. Some of those books might say: ‘innovate or die’, ‘grow or go out of business’, ‘diversify the product range’. Up to a point, Lord Copper.

Such familiar pieces of business advice might be true when applied to certain situations and companies, but they are not necessarily universal truths. The companies we picked for Established are doing what they have always done – ferrying people across a river (The Hampton Ferry), selling wine (Berry Brothers & Rudd), farming sheep (Australian Agricultural Company) – and doing those things in ways that earlier generations would still recognise.

They keep performing their business activities because they are dedicated to them and that dedication is strengthened by the memories and stories of those who went before. Those memories give meaning to a business. There is no nostalgia in this version of corporate memory; often the stories have not been written down, are constantly under threat of extinction, yet still pass down the years. It’s simply a recognition that businesses are made by people, people are storytellers and stories forge connections that make survival possible and success attainable.

So the last lesson we drew from these very human stories of business achievement over many centuries was simply this: It is all about people – those who work for you and with you. And they all want to have meaning in their lives inside and outside work.

Established: Lessons learned from the world’s oldest companies, by the Dark Angels collective, is published by Unbound.



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