SWC Among America's Oldest Family Businesses

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America's oldest family businesses | Family Business Magazine

By Leah Kristie

Pride, ingenuity and endurance: More lessons from survivors.

What motivates a family in modern-day America—the land of easy mobility and limitless opportunity—to continue an enterprise founded by a long-dead ancestor? Here are the views of Randall Holmes of Holmes’ Brothers Farm of Wayne County, Mo., founded in 1847. “My brothers and I carry on a tradition started by our great-great grandmother, who told her granddaughter, who told our father, ‘Don’t sell the farm,’” Holmes says. “Before my father died, he gave his permission to sell. We have chosen not to. We don’t feel obligated to keep the farm as some kind of commitment to legacy. Rather, it has become something of a novelty and tradition we continue just to see how long the business can stay in one family.”

Holmes and other proprietors of the companies that rank among America’s oldest family businesses are justifiably proud. In fact, since the last version of our list was published in 2003, we’ve received numerous communications alerting us to 34 venerable companies we had inadvertently omitted (plus many impressive businesses too “young” to make the list). Asterisks on our list identify “new” additions.

Longtime Family Business readers will notice a change in our numbering system with this edition of the list. Two or more companies founded in the same year are now ranked as a “tie,” with the businesses listed in alphabetical order. For example, the Howell Farm in Cedarville, N.J., and Lyman Orchards in Middlefield, Conn., both founded in 1741, are tied for No. 12. The next business on the list (John Whitley Farm of Williamston, N.C., founded in 1742) is thus ranked at No. 14.

What has enabled these companies to stay in business for so many generations? In 2003, we pondered this question and suggested four strategies for family business longevity, based on the characteristics of the enterprises on our list:

1. Stay small.

2. Don’t go public.

3. Avoid big cities.

4. Keep it in the family.

Since 2003, only two businesses have changed ownership. The Delaware Gazette of Delaware, Ohio, was sold to Brown Publishing Company of Cincinnati in 2004. And after the death of the sixth-generation owner of Sawyer Bentwood Co. in Whitingham, Vt., George Campo purchased the company. Five other companies on our 2003 list either have closed their doors or could not be reached to confirm their existence.

Thanks to feedback from owners of the country’s oldest businesses, plus a bit of research on our part, we have identified three more keys to long-term sustainability of a family company:

5. Choose a business that won’t go out of style. To put it bluntly, people will always eat, and people will always die. Many of the companies on our list are working farms or ranches, makers or sellers of food products, and funeral home operators.

6. Be creative. Farms and funeral homes may dominate the list, but America’s oldest family business is Zildjian Cymbal Co., established in 1623. Other instrument makers are guitar company C.F. Martin & Co. (#47) and drum manufacturer Noble & Cooley (tied for #93).

7. Persist. “To each generation come challenges,” says Paul Hayward, the seventh-generation owner of The Homestead, a Sugar Hill, N.H., inn established in 1802 (tied for #26). “The inn has survived for over 200 years through the Civil War, Great Depression, World War I and World War II,” Hayward says. “I am confident my family will see the Inn through present difficulties.”

Leah Kristie served as a student intern at Family Business in summer 2007. We extend special thanks to Professor William T. O’Hara, founder and executive director of Bryant College’s Institute for Family Enterprise in Smithfield, R.I., and his associate Peter Mandel, who conducted the original research for our list, first published in 1999.