Lessons from a 400-year-old family-owned business

TALK about extreme pressure from the front and back! The corporate world today is changing fast. To survive, firms must be competitive, ready for changes, exploiting opportunities presented by globalization, finding finance when crisis hits, and, generally, must be able to adapt to new challenges more rapidly than ever before in corporate history.

On the other hand, many would assume that a family business can go in perpetuity, parallel with the family and its bloodline. Think about it – can a family business like a family, genetically go on forever given that in today’s climate, it is unlikely that most businesses can have the same business model 20 years from now?

Enterprise longevity vs. business survival.

A recent article in The Practitioner –an online publication of the Family Firm Institute – pointed out the difference between “firm survival over time” (continuity of a family business through the years) and “longevity of a family enterprise” (a family’s ability to create wealth and value over generations).

The Practitioner article – by Pramodita Sharma, the Sanders Professor for Family Business at the University of Vermont’s School of Business Administration – argued that family enterprise success can be defined in ways other than leadership transfer from one generation to the next.

“Both the creative destruction of firms and pruning of the enterprising family are integral parts of longevity of an enterprising family” Sharma wrote.

“Recent reviews of the research on succession, governance, professionalization and performance all point in the same direction — that one size does not fit all and the overarching numbers of ‘success’ are insufficient to capture the complexity and heterogeneity of family enterprises and their pathways to success.”

Surprisingly, however, some family businesses make it much beyond the third generation. One of them, Mellerio dits Meller, is celebrating its 400th anniversary this year.

Mellerio dits Meller is a French jewellery house, founded in 1613, and still active today. It claims to be the oldest family company in Europe. It gives its name to the Mellerio cut, a 57-facet jewel cut, shaped as an oval within an ellipse. Today, Mellerio is based Rue de la Paix, Paris with branches in Luxembourg and Japan.

Mellerio dits Meller has always kept up with the times. The family has in its possession cardboard boxes containing thousands of drawings that trace the evolution of fine jewellery design up to the present day. These records, among the most important in the world, are full of designs of modern jewellery at the time.

Today, they are seen as eternal classics and hallmark of timeless good taste.

Let’s touch a bit of history. In 1613, a young chimney cleaner, discovered a plot against King Louis XIII. When Marie de Medicis was warned of the conspiracy she rewarded Jean-Marie Mellerio and the Lombard community of Paris by granting them the privilege of “peddling cut crystal, hardware and other small goods” throughout the kingdom.

The privilege to cut crystal granted in 1613, renewed successively by Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI, marked the beginning of the Mellerio family’s jewellery business.

Starting as peddlers of trinkets, they gradually became jewellery-makers to the rich and famous.

Of all of the generations of Mellerios, François Mellerio, stands out among the most important figures in the family’s history. Francois was a true visionary and made the company what it is today, or at least set the foundations for it to develop and become what it was in the 19th century.

“But what is interesting in the dynasty is that each of my ancestors were very different from one other, each one brought his own sensibility,” according to Emilie Mellerio, who for her own part brings “this combination of right brain and left brain,” having trained both in creation and business analysis (Mellerio’s CV includes a six-year stint at LVMH-owned jeweler and watchmaker Zenith.

Her vision for the company moving forward remains service oriented, with the desire to increase the focus on made to order, which until 2004, made up “99%” of the company’s business, versus around 60% today.

Lessons that family businesses can learn:

1. Innovation and creativity
2. Service-oriented
3. Strive to have products that are relevant
4. Empowered next generation leaders
5. Alignment of family and business goals
6. Network

7. Consistency with the 400-year vision of producing the best and most creative product

To quote a 15th-generation Mellerio family member, “There is always a risk being 400 years old; the talk is always about how old we are, but actually the reason we are still alive today is that we kept on being creative the whole time. And we strive to continue to do that.”

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