A 500-year old Family Business (Part 1)

What make some family businesses go on for centuries while others succumb and die early? My quest for corporate longevity continues.

In my last article, I glowingly talk about Lee Kum Kee’s 129 year run where they defied the third-generation curse but on the one hand, I have also written numerous articles about the 3rd generation curse and have highlighted statistics that only 3% of all family-owned corporations make it into the fourth generation.

In an insightful research material by Schwartz and Bergfeld, the authors pointed to one country that seemed to challenge the 3rd generation curse much better than others.

Japan has 7 out of the 10 oldest companies on the planet and also has the highest concentration of old family businesses by any measure such as GDP, population, and landmass. According to a 2008 study from the Bank of Korea, the world had 5,586 companies that were older than 200 years. In the same study, Japan was number one with 3,146 firms or 56 percent; the second was Germany with 837 or 15 percent; the Netherlands came third with 222 and fourth was France with 196 companies.

But it is not only the extreme cases of very old companies that are surprising, the overall life expectancy of a Japanese family business is higher in general. According to Professor Toshio Goto from the Japan University of Economics in Tokyo, the average lifetime of a Japanese family business in 2005 was 52 years, more than double that of its American counterparts.  What can the unique Japanese approach teach us about longevity?

If family businesses from around the globe strive for future prosperity and family survival in an increasingly volatile, complex and ambiguous world, how does a tradition-rich company like Japan’s Toraya Confectionery Company managed to keep pace with an ever-changing world?  Even with a great idea, thorough research and hours and hours of hard work, one rule still applies:  Nothing is certain in life and in business.  No one can unfailingly know if one will fail or succeed in life, how investors will receive a startup idea or whether a company will survive past the one-year mark.  So, how can one increase the odds of, well, beating the odds?

It’s a question asked often enough that it deserves an answer.

Toraya Confectionery Co. Ltd. is a Japanese confectionery company founded by  Enchu Kurokawa in early 16th century, Kyoto.   Toraya, a maker of wagashi (traditional Japanese confections), was a supplier to the imperial court during the reign of Emperor Goyozei, which was from 1586 to 1611. Toraya established a foothold in Tokyo in 1869, after the national capital was transferred there on the heels of the Meiji Restoration. At present, Toraya has three factories and approximately 80 shops throughout Japan, in addition to a boutique in Paris.

Running a business for almost 500 years is not without challenges, mainly in the form of disasters, change in society, economic transformation and several World War upheavals and Toraya  countered by shifting from being the imperial family’s purveyor to opening retails stores.

Steve Jobs once said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward.”   Even the Great Confucius explained that if we want to define the future, we have to study the past.  And so, let us study Toraya’s history for the past 500 years.  Indeed, for a small start-up company, to last this long is a testimony to its great history. Since its inception, Toraya has grown big and evolved into a well respected corporate venture that has become known in Japan, the rest of Asia Pacific, and the world.

To be continued….

(esoriano@wongadvisory.com)

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