Thousands of companies are family-owned. They are typically handed down from one generation to another; each new generation inheriting the family business. One company in Japan may hold the world's record as being owned by one family longer than any other.
In the year 578 A.D., carpenter Shigemitsu Kongo traveled from the Korean kingdom of Paekche to Japan, looking for work. He helped with the construction of Shitennoji, one of the oldest Buddhist complexes in Japan. He started a company, and his son was soon working alongside the father as an employee.
Today, working from offices overlooking the same temple, Kongo Gumi Co. is believed to be the world's oldest family enterprise. The business is run by Masakazu Kongo, 55, the 40th Kongo to lead the 1,429-year-old company.. The UCLA-trained Masakazu says 90% of the carpentry techniques Shigemitsu brought to Japan are still used. Yet, as much as the Kongos value tradition, their firm has survived by being flexible.
About eighty percent of the firm's $100 million annual revenue continues to involve building and repairing Buddhist temples. Over the centuries, Kongo Gumi has participated in the construction of many famous buildings, including the 16th-century Osaka castle.
Such businesses are remarkable, considering that "among family companies ... less than 30 percent survive to the second generation, barely 10 per cent make it to the third, and only 4 per cent to the fourth," according to a recent Family Business magazine article.
You can see the Kongo Gumi corporate Web site at http://www.kongogumi.co.jp. Obviously, the site is in Japanese.
The oldest family-owned firm in the United States is the Zildjian Cymbal Company of Norwell, Massachusetts founded in 1623. A brief recollection of early U.S. history makes it obvious that this has not been an American company for all those years. (No, the Pilgrims did not scramble from Plymouth Rock to set up a cymbal shop.) Founded 14 generations ago in Constantinople by an alchemist named Avedis I, who discovered an extremely musical metal alloy to create powerful, durable cymbals. The sultan named him "Zildjian," Armenian for "cymbalsmith." The family emigrated to the U.S. in 1929, in time for Avedis Zildjian III to establish ties with hot new jazz drummers of the day. His son Armand (1921-2002) created a modern factory. Today Armand's daughters Craigie (CEO) and Debbie (VP/human resources) run the company, the first women chiefs in its long history. The company's Web site is at http://www.zildjian.com.
The honor of oldest continuously-operating family-owned business in the United States goes to the Tuttle Farm of Dover, New Hampshire. The exact date of founding is unknown but apparently was around 1635 to 1638. Founder John Tuttle left England in 1635, survived a shipwreck off the Maine coast, and then arrived in Dover with his wife and four-year-old daughter. His 240-acre farm now is managed by the 11th generation of the Tuttle family, which grows vegetables and strawberries and also operates a retail shop on the site. The farm and family seem to be going strong: twelfth-generation member Evan Hourihan, who is in his 20s, has expressed an interest in the family farm.