Many families have a tradition of family-owned businesses. Many of these are small companies that get handed down from parents to children. Many automobile franchises and restaurants, for example, are family-owned and operated. Even large corporations such as Mars, Bechtel, News Corp., Ford, and Wal-Mart, can be owned by a single family. One of the great side benefits of such organizations is that the corporate records can be very helpful in providing information on the family itself. Now imagine a family-owned business that can trace its history back for hundreds of years. How amazing would that be?
The three oldest family-owned businesses founded in the United States date back almost to the Civil War. Follett (an Illinois educational-products company), Gilbane (contracors and real estate development), and Kohler (plumbing and other products), were all founded in 1873. For more than 130 years, these corporations have stayed in the control of the founding families and their descendants.
The oldest company in America, however, is one that is near and dear to my heart as a musician. I would venture to say that there is not a musician or singer in the world who has performed with a band who is unfamiliar with the name Zildjian. The Avedis Zildjian Company was formed in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1919, but its roots go back much further. The first Avedis Zildjian was an alchemist who came across an alloy of tin, copper, and silver that could make music without shattering. Thus he began making cymbals in 1623 in his native Constantinople.
Back in 1591, brothers John and Brian Durtnell built their first home. It is still standing and occupied today. And the company they founded, R. Durtnell and Sons, is still flourishing today in Kent, England. Among their clients have been the Royal Military Academy, Chartwell House (home of Winston Churchill), and Buckingham Palace.
As a rule, it is exceedingly difficult to trace one’s ancestry back more than four to five hundred years. There are just too few records. Now imagine that your family has been running a business for years, centuries even. The records of the company and the transitions can be very helpful. Even if they don’t provide specific birth and marriage information, you can often find death information (as the business is transferred to the next generation when the last of the previous one dies). At the very least, they can help confirm familial relationships as various family members come and go in their involvement with the business.
Now let’s look at a business in Japan. Zengoro Houshi and his wife run the Houshi Royakan in the little town of Awazu, Japan (a ryokan is a Japanese inn). They are carrying on a family tradition that has run a spa at the ryokan for a very long time. A very, VERY long time. The royakan has been passed down to the eldest son for 46 generations. That’s right: 46. It was founded by a Buddhist monk in the year 718. He took in an apprentice and named him Zengoro, and it has remained in the family ever since.
Unfortunately the business is now facing an uncertain future. Zengoro and his wife Chizuko had one son and one daughter. Their son died, leaving only their daughter to pass the ryokan to. Imagine their struggles as the family tries to preserve the future of a family business that dates back more than a millennia.
The Atlantic recently ran a story, with a short video, about the Houshi family and their dilemma. In the video Zengoro talks about the changing times and the dilemma facing the family and what they are currently going through. He says that “Thinking about how this time is a very precious moment. Those make the history of Houshi family and become tradition.” What better way to describe family history?