Families have always been at the heart of business. Family companies are among the world’s oldest. The Hoshi Ryokan, an inn in Japan, has been in the same family since 718. Kongo Gumi, a Japanese family construction firm, was founded even earlier, in 578, but went bust in 2006. The Antinori family has been producing wine in Tuscany since 1385 and the Berettas have been making guns since 1526. Family companies played a starring role in the development of capitalism: think of the Barings or the Rothschilds in banking or the Fords and Benzes in carmaking.
Family companies are ideally suited to the early stages of capitalism. They provided two of the most important ingredients of growth, trust and loyalty, in a world where banking and legal institutions were often rudimentary and poor communications made far-flung activities hard to control. It was easier to raise money from kinsmen than from strangers. And it was safer to send a relative than a hired hand to expand the business abroad.
Business enterprises also provided patriarchs with a way of transmitting wealth and status to future generations. “The banker’s calling is hereditary,” said Walter Bagehot, a distinguished 19th-century editor of The Economist. “The credit of the bank descends from father to son; this inherited wealth brings inherited refinement.” Family dynamics sometimes dictated business strategies: the Rothschild bank helped to globalize finance when Mayer Amschel Rothschild, the dynasty’s founder, sent his five sons to set up banks in different countries.
Serious thinkers have given surprisingly little thought to the family dynamics behind the early stages of capitalism. Novelists are a better guide to this subject than classical economists. In “Dombey and Son” Charles Dickens describes how Dombey wants to pass his business on to his son but is frustrated by a scheming manager. Thomas Mann’s “Buddenbrooks” is about the children of a great business founder turning their backs on the bourgeois virtues that built the family’s fortunes.
Business gurus have also given family firms short shrift. Alfred Chandler, the doyen of business historians, regarded family companies as relics of an earlier era that found it hard to muster the capital and talent needed to compete. The real engines of modern capitalism were public companies, owned by diverse shareholders and run by professional managers. Peter Drucker, the doyen of management theorists, reckoned that the drivers of these great engines were professional “knowledge workers,” not business patriarchs and their families.
Chandler was right that public companies made enormous advances in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as capital-intensive businesses turned to public markets for funds. But he was wrong in his prediction that they would push family companies to the margins of the modern economy. Even in the Anglo-Saxon world, where public companies gained the most ground, families held on to some of the most prominent businesses, such as Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, and Ford, one of the largest car companies. In continental Europe public companies remained the exception.
Thirty-eight years after Chandler published his paean of praise for the public company, “The Visible Hand,” family companies still provide many of the necessities of life. You can get your news from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal; your car from Ford or Fiat; your smartphone from Samsung or LG; and your groceries from Walmart or Aldi. In a scholarly book, “Dynasties,” the late David Landes of Harvard University demonstrated that you could write a respectable history of capitalism through the lens of family histories. You could write an equally respectable survey of the state of modern capitalism by telling the story of a dozen family firms.
Family businesses make up more than 90% of the world’s companies. Many of them are small corner shops. Defining larger family companies is tricky. If you restrict the term to companies that are both owned and managed by family members, you will end up with remarkably few. If you expand it to include companies that are run by the founders, you will take in tech giants such as Google and Facebook, which few people would see as family firms.
The Boston Consulting Group has produced a reasonable definition made up of two elements: a family must own a significant share of the company concerned and be able to influence important decisions, particularly the choice of chairman or CEO; and there must have either been a transition from one generation to the next, or, in the case of a founder-owned firm, plans for such a transition. On that definition, BCG calculates, family companies represent 33% of American companies and 40% of French and German companies with revenues of more than $1 billion a year. In Asia and Brazil they are even more prevalent.
Powerful families are also adept at using pyramid-style business holdings to keep a controlling number of shares in other companies. Randall Morck, of the University of Alberta, points out that the Wallenberg family controls companies that represent up to half the market capitalization of the Swedish stock market, including global giants such as Ericsson. The Agnelli family controls 10.4% of the Italian stock market. In Hong Kong the top 15 families control assets worth 84% of GDP, in Malaysia 76%, in Singapore 48%, and in the Philippines 47%.
The majority of the world’s most successful medium-sized companies are also family firms. Hermann Simon, chairman of Simon-Kucher & Partners, a consultancy, calculates that they account for two-thirds of Germany’s mighty Mittelstand, including world leaders in doors (Dorma), balancing machines (Schenck) and industrial mixers (Ekato). Italy has a large number of family-owned global champions in taste-conscious niches: Ferrari in cars, Versace in fashion, Ferrero Rocher in chocolates.
The most striking thing about family companies is arguably not their average quality but their variance: they have more than their share of pariahs as well as paragons. Portugal’s Espírito Santo was one such pariah: massive debts turned the family-owned financial conglomerate into one of Europe’s largest corporate failures, obliging the government to save the family from the consequences of its own greed and folly.
The best thing about family companies is their sense of ownership. That helps them get round two of the most troubling defects of modern capitalism: the focus on short-term results and the so-called agency problem (the potential conflict of interest between owners and managers). On their own admission the CEOs of public companies find it hard to think about the long term because they have to focus on “hitting the numbers” every quarter, and the length of their job tenure has fallen steeply over the past decade. Family owners regard their shares as long-term investments and keep a close eye on management even if they do not run the company.
The worst thing about family companies is succession. This is difficult in all organizations, but especially so in family firms because it involves the biological as well as the institutional sort and throws in a mass of emotions. Family businesses that restrict their choice of heirs to their children can be left with dunces. Moreover, wealth corrupts, a principle so well-established that many languages have a phrase for it. In English it is “clogs to clogs in three generations”; in Italian “from stables to stars to stables”; in Japanese “the third generation ruins the house”; and in Chinese “wealth does not survive three generations.” According to the Family Business Institute, an American consultancy, only 30% of family businesses survive into the second generation and 12% into the third. A mere 3% make it into the fourth and beyond.
More broadly, family businesses often suffer from human quirks. Alfred Sloan, the founder of General Motors, argued that the aim of professional management was to produce “an objective organization” as distinct from “the type that gets lost in the subjectivity of personalities.” That was much in evidence at his great rival, the Ford Motor Company, where Henry Ford’s idiosyncratic behavior almost ruined the business. But that “subjectivity of personalities” can also enable family bosses to make brilliant decisions which elude professional managers.
Family companies are likely to remain a significant feature of global capitalism for the foreseeable future, thanks to a combination of two factors. Family companies in general are getting better at managing themselves: they are learning how to minimize their weaknesses while capitalizing on their strengths. At the same time the center of the modern economy is shifting to parts of the world — most notably Asia — where family companies remain dominant.
McKinsey, a consultancy, calculates that by 2025 an extra 4,000 founder- or family-owned companies could hit sales of $1 billion. If this proves correct, family firms in emerging markets might then make up nearly 40% of the world’s large companies, compared with 15% in 2010. McKinsey’s habit of conflating founder-owned firms and family firms is less problematic in Asia than it is globally because founder-owned firms there are more likely to become true family firms. The consultancy is right, too, about the direction of change: the world’s most dynamic region also happens to be the friendliest to family businesses.
To understand family companies better, business analysts will need to pay more attention to their internal dynamics. These firms are not just immature public companies, nor are they just highly successful startups. Some of their distinctive behavior is explained by their “familyness” in the same way that public companies’ behavior is explained by their “publicness.” Investors will need to look more closely at things like succession planning and whether family members are getting on well together. Academic theorists reflecting on the reasons why firms exist will need to add one more: their role as a mechanism for the transmission of property to future generations.
Since family companies are not just surviving but flourishing, many assumptions about the nature of modernity will have to be rethought. Classical sociologists and classical economists both predicted that family businesses would retreat as societies became more rational and bureaucratic. Families themselves would become nothing more than “havens in a heartless world,” as Christopher Lasch, a historian, put it. But that orthodoxy is crumbling in the face of growing evidence that family dynasties can do well in even the most sophisticated modern societies.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited, London (April 18, 2015)