14 centuries for a family business – my weekly perspective

The world’s oldest continuously operating family business ended its impressive run last year. Japanese temple builder Kongo Gumi, in operation under the founders’ descendants since 578, succumbed to excess debt and an unfavorable business climate in 2006.

How do you make a family business last for 14 centuries? Kongo Gumi’s case suggests that it’s a good idea to operate in a stable industry. Few industries could be less flighty than Buddhist temple construction. The belief system has survived for thousands of years and has many millions of adherents. With this firm foundation, Kongo had survived some tumultuous times, notably the 19th century Meiji restoration when it lost government subsidies and began building commercial buildings for the first time. But temple construction had until recently been a reliable mainstay, contributing 80% of Kongo Gumi’s $67.6 million in 2004 revenues.

Keys to Success

Kongo Gumi also boasted some internal positives that enabled it to survive for centuries. Its last president, Masakazu Kongo, was the 40th member of the family to lead the company. He has cited the company’s flexibility in selecting leaders as a key factor in its longevity. Specifically, rather than always handing reins to the oldest son, Kongo Gumi chose the son who best exhibited the health, responsibility, and talent for the job. Furthermore, it wasn’t always a son. The 38th Kongo to lead the company was Masakazu’s grandmother.

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