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Some thoughts about longevity in business

Feb 11, 2024 Strategy, Success, Sunday Nation

Childhood is a place of magical memories—once we have left it. Our first tastes and other sensory pleasures tend to stay with us for life. We develop deep loyalties and could potentially consume our favourite products from our tender years for our entire lifetimes.

But there’s a problem. Do those products and businesses still exist? Think about the favourite go-to places and most beloved products from your childhood. Are they still in business? A few, yes—but what became of the rest? I thought about this the other day, throwing my mind back to my own childhood and teenage years in Nairobi—and mostly just came up with a graveyard of ghosts. So many restaurants, shops, dishes, products—gone.

I was watching a programme on the NHK World-Japan television channel recently that prompted these thoughts. Kanda is one of Tokyo’s oldest neighbourhoods originating from the Edo period of nearly 500 years ago. Today it is a bustling modern metropolitan area, fully of modern commercial buildings, teeming with commuters and workers.

The show I was watching unearthed some hidden gems: tucked away amongst the glass towers are some long-lived traditional businesses. The first was a shop that has been in business since 1846. It is now being run by the seventh generation of managers, and specialises in a traditional sweet beverage made from koji mould (a widely used Japanese fungus). The exact same production method has been used for more than a century and a half, and the drink remains very popular.

Next we visited a tofu-seller, in existence for 100 years. The product here is also old-school, made by hand in exactly the same way. The current owner-manager has been there for 50 years—as have some customers! One of the secrets to this longevity could be discerned here: the taste. The shop is scrupulously finicky about using only the best soy beans for its product, and follows the same age-old family recipe. 

But the longevity prize went to Tokyo’s oldest liquor store, which has now, believe it or not, been running for 430 years, and is being managed by the 16th generation of the same family. It is famed for its special sake, brewed to perfection for centuries. It has not only stuck to the same recipe, it even still uses the original shop’s symbol as its logo.

Business is a notoriously fickle and difficult endeavour. Millions have lined up over the centuries to start businesses; most of those have perished. Many die for the right reason—they are just not very good, and are cleansed out by the market. Some good ones fade away because times change; Kanda no longer has its blacksmiths, or its famous produce market, for example. Yet a few special ones do stay alive across generations and epochs. How do they do it? Let me offer some thoughts.

First, it helps to have a core product that is much loved and can jump the generations. An offering that is liked by young and old, that people return to over and over—that’s gold. It’s not enough to have it in one generation, though; it must be churned out consistently by newcomers to the business—and that’s where the problem lies. If you’re going to make things in the same painstaking way, you’d better have willing and enthusiastic heirs.

That’s the second requirement for longevity—you need to have an intentional and intelligent succession plan. If you leave it to chance and providence, you are likely to be disappointed. Long-lived businesses take transitions very seriously, and groom successors—whether from within the founding facility or not—assiduously.

The third factor at play is about regard for one’s roots and history. We cannot protect and prolong that which we do not cherish. One of the proprietors interviewed for the programme said this: we Kanda people take pride in our roots. There is visible love of age-old craft, both by the practitioners and their customers. . People respect what their forebears did, and work hard to maintain traditions, as buyers as well as sellers. The government—both national and local—must also care about heritage, and also offer an environment that does not make running a business difficult.

A last thought. There are indeed some long-lived businesses everywhere, but they are often the ones that have scaled up and gone global. Their longevity is about robust systems and processes, and relentless marketing and brand-building. To be a long-lived smaller business, though, you have to be striving for things other than profit. You have to take pride in the family’s craft; you have to care about quality; you have to take intrinsic joy in producing beautiful, beloved, or useful things; you have to value the business’s heritage and its continuity. You have to love these things more than you love profit; the profit becomes a side-benefit of the love of the work.

Superbly made products. Succession plans that work. Heirs who care about the craft. Respect for traditions. Rulers who create good conditions for businesses to have long lives. Businessfolk who value achievements beyond gross personal amassment of riches. Hmm. I think I can see why so many Kenyan businesses don’t stay the course. Kudos to those who made it against all odds.

(Sunday Nation, 11 February 2024)

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Picture credit: Shigeki Wakabayashi on Unsplash