Back in 1964, Bob Dylan taught us that “the times, they are a-changin’”… and in fact, they always were. In business, there’s no law that says a company has to continue to do the same things as it always did, in the same markets.
A few well-known companies of great antiquity are still doing what they always did. Grolsch have been brewing beer since 1615, and Beretta are known to have been making gun barrels back in 1526. Twinings the tea importer dates back to 1706, and still occupies the same premises on the Strand in London. Remarkably, given the recent fascination with rebranding and reinvention, they still have more-or-less the same letterhead. These businesses have survived world wars and the fall of empires, and still do what they always did, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
Berry Brothers & Rudd date back to 1698, and like Twinings, still own their original premises. (What is it with British businesses and their sentimentality over locations that they’ve so clearly outgrown?) They’ve added offices in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai along the way, and they prove that there’s no need for an older business to be a stick-in-the mud: they were the first wine merchant to have an online shop, back in 1995. They’ve changed before as well; Berry Bros. & Rudd started out selling a range of products including coffee, snuff, tea, cocoa, spices… anything new that could be imported as Britain flexed its muscles as a maritime trading nation. The specialisation in wine came later.
John Brooke & Sons of Huddersfield is Britain’s oldest family business and dates from 1541. They are said to have clothed the sailors who fought at Trafalgar, but they’re no longer a textile manufacturer. The company still owns the textile mill premises, but nowadays it rents out office space, and operates as a conference venue. They’ve had to move with the times because the last couple of generations have not been kind to UK-based textile manufacture.
The Sumitomo Group (住友グループ) originated as a bookshop in Kyoto, around 1615, but moved on to became a copper smelting business, using the wealth obtained thereby to become a silk importer and financial services provider before demonstrating some vertical integration by moving into copper mining – and then moving sideways into coal mining. Not much of a bookseller, then: as with John Brooke & Sons it’s the money that has survived the centuries, rather than the core business – and this is natural. Times change.
If you ever played in a band, you will probably be familiar with Zildjian, manufacturer of cymbals and drumsticks. They date back to 1623, but moved from Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) in 1909, relocating in Massachusetts. History doesn’t detail the reconfiguration of their supply network, but it stands to reason that the supply base changed, just as the manufacturing technology used to make cymbals changed markedly during the early 20th century.
When we think of Nokia, most of us are probably thinking of a mobile phone that we had a few years ago, but the business dates back to 1865. Long before the first mobile phone it had grown to be a huge industrial conglomerate with particular interests in the manufacture of rubber products including boots, electrical cables and tyres, plus paper products. It was Nokia’s expertise in the manufacture of cables that caused them to get into telecommunications and consumer electronics, culminating in their being a significant contributor to the development of the GSM standard.
With the mobile business booming, Nokia divested itself of all other activity, in order to focus on the new core business. Nokian Tyres was split off from the corporation in 1988, and Nokian Footwear was spun off in 1990. Nokian Paperi and all other businesses were sold during the 1990s… and then along came disruptive elements such as Android, and iPhone, and Nokia faltered. Nokia’s market capitalisation of €110bn in 2007 fell to €6.28bn by July 2012. Sale of the mobile phone business to Microsoft was announced in September 2013, and completed in April 2014. When Microsoft announced it was slashing an unprecedented 18,000 jobs last month, the Nokia devices and services division bore the brunt, with 12,500 jobs lost. Longevity, it seems, is no guarantee of survival.
One of the most astonishing stories of corporate longevity is that of Kongō Gumi Co., Ltd. (株式会社金剛組), a Japanese construction company founded in 578 to construct Buddhist temples. They built some castles along the way as well, but mostly temples. One can only imagine the astonishing series of political and cultural changes that a Japanese business went through in 1,400 years, including periods of isolation, trade, war, industrialisation… only to go into liquidation in January 2006.
“Change is the only constant.”
That sounds like something the organisational behaviour specialist Charles Handy might tell you, and some people misattribute the quote to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882). In fact, the sentiment is older even than Kongō Gumi Co., Ltd., and was first voiced by Heraclitus of Ephesus, born in 535BC.
Get used to it; change is here to stay.