Overcoming crises for centuries

Germany’s 50 oldest family businesses*

They are the Methuselahs of Germany’s most successful type of entrepreneur. And they give us courage in difficult times. A a continually updated list of the 50 oldest family businesses in Germany has been published by the Foundation for Family Businesses. The Coatinc Company, headquartered in Siegen and founded in 1502, takes first place. It is followed by William Prym GmbH from Stolberg (1530). In third place is the Freiherr von Poschinger glass manufactory in Frauenau (1568). Industrial companies, banks and trading companies of all sizes are ranked up to 50th place. Ten of the oldest companies have been in business for around 400 years.

The Foundation for Family Businesses published the new extended ranking – following the list of the “35 oldest” in 2019 – and sees it as an expression of proud tradition, great adaptability and an unwavering will to shape the future. “For centuries, these companies were anchors of stability and a pillar of strength”, says Stefan Heidbreder, Managing Director of the Foundation for Family Businesses. “And that remains true today, in these worrying times when there is uncertainty about the pandemic, the international security situation, inflation, high energy prices and disruptions in supply chains.”

Custodians for future generations

“A stringent customer focus is often the main factor behind the astonishing resilience of family businesses”, says Professor Tom Rüsen from the University of Witten/Herdecke. “They know how to recognise crises as moments of innovation and how to develop the company further.” The unwavering will to pass the company on to the next generation of children and grandchildren leads to a sustainable approach to dealing with employees and suppliers, but also with the local area and the environment.

“Family businesses have excellent opportunities, especially in fast-paced and highly competitive times like today, when digitalisation makes new business models necessary”, says Rüsen. “They can patiently provide capital for start-ups; in the end, both benefit from the fruits of such ventures.”

Reasons for success over the centuries

This is how the family entrepreneurs themselves explain the impressive age of their businesses:

Carletta Heinz, managing partner of the speciality glass manufacturer Heinz Glas GmbH in Kleintettau in Upper Franconia:

“Success can only be influenced to a limited extent. Throughout our 400-year company history, my ancestors have been repeatedly challenged by world wars, economic crises and pandemics. None of them had a universal secret to success, but they did have three important qualities: firstly, the courage to keep trying new things and to make decisions, even if they seemed unpopular. They also had a flair for finding the right people who, through their ambition, hard work and inventiveness, worked with them to ensure that the company remained successful. And finally, quite simply, that little bit of necessary luck.”

Wilfried Neuhaus-Galladé, Managing Partner of J.D. Neuhaus Holding GmbH & Co. KG from Witten, a manufacturer of cranes and lifting equipment:

“We were obviously mostly right in our assessments of the future and the resulting strategies. As far as I have been able to witness over three Neuhaus generations out of a total of seven generations so far, the family has been lucky enough to integrate its own capable successors into our company at the right time. They faced wars, economic crises, market changes and new technologies with a fresh entrepreneurial spirit. For almost three centuries now, we have been guided by the values of the ‘honourable merchant’. Cooperation within the company as well as with our customers and stakeholders is based on mutual respect and interacting with them as equals. As a family of entrepreneurs, we have always wanted to avoid being dependent on banks. We always assess the compatibility of all business decisions with our values.”

Dr Frank Stangenberg-Haverkamp, Chairman of the Executive Board and Family Board of E. Merck KG, the general partner of the science and technology company Merck KGaA in Darmstadt:

“We have a tradition of innovation. We have been constantly breaking new ground since 1668 and have translated scientific findings into new products. This has enabled our company to grow over the centuries. As owners, we will continue to uphold this tradition. Scientific curiosity and an entrepreneurial pioneering spirit remain the guiding principles underlying our actions.”

Elena von Metzler, shareholder of the Frankfurt-based private bank B. Metzler seel. Sohn & Co. Holding AG:

“As representatives of the twelfth generation, my brother Franz, my cousin Leonhard and I are shareholders in the bank. The fact that our bank has remained family-owned for almost 350 years also works because we abide by unwritten, yet effective rules. The family members with close ties to the bank have the opportunity to buy their shares from the other shareholders at a reasonable price. This means that there is only ever a small number of shareholders and no free float across different family lines. In this way, we ensure that the bank remains solely in the hands of the family and therefore independent.

*Methodology:

The list includes the companies that have been continuously owned by one or more related families for the longest period of time. Pharmacies, inns, farms, mills and small skilled craft businesses were not included. Family businesses founded in the same year are ranked equally. The ranking is based on publicly accessible sources. The selection was made from a total of over 500 family businesses, with new research results being processed on an ongoing basis.

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