Perspectives from ISB

Co-written by Brian Henry, The Hénokiens: The Families and Firms Who Made History” is a case study of 47 family businesses which have been in the same family for more than 200 years, revealing important insights into how such firms have not just survived, but prospered.

Understanding assets is important to all businesses. Family businesses need to identify how their core assets fit with the current economic environment; how they can be transferred to the next generation, and how they can add value to the firm’s business strategy.

For our Hénokiens, some family assets are intangible – the family name, a history of survival, values-based leadership, skills and quality.

The Hoshi family, owners of the Hoshi Ryokan since 718, understand that their name is one of the strongest family assets, particularly in Japan which values family-run companies like few other countries.

Belgium’s Pollet (1763) is a Hénokien that has stayed in the same location but has reinvented itself three times since its inception 253 years ago. During World War I, when they were soap manufacturers, they learned that their factory would be bombed by Germany to prevent glycerine (important in soap and bomb making) from falling into the hands of would-be bomb makers. The owner of the company decided to close the factory down rather than let it become a possible target, yet he kept his workers on. This values-based leadership, focused on the commitment to the area, is another family asset. The workers and their families never forgot what the Pollet business did for them, and this loyalty has helped to differentiate the firm from its larger rivals.

Without a succession plan, however, the family assets are left to flounder. The Hénokien families have passed their business on at least five times. How they did it came down to sticking to what was most important to them.

Related to succession, ownership design allows families to balance the need for growth and control in their business ventures by creating control-enhancing mechanisms. Flexibility in ownership design is another lesson from the Hénokiens.

Gerard Lipovitch, secretary of the Hénokiens since 1995, says the firms are different but there are certain things they share: values; their approach to management; relationships with people or a region; and fidelity to their country or region. The Hénokiens have a “combination between behaviour and humanism which is so particular to these family companies. They are not only looking on a return on investment but also at relationships. The other important value is the company is more important than the owner of the company. The owners are there to pass the company on to the next generation. They don’t want to squeeze the company and take the maximum profit for themselves; they want to leave it in better shape.”

Source: Bennedsen, Morten , December 20, 2016,