Setting up a business is no easy task. You need to go through papers of tedious bureaucracy and have to find qualified and cooperative employees to make the company thrive. Some owners have not looked far from home and populated their shop with family members instead.
With a close-knit and harmonious environment, over the centuries, many businesses have become extremely successful. After all, “teamwork makes the dream work”. But when multinational corporations have come knocking on these high-performing businesses’ doors, families have been won over by offers they simply could not refuse.
That said, not all companies have surrendered to appealing and hefty bids. Here we list a number of classic British businesses that have evaded the purchase by rich multinationals and who, to this day, are still controlled (at least to some extent) by the founding family.
Launched in 1984 by married couple Doug and Mary Perkins, Specsavers has reached international prominence in the space of one generation only. The husband and wife built their first kingdom of vision on the channel island of Guernsey. Needless to say, their glasses have jumped on a ferry and quickly gone places.
Today, Specsavers counts over 1,300 stores across the UK, Europe, and even New Zealand. The Perkins were clearly farsighted!
Approached by a fellow tradesman for a loan which was never repaid, Thomas Fentiman became the owner of the homonymous business in 1905. With a special recipe for botanically brewed ginger beer to quench his customers’ thirst, Thomas delivered his drinks door-to-door using a cart and a horse.
While the family-owned business has had to adapt to meet the demands of our everchanging world, the image of Thomas’ loyal dog – Fearless – shines on Fentimans’ bottles to this very day.
Founded by brothers Cyrus and James Clark in 1825 in the village of Street (Somerset), Clarks has been growing by leaps and bounds ever since. Originally, the business specialised in slippers made out of sheepskin off-cuts.
The range of available shoes has now hugely increased, and the family firm proudly exports its products worldwide.
Arnold Clark Automobiles
Drop the final ‘s’ and you have another successful British company. The business has been going for over 50 years and is still in the hands of its eponymous founder, Sir Arnold Clark.
The story goes that Sir Arnold was jobless after leaving the RAF in 1954, and to support himself, the Scotsman started repairing and selling cars. Joined by his children and grandchildren, the company then gradually added rental and dealerships to its car sales operations.
C.P.J Field & Co. Ltd
Dealing with a ‘phenomenon’ as old as time, funeral directors C.P.J Field have been around for centuries too. Established in Sussex in 1690, the Field family have been crafting coffins and preparing funeral ceremonies across the South East for over 300 years.
The business also assisted with the funeral of Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington. Celebrated in London, it was the UK’s last heraldic state funeral.
Housework is rarely one’s favourite hobby. With inefficient and heavy vacuums, in the past, cleaning carpets was a bit of a nightmare. While working on another product, engineer Sir James Dyson spotted the opportunity to make vacuum cleaners more functional and easier to use.
From a bright idea sparked in 1991, Sir James has turned his flash of genius into a successful family business that is famous all over the world.
A factotum in its own right, Swire is well-known for its airline Cathay Pacific and has its finger in many sectors such as marine services, property, beverages, and industrial investments.
The business was set up in Liverpool in 1816 and now also has a power base in the Asia Pacific area, employing around 125,000 workers worldwide. Members of the founding family are still involved in the company, with businessman Barnaby Swire being Swire’s chairman.
A fellow Merseyside family business that keeps going strong is Pentland, initially named ‘Liverpool Shoe Company’ when established in 1932. The firm was among the pioneering companies to find and import shoes from Asia.
Owning household-name brands like Speedo and Berghaus and holding majority stakes in Reebok and JD Sports, this third-generation family business keeps going from strength to strength.
Founded in 1730, Floris is the oldest fragrance and toiletries retailer in the country. Juan Famenias Floris, a Menorca native who moved to London to seek fortune, secured premises in the quarter of St James’ and set up Floris as a barbershop.
Homesick and missing the Mediterranean aromas, the business soon began making and selling perfume – and the rest is history. Today, the company is run by the 8th and 9th generations of the family.
Whitechapel Bell Foundry
Although the foundry closed in 2017, this 600-year-old family business deserves a special mention.
Run until recently by the 26th generation of the founding family, the firm was established in London in 1420. In the late 1940s, the foundry was particularly busy replacing bells damaged or destroyed in bombing raids during World War II. In more recent times, however, following the popularity of TV drama Downton Abbey, the business produced an impressive amount of table bells for both national and international customers.
In an ever-changing world, it is challenging for historical businesses to remain in step with the times. We hope you enjoyed this list of successful British firms that have endured the test of time while always staying true to their family heritage.