How can Companies Stay Relevant? A Few Lessons from the oldest companies in the world

- Leadership

by James Ellaby

Future-proofing your business is something every leader has to bear in mind. Whether you’ve founded the business or been brought in to an existing company, as a leader, it’s your responsibility to make sure it is fit for purpose and is preparing to meet the ever-shifting challenges of the marketplace. We’ve seen plenty of examples of how ‘too big to fail’ businesses have fallen by the wayside because they didn’t plan ahead well enough.

But there are also lots of examples out there of those who have weathered many economic storms, world wars, plagues and much, much more. Meet the oldest companies that are still going today, from every country in the world. Some of them only date back to the late 20th century, often because those countries aren’t much older than that, but there are companies that have been around for well over a thousand years. How’s that for future-proofing?

A Few Lessons learned from ancient businesses:

Find a niche at the right time and be the best

Korean temple builder Shigemitsu Kongo had made a career creating Buddhist temples in his home country when he was invited to move to Japan to help set up some of the earliest temples for a religion that was just starting to take a foothold there. That was the birth of Kongo Gumi, way, way back in the year 578. It still exists today and is in the construction market, despite the incredible changes that have happened in the 14 centuries.

How is it possible that a company founded so long ago could still be relevant today? They did an excellent job of building these Japanese Buddhist temples and found themselves a useful niche. Even well into the 21st century, long after you would have thought there were enough temples, it was still responsible for 80% of its revenue. The business remained family-run through the centuries, right up to 2006.

Find an industry that won’t go out of fashion

Jumping on the bandwagon is a good way to get a boost within a buzzy industry, but it’s rarely a good long-term strategy. Again, we’ve seen big companies go down from these kind of self-inflicted mistakes as the market pivots away unexpectedly and they are left adrift. Some of the oldest companies in many countries around the world are those that found an industry that is as necessary today as it was when they started.

The oldest companies in countries like the United Kingdom, France, Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, amongst others, are mints. Not the kind you use to freshen your breath, the kind that make money. The Royal Mint in the UK and Monnaie de Paris in France have both been around since the 9th century, while those in the Americas have also been open for centuries. In Africa and Oceania, postal services are amongst the oldest companies around in several countries.

That’s because we still need money and to send things in the mail, but even these companies are having to think carefully about the future as the digital world takes hold and technology threatens to make them less important. So, every time you pay for something with a card rather than cash or send an email rather than a letter, just think about the danger you’re putting these old companies in.

Photo Credit: Mike Petrucci via Unsplash

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