• Service: Enterprise, Family business
  • Type: Business and industry issue
  • Date: 12/13/2013

Beyond the third generation: When a family business celebrates its 400th anniversary 

Beyond the third generation
“Shirt sleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations”, “Rice paddy to rice paddy”, “The first generation builds the business, the second maintains it, the third destroys it” you have probably heard it many times and, if you are a member of the third generation of your family business, you may even fear destroying the business yourself!

But some family businesses make it much beyond the third generation. One of them, Mellerio dits Meller, is celebrating its 400th anniversary this year. Marie de Medicis granted Jean-Baptiste Mellerio in 1613 the privilege of “peddling cut crystal, hardware and other small goods” throughout the realm.

Beyond the third generation of the family business

This was a commercial privilege seemingly linked to the French Kings’ willingness to secure the access to Milan through the original valley of the Mellerios in the Alps. According to Olivier Mellerio, 14th generation Chairman of Mellerio dits Meller, who is deeply attached to the exceptional history of his family:

“On the third floor of the Parisian building, people were singing bel canto, while on the ground floor queens and princesses were ordering jewels… We create unique pieces or very limited series, full of meaning, engagement rings. Everything is handmade… We have been plunged in this universe since birth. “

It is part of our heirloom, including in its spiritual dimension. Art and creation gave meaning to our life. It is our link with history and the past.” ~ Christine Blondel and Anne Dumas, “L’entreprise familiale sauvera-t-elle le capitalisme? Portraits”, Editions Autrement, Paris, 2008.

Mellerio dits Meller celebrates its 400th anniversary

The passion that Olivier Mellerio demonstrates is certainly a key element of this longevity. This passion is shared by other members of the association, The Henokiens, the spokespeople for longevity. The name Hénokiens comes from Henoch, a patriarch from the Old Testament of the Bible who lived for 365 years and never died, but was taken up into heaven.

The Henokiens Association is a group for family businesses that are over 200 years old; the 38 members come from all over the world, including Italy, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Japan, Belgium and Switzerland.

The Henokiens Association of family and bicentenary companies

Christophe Viellard (Viellard Migeon & Cie, founded in 1796) summarises what these companies stand for:

“Our businesses have a soul. After centuries in existence, the family companies that are members of our association are living proof that the family is the best possible way of passing on a culture, a trade, an unbounded ambition in all humility, a profound concern for people, a great respect for their work and a loyal attachment to one’s ancestral home and to its inhabitants.

Our businesses have identified and assimilated these family values that their staff and customers, suppliers, bankers and all those associated with them respectfully foster. The family, the core from which heritage is passed on, is a guarantee of continuity.“~

Longevity in business

The stories of Henokiens may appear like fairytales taking place in the business world. But they are far from being smooth journeys. These companies overcame many crises, including wars and revolutions, as well as social, economic and technical change.

More importantly they had to tackle, generation after generation, the hard task of finding the right successors, for leadership and ownership. This challenge is common to all family firms. It is useful to know that some succeeded at it many times. The example of the Henokiens may encourage families in business to ask themselves:

“What does it mean to us to be in business together? Is this something that we wish to perpetuate?”

For additional reading

When MBAs Meet Henokiens: What Can We Learn From Long-Lived Family Firms?” by Morten Bennedsen, Ludo Van der Heyden, and MBA students of Family Business Management, Spring 2010.

Christine Blondel

Christine Blondel
Christine Blondel is adjunct professor of Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise at the Wendel International Centre for Family Enterprise at INSEAD.

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