Norfolk and Suffolk’s oldest family firms prove the value of tradition

 Managing Director of Bakers and Larners of Holt, Michael Baker, pic

Managing Director of Bakers and Larners of Holt, Michael Baker, pictured at the Holt department store.Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

Family businesses are the lifeblood of the economy, but can often be weighed down by tradition. Now a report seeks to champion the region's oldest family firms. Business writer SABAH MEDDINGS reports.

James Portway and other family members involved in running Webb & Son, which has been identified as

James Portway and other family members involved in running Webb & Son, which has been identified as the oldest family firm in Suffolk and Norfolk. Left to right, Fiona, James and Nic Portway. - Credit: Gregg Brown

To pass a healthy business to the next generation is an achievement, and to survive a financial crisis is remarkable.

But to trade for more than 300 years takes a special type of determination.

And some of Norfolk and Suffolk's family businesses have done just that – the oldest 25 have survived two world wars, endured a global depression and collectively traded for 4,620 years.

Now the region's most senior family businesses have been highlighted in a new report by Family Business United, which seeks to champion their success.

A Norwich boot and shoe factory (Start-Rite) in 1909.

A Norwich boot and shoe factory (Start-Rite) in 1909. - Credit: Archant

The oldest in Suffolk is Stowmarket-based Webb & Son (Combs) Ltd which was founded in 1711, and in Norfolk, Holt-based CT Baker, founded in 1732.

Aiming to dispel the view that family-owned businesses may be things of the past, the report includes multi-million pound turnover firms employing hundreds of people, to smaller businesses with just a handful of workers.

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Paul Andrews, founder and managing director of Family Business United, said the strength of these companies was their ability to adapt to survive.

'When your name is above the door you will do everything in your power to make sure the firm is there for generations to come,' he said.

'You will work long hours even if there is no money to pay you.'

Some 16 of the 25 oldest firms in the region are in Norfolk, and nine are in Suffolk, and the average lifespan is 186 years.

And while the list includes jewellers, retailers and drinks makers, six of the oldest 25 business in Norfolk and Suffolk were funeral directors.

Mr Andrews said: 'Everyone talks about family businesses as being quite small, unprogressive and not willing to change. However during the recession they withstood it really well and outperformed their non-family counterparts.'

However with continuing advances in technology, and the way the world communicates, businesses need to embrace change, he said.

'The oldest family firms in East Anglia have had to change over time, and are continuing to do so, continuing under family ownership and direction, retaining the values that are important and have been for many generations, but developing them to ensure the ongoing longevity and future of the business too.'

But while the strength of family businesses is the ability to take the long-term view, the emotions attached to blood ties can also present weaknesses.

James Austin, senior partner at Birketts law firm, which sponsored the research, said: 'Emotions can sometimes get involved and family differences can interfere with sound business-minded decisions.

'Things that happened in the nursery can come back and haunt you in the board room.'

However the determination not to 'let it go wrong on your watch' often helps a family business survive when others cannot, and could offer lessons to others.

'Family businesses are not looking five to 10 years ahead, they are looking a good deal longer ahead,' said Mr Austin.

'A lot of criticism is levelled at listed companies in particular for wanting to maximise shareholder returns in the short term at the expense of the business.

'Businesses can learn a lot by taking the long view and not necessarily always looking to make a profit in the short term.'

The oldest five businesses in Suffolk are Webb & Son (Combs), Aspall Cyder, Herbert Group, D Gurteen & Son and Farthing, Singleton & Hastings.

The oldest family businesses in Norfolk are CT Baker, The Jarrold Group, Start-rite Shoes, A & W Cushion and Palmers.

CT Baker

Old-fashioned standards are what has helped Holt-based CT Baker trade since 1732, according to its current chief.

Michael Baker, who has been at the head of the department store, builders' merchant and pair of supermarkets for 43 years, said 'not being too greedy' was also key.

'You can't take more out of the business than it can afford,' he said.

'Over 40 years we have grown quite a lot but we are still here. If I had got carried away we could have borrowed more money and expanded here, there and everywhere. But then we get a downturn in the economy and then you can't pay your bills. You have got to be sensible about the way you go about things.'

While the business was founded in the 1730s, the Baker family took it on in 1770.

By 1958, the company employed 29 staff, but, with the premature death Mr Baker's uncle Jimmy, the next 15 years saw a decline, and nearly led to the sale of the business.

But when Mr Baker joined the firm at the age of 26, he took it through a period of expansion, and it now employs more than 250 people within the three divisions of department stores, builders' merchants and Budgens supermarkets.

Webb & Son

At 305 years old, Webb & Son, based at Combs, near Stowmarket, has been identified as the oldest family firm in Norfolk and Suffolk.

The company traces its history back to 1711 when one Thomas Denny was given £100 by his father, also named Thomas, to set up a tanyard at Combs.

The two men ran the business until 1776 when it was leased to Joseph Antrim Webb, and his descendants still run the company today.

Many of the buildings were built during a period of expansion between 1840 and 1870, and by 1880 the company employed more than 200 people.

The original tannery boiler and steam engine, installed in 1851, were still in place in 1979. However, tanning operations at the site ceased in 1989, with the UK industry undermined by changing fashions, cheaper imports and higher environmental costs.

Since then the site has been converted into a business park under the seventh and eighth generations of the family, Nic Portway and his son James who are descended from GR Portway, who married Annie Webb, daughter of Lankester Webb, in the last century.

The tannery closure was a 'difficult and worrying' time, said Mr Portway, adding: 'We were concerned, but nonetheless we have come through it.' He puts the longevity of the business down to the farsightedness of his family forebears.

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