“Dad, what’s the oldest company in the world?” My fourteen-year-old son Isaac asked me this the other day at dinner. (I treasure the fact that my son still thinks I know the answer to every question, because I know it won’t last much longer.) Despite my considerable trivia prowess, I had no idea, so, like any good law professor, I turned the answer into a lesson.
“Well, son” — he must have figured out by now that whenever I call him “son”, it means I’m about to go didactic on him — “I don’t know specifically, but think about it. It’s gotta be a business that makes something that people have wanted for a very long time. Probably not anything mechanical, because anything like that that existed long ago would have been replaced with new technology during the Industrial Revolution. So something people consistently want that is simple and basic to life. Like beer.
“Also, it would have to have started someplace where the concept of a ‘business’ as an ongoing concern has existed continuously for ages. That pretty much rules out North and South America, Australia, and most of Africa. So we’re talking about a business founded someplace in Europe or Asia.
“An old brewery would probably been founded in Europe. But that means it would have been founded no earlier than the early Middle Ages. Any further back, and you’re in the Dark Ages, when societies were unstable and commerce was weak. So I’m guessing the worlds oldest company is a European brewery — it’s gotta be in Germany — founded in the 1300s.”
Of course, being a proper trivia geek, I then had to look up the actual answer right away. Thanks to the magic of iPhone, Google, and Wikipedia, I quickly found this List of Oldest Companies. And to be fair, there is a German brewery founded in the 1300s on the list. In fact, there are eleven. Each of them has been operating for around 700 years. They are nearly twice as old as, say, Massachusetts.
But the oldest companies on the list are nearly twice as old as those German breweries. The six oldest businesses in the world are all Japanese and include several traditional inns. (I can’t believe that didn’t occur to me! I was distracted by the beer. Still, my initial assumptions — basic human needs, commercial mindset, stable society — were all correct.) Most were founded in the 700s, but the oldest — Kongo Gumi, a construction company that specializes in Buddhist temples — was founded in 578. 578! The prophet Muhammad was eight! The Byzantine Empire had just begun its long decline! And yet this family-owned construction company was just getting started. Technically, it ceased to exist as a separate entity in 2006, when its assets were purchased by a larger builder, but the unit still operates under its original name.
Even if it was only in business for 1,428 years, that kind of longevity is almost literally inconceivable to someone like me, who has never worked for any one employer for more than four years. Okay, it would probably also be inconceivable to someone who worked for the same employer for 80 years. Still, there are a few parallels that anyone can get her mind around. Just as a business can only survive for such super-long periods if it is fulfilling some basic sort of human need — well over ninety percent of businesses older than 500 years are providing some form of either food, drink, or shelter — so, too, would you only want to stay with an employer long-term if your job was fulfilling your basic career needs, whatever they may be: challenge, creative outlets, collaboration, advancement, etc. Businesses can only exist in the long run in an environment that supports the idea of commerce — competition, fair and free trade, and laws protecting the rights of both employer and employee — and we all want the same kind of fair exchange from our long-term employers. Finally, don’t take stability for granted. When it’s not there — when your firm is rumored to be bankrupt or your government is barreling full-tilt towards sequester — careful employees already have on their running shoes.
In the end, Kongo Gumi and all those Japanese inns and German breweries (and, oddly, one Slovakian mint) survived as long as they did because they could just focus on doing what they did, and doing it well. As individuals, we too thrive when we know the foundations are safe and we can just focus on doing what we do well.