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What it takes to stay in business for 500 years

Recently I read an article in “This England,” a history-focused magazine, about the oldest, continuously running family business in Britain. R. J. Balson & Sons was founded in September 1515 in Bridport, Dorset in southwest England. It is a traditional butcher’s shop.

The business is a member of an exclusive group called The Tercentenarian Club, with the joining requirement of a family company being in continuous existence for 300 years or more.

The upmarket London food department Fortnum & Masons is a member, as is a wine merchant, a hat maker, a ribbon manufacturer, a boatyard owner, and a candlestick seller.


Secrets of Longevity

Here are some of the reasons for this butcher business’s longevity.

One location. Robert Balson first set up his butcher stall in Bridport’s open-air market where livestock was traded and butchered in 1515. In 1892 the Balson descendants relocated just one mile away. They trade from that same location today.

A business’s continued presence in the same location builds longstanding local and regional relationships with suppliers and wins the trust of loyal customers.

Ecommerce merchants might benefit from offering both online and bricks-and-mortar retail, or at least an in-store pick-up service from your warehouse.

Family business. The current proprietor, Richard Balson, is the 26th generation of Balson butchers to work in the business.

In the article, Balson states that only 30 percent of family businesses survive into the second generation, 12 percent continue into the third, and just three percent hand the reins to a fourth generation.

Thus successful family businesses teach younger members the day-to-day workings of their business early on. These children are invested in the business’s future. They usually do not get paid to learn the business, and they work during school holidays. They typically have years of training ahead of a young outsider beginning a new job.

Family businesses, especially in smaller towns, cannot afford to provide customers with poor service. Reputation is all.

Personal service. Richard Balson and his predecessors are renowned for knowing most of their customers by name.

Their warm level of interaction has become a highlight for shoppers. Interestingly, as ecommerce spending rises, Balson has noticed many of his customers seek a sense of community and increasingly shop locally from a variety of providers for meat, fish, bread, fruit, and vegetables.

Online merchants can offer personal service by sending hand-written postcards to customers. They would get a thrill from a thank you card, or birthday card if you can capture such information.

Cater to changing tastes. Consumers’ preferences change over 500 years. Rather than big joints of meat, which take hours to cook, Richard Balson said that his customers are increasingly buying smaller cuts, which can be cooked in 20 minutes.

He also removes more of the fat from the meat, which his customers appreciate. They get more meat per pound, save time cutting off the fat at home, and reduce their fat intake at the same time.

The R. J. Balson store typically offers items the supermarket doesn’t carry. It sells over 20 varieties of sausages, including venison, wild boar, pork and leek, and duck and orange, as well as exotic cuts of kangaroo, elk, bison, ostrich, and even zebra. Balson has begun to sell pork belly, oxtail, and ox cheeks in response to demand.

The lesson for me is to provide a service that my biggest competitors do not offer.

Shun debt. The Balsons say they owe much of their success to not incurring debt. By having family members as staff, the company has survived in leaner times when many businesses would not.

By remaining in the same location, they have saved money on relocation costs. By selling products on a cash basis, the company avoids cash flow problems. By attracting a loyal customer base, the company is not forced to invest heavily in marketing.

And by not buying items on credit, R.J. Balson has avoided the biggest problem for all: debt.

Smaller ecommerce merchants can follow suit. Ruthlessly cut costs. Consider drop shipping, where you do not purchase stock until your customer has paid for the order.

Elizabeth Hollingsworth
Elizabeth Hollingsworth
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