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Family businesses like the Whites are worth their weight in gold

By Niall MacKenzie - Posted on 2 December 2015

Dr Niall MacKenzie on how one family business demonstrates how problems can be overcome to establish a long-lasting, successful and stable operation.

I had the privilege of being invited to John White & Son Ltd’s 300th anniversary dinner in Glenrothes recently, alongside my colleague John Anderson from the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship. As the oldest family business in Scotland, John White & Son has a long and rich history of innovation in weighing and measurement. Founded in 1715 in Auchtermuchty, Fife, the family business is headed by Edwin White, the 8th generation of the White family to run the business.

Joining us at the celebration on November 20 was a who’s who of both Scottish family business and Fife business life, reflecting the well-deserved great regard in which the Whites are held both in their local community and across Scotland. Compering the evening was Commander Jim Smith, RN (retired) who introduced the speakers for the evening including Edwin White; Jim Leishman MBE, Provost of Fife and erstwhile Scottish football manager; Ian Urquhart, the chairman of Johnstons of Elgin (Scotland’s second oldest family business);  Willie Rennie MSP; John and myself. Topics for the talks included John White & Son; the Scottish family business community; and innovation and the future of family business in Scotland.

Also present at the talk was a range of family businesses from across Scotland – in total, 14 family businesses were represented by 15 families, responsible for employing over 6000 people. They share a cumulative history stretching to over 1500 years of operations and over 57 generations of family ownership and succession. It is this type of long-established, well-run and stable business operation that contributes so significantly to local and regional economic development in Scotland through their commitment to the areas in which they are located and the firm ‘embeddedness' that is sought by policymakers. These family businesses represent both history and the future of the Scottish economy.

The representatives at the Whites' anniversary dinner are testament to successful operations and a commitment to their local areas. They have overcome the problems associated with succession where less than a third of family businesses make it to the second generation, despite over three quarters expressing a desire to pass on the business. Family businesses represent the majority of all businesses in Scotland and some 50% of private sector employment, but have yet to be featured as a central plank of economic policy. We firmly believe that with the correct policy support mechanisms in place, the types of family businesses present at the Whites' anniversary dinner would become the norm with stable, long-term growth and embeddedness in their communities as the prize.

At the Hunter Centre we have worked closely with a great many family businesses over the years – on average we engage with around 50 per year at least – and what we see is a great opportunity to help them and learn from them. John White & Son has lasted 300 years due to their commitment to innovation and renewal – with the correct support we believe that we can learn much from their example to help other family businesses in Scotland. That’s a prize worth its weight in gold.

How important is family business to the economy? Are you part of a family business? What support do you need to take your business forward?

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