×

The secrets of keeping a family business going for 500 years

Photographer | Collection | Getty Images

Whereas the word "shambles" means a "state of total disorder" nowadays, a few centuries back it meant the part of town where animals – cows, pigs and anything else in between – were slaughtered and prepped for customers in the open air.

Times have changed, and today most of us buy our food from supermarkets where strip-lighting, chilled aisles and vacuum-packed portions of meat are the norm.

Richard Balson is at the helm of a business that has seen the transition from rough and ready to refined. Dating back to 1515, butchers RJ Balson & Son, based in Bridport, Dorset, is Britain's oldest family run business, selling everything from meat and poultry to game.

"In 1515 there weren't any shops or high streets or transport really, apart from the horse and cart," Balson told CNBC in a phone interview. To give an idea how old the company is, it began trading when Henry VIII was King of England, and just 23 years after Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the New World in 1492.

Today, Balson, 59, is the latest of his family to be involved in the business.

"I'm the 26th generation of butcher that has worked in the shop," he said. "I see myself as the current custodian holding the fort at the moment, until either my son or his sons or my nephew or somebody else takes the reigns," he added.

Big decisions

A family business' decisions surrounding succession are often some of the most important to be made. The Family Business Institute refers to succession planning as being "the toughest and most critical challenge" many family businesses face.

A 2014 survey of family business managers and owners by PwC found that "fewer than half" of family businesses planned to pass both ownership and management on to the next generation.

Balson, however, seemed relaxed about the situation. "This succession question is a big question and one I'm always asked, because when you're England's oldest family business the question is 'who's going to take over from you and what's going to happen in the future?'"

"You know, I'm not too bothered at the moment because I've got plenty of years left in me… my son's in another job at the moment, but there's nothing to say it wouldn't skip a generation and go to his son."

Commitment and a passion for the craft were hugely important, he added, explaining that it would be a shame if the business didn't continue after trading for 501 years.

"But, you know, we're doing well, we're busy and we're in a job that we love," he said.

"At the end of the day you've got to want to do it. It's no good being in a job you don't want to do because you won't put 100 percent in and you won't get 100 percent out."

How then, does a business keep on trading for half a millennium, surviving plagues, war, flooding and everything else in between?

"We like to sell top quality, local beef, lamb and pork that's nowadays fully traceable from the field to the fork. Customers want to know where it's come from, and the more local it is the better."

A good relationship with customers is also crucial. "The quality of what you're selling is paramount but also, what we thrive on is offering a friendly, personal service where people come into our shop, they are treated with respect… we like to make shopping a pleasure."

Follow CNBC International on Twitter and Facebook.