Family Business magazine studied America’s oldest family-owned companies and analyzed the qualities they have in common. Learning that only 4 percent of family-owned business survive to the fourth generation, they identified only 102 companies that have remained owned and operated by the same family since at least 1865. The most enduring companies share four qualities. They:
- Stay small
- Don’t go public
- Avoid big cities
- Keep it in the family
The oldest American company embodying these traits is the Avedis Zildjian Company of Norwell, Massachusetts, in business since 1623. Let’s look at Zildjian and two other family businesses to see what their interesting history can tell us about longevity in business.
Avedis Zildjian Company
Zildjian was founded in Constantinople by alchemist Avedis Zildjian. While trying to turn base metal into gold, Zidjian discovered an alloy which, shaped into sheet metal, made musical sounds without shattering.
Zidjian passed his metallurgical secrets on to his descendants, who kept it in the family. At first manufacturing noisemakers to frighten enemies of the Ottoman Empire, the Zidjian family turned to making musical instruments in the 19th century. They began manufacturing cymbals in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1928 and formally opened the Avedis Zildjian Company in 1929.
Surviving the Great Depression, Zidjian made innovations in cymbal design, developing the first drum-set cymbals. The company formed steady customers among the top drummers of the Jazz Age and Swing Era, creating a market base that remains loyal to this day. Today 14th-generation members of the Zidjian family continue to preserve the Zildjian Secret Alloy and to serve drummers, producing drum sticks and other drum accessories in addition to cymbals.
Buck Family Knives
Zidjian’s family tradition of cymbal excellence parallels the Buck family tradition of superior knife manufacturing. In 1902, Kansas blacksmith’s apprentice Hoyt H. Buck developed a method of heating the steel in hoes and tools so that they could hold their edge longer. After moving to the Northwest and serving in the Navy, Buck began using his heat-treating method to make knives for soldiers following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Initially operating out of Mountain Home, Idaho, after the war, Hoyt moved to San Diego with his son, another Navy veteran, and set up H.H. Buck and Son.
They started out by selling handmade knives by mail. After Hoyt died in 1949, the Bucks began expanding their operation by marketing through dealers. In 1961 the Bucks incorporated, and two years later they began developing an innovative folding utility and hunting knife, which became famous as the Buck Model 110 Folding Hunter. Today hunting suppliers such as Cabela’s continue to sell Buck’s high-quality knives.
What the Zidjians are to cymbals and the Bucks are to knives, Antoine’s is to Louisiana Creole cuisine. The oldest family-run restaurant in the United States, Antoine’s was founded in New Orleans in 1840 by French immigrant Antoine Alciator. Alicator’s restaurant proved so popular it outgrew its original building, and he moved it to its current location in 1868.
Alciator’s son Jules studied cooking in France and took over the family restaurant in 1887. Jules used his skill to perfect the restaurant’s signature recipes, inventing Oysters Rockefeller, which remains a family secret to this day — the Food Network has its own version. The restaurant has stayed in the family down through the years and become a New Orleans cultural landmark, appearing in murder mysteries, Bugs Bunny cartoons and the movie “JFK.” By continuing to preserve the secret of preparing superior Creole food, just as the Zidjians have continued to excel at cymbals and the Bucks at knives, Antoine’s continues to demonstrate the wisdom of keeping business in the family.