Classic British Businesses that Stayed True to Their Family Heritage

Many family businesses have been won over by acquisition offers they could not refuse, but not all companies have surrendered to appealing and hefty bids.


Specsavers Grensen, Oslo. Photo: LarsMariusMatre / Wikipedia.

Setting up a business is no easy task. You need to go through papers of tedious bureaucracy, and have to find qualified and cooperative employees to make the company thrive.

Some owners have not looked far from home and populated their shop with family members instead. With a close-knit and harmonious environment, over the centuries, many businesses have become extremely successful. After all, “teamwork makes the dream work.”

However, when multinational corporations have come knocking on these high-performing businesses’ doors, families have been won over by offers they simply could not refuse. That said, not all companies have surrendered to appealing and hefty bids.

Here’re classic British businesses that have evaded the purchase by rich multinationals and who, to this day, are still controlled (at least to some extent) by the founding family:


1. Specsavers


Launched in 1984 by married couple Doug and Mary Perkins, Specsavers has reached international prominence in the space of one generation only.

The husband and wife built their first kingdom of vision on the channel island of Guernsey. Needless to say, their glasses have jumped on a ferry and quickly gone places.

Today, Specsavers counts over 1,300 stores across the UK, Europe, and even New Zealand. The Perkins were clearly farsighted.


2. Fentimans


Approached by a fellow tradesman for a loan which was never repaid, Thomas Fentiman became the owner of the business in 1905.

With a special recipe for botanically brewed ginger beer to quench his customers’ thirst, Thomas delivered his drinks door-to-door using a cart and a horse.

While the family-owned business has had to adapt to meet the demands of our ever-changing world, the image of Thomas’ loyal dog – Fearless – shines on Fentimans’ bottles to this very day.


3. Arnold Clark Automobiles


This business has been going for over 50 years and is still in the hands of its eponymous family.

The story goes that Sir Arnold was jobless after leaving the RAF in 1954, and to support himself, the Scotsman started repairing and selling cars.

Joined by his children and grandchildren, the company then gradually added rental and dealerships to its car sales operations. 


4. Dyson


Housework is rarely one’s favorite hobby. With inefficient and heavy vacuums, in the past, cleaning carpets was a bit of a nightmare.

While working on another product, engineer Sir James Dyson spotted the opportunity to make vacuum cleaners more functional and easier to use.

From a bright idea sparked in 1991, Sir James has turned his flash of genius into a successful family business that is famous all over the world.


5. Swire Group


A factotum in its own right, Swire is well-known for its airline Cathay Pacific and has its finger in many sectors such as marine services, property, beverages, and industrial investments.

The business was set up in Liverpool in 1816 and now also has a power base in the Asia Pacific area, employing around 125,000 workers worldwide.

Members of the founding family are still involved in the company, with businessman Barnaby Swire being Swire’s chairman.


6. Pentland Group


A fellow Merseyside family business that keeps going strong is Pentland, initially named ‘Liverpool Shoe Company’ when established in 1932. The firm was among the pioneering companies to find and import shoes from Asia.

Owning household-name brands like Speedo and Berghaus and holding majority stakes in Reebok and JD Sports, this third-generation family business keeps going from strength to strength.


7. Floris


Founded in 1730, Floris is the oldest fragrance and toiletries retailer in the country. Juan Famenias Floris, a Menorca native who moved to London to seek fortune, secured premises in the quarter of St James’ and set up Floris as a barbershop.

Homesick and missing the Mediterranean aromas, the business soon began making and selling perfume – and the rest is history.

Today, the company is run by the eighth and ninth generations of the family.


8. Whitechapel Bell Foundry


Although the foundry closed in 2017, this 600-year-old family business deserves a special mention.

Run until recently by the 26th generation of the founding family, the firm was established in London in 1420.

In the late 1940s, the foundry was particularly busy replacing bells damaged or destroyed in bombing raids during World War II.

In more recent times, however, following the popularity of TV drama Downton Abbey, the business produced an impressive amount of table bells for both national and international customers.

In an ever-changing world, it is challenging for historical businesses to remain in step with the times. But, those successful and inspiring British firms demonstrate that you can endure the test of time, while always staying true to a family heritage.

Fay McFarlane is Senior Outreach PR Executive at Mediaworks Online Marketing. With 3 years experience in the retail industry, Fay is also an effective salesperson who can deliver exceptional customer service.