Sustaining a company for 1,400 years

Kongō Gumi workers in early 20th century

When asked to name the world’s oldest firm, or even to name its industry, default responses are most often banks or breweries. In fact, it is a construction company. Japan’s Kongō Gumi has been building Buddhist temples for 14 centuries. How is that for evidence of sustainable business?

Remarkably, the firm has been led for forty generations by the members of one family. The company was founded when a craftsman from what is now South Korea was invited to Japan to build a temple for Prince Shotoku, founder of Japanese Buddhism. A three-meter scroll traces the generations back to the company’s birth in the year 578.

Its dedicated craftspeople have dependably built temples while the isolationist Edo period came and went, and centuries of war and unrest passed. Even after being reduced to making wooden boxes for military purposes during WWII, the firm persisted. Over the course of that 1,440-year history, the original Shitennoji temple built for the Prince has burned to the ground and been rebuilt by the firm seven times.

Photo by jpellgen (@1179_jp) [Cropped] / CC BY 2.0

Alternating over generations between male and female leadership as daughters and wives assumed leadership, their last president, Masakazu Kongō, was 50th Kongō to lead the firm.

Kongō Gumi’s story is a sharp counterpoint to arguments that companies need growth to survive. One thousand four hundred years of continuity is glaring evidence that agility and adaptability are more important to long-term survival than becoming bigger.

Even after recent bankruptcy and absorption into the Takamatsu Construction Group, the firm endures to this day with its unique identity. Its 120 carpenters and craftspeople continue the traditional woodworking techniques as they have since the Prophet Muhammad was a child.

Family-run companies like Kongō Gumi put the lie to the notion that publicly traded companies are the most viable framework for long-term, sustainable operation. Appropriately scaled businesses, operating under localized ownership, can function and thrive for generations.


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