9/20/2016 | 3 MINUTE READ

Not Acting Your Age

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I've encountered many family businesses that remain successful for a long time. Here's a snapshot of three.


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In discrete parts manufacturing, a family-owned shop reaching the century mark is a rare milestone. Maintaining a family’s ownership lineage more than 100 years is difficult. Interfamily dynamics can often lead to fatal fallouts for continuity of the family ownership line.

So what is the secret for shops that can boast continuous family ownership of 150, 156 and 170 years, respectively? I know three companies that successfully exist in this rarefied air. Take Chicago-based C.H. Hanson. The family-owned worldwide manufacturer in the metalworking industry celebrated its 150th anniversary in August. Its sesquicentennial celebration included a ceremony at the company’s Naperville, Illinois, headquarters. Congratulations to this family-owned business!

Danish immigrant Christian Henry Hanson founded the company in 1866 after a stint in the Union army. Six years later, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed his first factory, which was making stencils for manufacturers. He rebuilt the company, and it has thrived ever since. Needing more floor space, the company moved to the current location in 2006.

Today, the company manufactures more than 5,000 products worldwide that serve the metalworking, abrasive finishing, workholding, marking and several other industrial markets. Andrew Hanson, great-grandson of the founder, says very few companies can boast family ownership for 150 years.

He is correct, but in my travels I’ve encountered several other, older shops that are also family-owned. One that comes to mind is Laubscher in Tauffelen, Switzerland, which I visited in 2005. It started in 1846 and continues to operate under seventh-generation family ownership.

The company operates more than 500 machine tools making more than three million parts a day, ranging from tiny watch screws to medical components. Its shop floor looks like a trade show with numerous brands of Swiss-type, rotary transfer, multi-spindle, CNC and cam-actuated turret machines and coil-fed automatics.

When I was visiting, a young man from the eighth generation was learning the business by working on the shop floor. He will probably take an executive position in the business someday, not because of his birthright, but because of his understanding of the business from the ground up.  

Wilson Bohanan, a shop that’s been making padlocks since 1860, is another multi-generational shop now in its seventh generation. Wilson Bohanan and his son founded the company in New York when Lincoln was president. In 1927 they moved the operation to its present location in Marion, Ohio.

When most padlocks were made of steel, they made theirs from brass. The timing was good: The railroads were expanding and the brass padlocks could be used to lock freight cars since they didn’t rust. Later, this market expanded to any outdoor lock application. Wilson Bohanan is still in that business.

In the 1970s, the company had offshored some of its manufacturing. When president and seventh-generation family member Howard Smith took over, he spent 15 years bringing the work back to the states. He did that by investing in new process technology and higher efficiency machining capital equipment. It worked. WB padlocks are fully made in the USA.

Each of these family-owned manufacturing “graybeards” have survived in spite of the odds against them. C.H. Hanson has succeeded by expanding its market by growing its product offering to new and broad industries. It also serves a cross-section of industries, which helps protect the business during downturns in one or more of its markets.

Laubscher trains its family members in all facets of the business. The passion for precision parts manufacturing passed from generation to generation. It’s truly a family affair.

Wilson Bohanan made a decision to bring its manufacturing in-house. This move has helped company managers gain control over their process and improved their quality.

The one thing all three long-living companies have in common is a willingness to change how they make things. In part, private ownership enables investment in equipment that lowers production costs. Their longevity speaks to the willingness to do so.  

The founders of these companies probably had no idea that what they had started would still be around in 2016. Perhaps it’s in the family DNA.