The Cobblestone 10

Britain's biggest 100-year-old family firms

A cobbled street. Image: Flickr. License CC BY 2.0

A cobbled street. Image: Flickr. License CC BY 2.0

This week the Financial Times created its “Ovaltine Index” of firms that have been listed since 1935, when the first FT30 was created. Eighty years might be a long time to be listed, to be sure, but it's not that uncommon to come across family-owned businesses that have existed for that long. 

We we thought we would make a list of the 10 biggest family firms that have been going for a bit longer, since 1916. We’re calling it the Cobblestone 10. (The data comes from the 2015 Top Track 100.)

1. Swire Group

The Swire family started as an import-export business based in Liverpool in 1816, but by the mid 1800s had started trading with China. It was in Asia-Pacific that the family has its greatest assets to this day, including shipping, oil and property businesses. Barnaby Swire is the current chairman, and his cousin Merlin is chief executive. The Swire family owns 66% of the group.

Founded: 1816

Sales (2014): £6,927m

2. Laing O’Rourke

John Laing started in 1848 in Cumbria and grew to be a major housebuilder, listing on the London Stock Exchange in 1953. In 1978 Ray O'Rourke and Des O'Rourke founded R O'Rourke and Son in East London and in 2001 when Laing got into financial trouble, they bought it for £1. The business has recently worked on Crossrail and the Cheesegrater skyscraper. So it might not be an old, multigenerational family firm like the others on this list, but being 100% owned by the O’Rourkes it's close. 

Founded: 1848

Sales (2014): £3,327m

3. Bibby Line Group

Originally a shipping business based in Liverpool, the Bibby family company is now a diversified conglomerate. It bought the Costcutter chain of shops in 2011, and also has owns a business that provides hydrographic and geophysical survey services to the oil and gas industry. Sixth-generation Michael Bibby has been managing director since 2000. The family owns 88% of the business.

Founded: 1807

Sales: (2014) £1,715

4. Marshall Group

The Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group is the UK’s largest independent firm in that sector, while Marshall Motor Holdings plc is an AIM-listed car-dealer. (The family still owns 66% of that business.) Not bad for a firm that started as a chauffeur service in a lock-up in 1909. The business is now run by fourth-generation Robert Marshall and overall the family owns 71% of the group.

Founded: 1909

Sales (2014): £1,426m

5. Willmott Dixon Group

Founded in 1852 by a bricklayer named John Willmott who took his first job for £1, the business is now in the fifth generation of family management. The founder’s family owns 60%, while the Dixons own 20% and management the rest. (The Dixon family have worked in the business since the 1960s.)

Founded: 1852

Sales (2014): £1,259m

6. AF Blakemore

Okay, they miss the 100-year cut-off by one year, but let’s not hold that against them. It all began with a grocery store started by husband and wife Arthur and Harriet Blakemore in Wolverhampton in 1917. The 100% family-owned business has always been innovative, getting involved with franchising and cash-and-carry early on. The 100% family-owned company now supplies over 1,000 SPAR stores, 300 of which it owns. It also has logistics and wholesale arms, among other businesses. The founder’s grandson, Peter, is managing director.

Founded: 1917

Sales: £1,192m

7. William Grant & Sons

Owned by the Grant and Gordon families, this is third-biggest maker of whisky and its brands include Glennfiddich and Balvenie, as well as Drambuie and many others drinks. William Grant laid the first stone of the Glenfiddich distillery in 1886, and built it brick-by-brick with his family. They started producing the year after. Simon Hunt recently became CEO.

Founded: 1887

Sales: £1,120m

8. Wates Group

Wates has big plans. Sales almost reached the £1bn mark in 2014 for the first time, and the firm says that it wants to double that, mainly through acquisitions. Since it was founded in 1897, the business has built houses, aerodromes, and has since branched out into property development. Fourth-generation James is the chairman and it is still 100% family-owned. 

Founded: 1897

Sales (2014): £994m

9. OCS

OCS stands for “outsourced client solutions”, and the business’s 73,000 employees provide cleaning, catering and other services in over 50 countries. It was started in 1900 by Frederick William Goodliffe as a window-cleaning company, with a ladder and a bucket. The family still owns 100% of the business. Fittingly, its CEO Chris Cracknell joined the firm in 1977 - as a window cleaner.

Founded: 1900

Sales (2014): £871m

10. Sir Robert MacAlpine

The eponymous founder started working in coal mines aged seven and by 16 had become a bricklayer, but by 22 he had started his own business. He needed a loan from a local butcher to pay his workers on the first job, but five years later he had 1,000 employees. The firm built the original Wembley Stadium, the Dorchester Hotel and the 2012 Olympic stadium. It is still 100% family owned.

Founded: 1869

Sales (2014): £863

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