Family business: The generations game

By Ged Henderson

24 Nov 2023

Matthew Hall Butlers Farmhouse Cheeses

For four generations members of the Hall family have been producing their award-winning farmhouse cheese against the backdrop of Lancashire’s rural splendour.

Butlers Farmhouse Cheeses can trace its history back to 1932. And like many family concerns in Lancashire it is proud of that heritage and well aware of the DNA that sets it apart.

Longevity comes to these businesses through a range of attributes. They include resilience, innovation and the speed of their response to challenges and opportunities.

Matthew Hall is the fourth-generation owner of Butlers. He says: “Our people, our products and our pioneering spirit sit at the heart of our longevity.

“Family businesses are unique. It’s about having people who really care about what they are doing and the impact they have – and that really resonates with our customers.

“They get quality products made with love and we focus on development and innovation because it is the right thing to do for our customers, our people and our community – not because it’s something a shareholder in the City needs.”

In common with long established family firms across Lancashire, heritage and authenticity are important ingredients in the cheese￾maker’s recipe for success. Matthew says: “As a manufacturing-based family business, we have our own farms and so we have provenance and real and genuine connection to our product – there’s no fakery.

“You get a lot of manufacturing-based businesses which operate as a sales and marketing company and have someone else manufacture their product for them, so there’s a real disconnect with where the product comes from.

“While sustainability wasn’t a word that was used in the early decades of our business, my great-grandparents would say, ‘keep that, it might be useful one day’ and that still feeds through into our business today.”

He adds: “Family business to me means opportunity. We have very strong foundations, a rich history and a product that’s well-known.

“We take those foundations and break boundaries out of Lancashire into national and international markets – and that delivers an entire set of new opportunities. That’s very exciting.”

Mark Adlestone has in his office an “enormous” family tree which goes right back to his great grandfather who arrived in Britain from Russia in the 1880s.

A family business since 1919, Fylde coast headquartered jewellery group Beaverbrooks can trace its roots right back to Mark’s grandfather and brothers. The group has recently reported a record turnover and hailed a year of investment, posting £225m turnover for the year ending February 2023.

It has grown its number of stores to 87 across the UK and is set to move its head office from St Annes to bigger premises in nearby Lytham, another sign of continued ambition.

Mark says one of the defining features of a family business is its focus on the long term. “We keep looking to the future,” he adds.

“We are not beholden to our shareholders and the structure means we can make decisions quickly. We don’t have to go to the City or talk to a lot of analysts to explain why we are doing what we do. That is quite liberating.”

There are challenges. Mark says it is important to manage the number of working shareholders as the generations grow. He explains: “Family businesses can’t be for every member of the family, it is just not possible.”

Having taken opportunities to buy back shares from family members over many years he says Beaverbrooks is now owned by his “immediate”  family.” Mark says that “people buy into a family business” adding: “They generally care more about their colleagues.

“Because we are a family business there is a feeling of family within the business and that runs across the country.”

And he adds: “Running a family business becomes about more than just money and I’m going to use the word ‘legacy’. That’s how I feel about it. You are never going to get that feeling in the corporate world.”

Chorley Group is another Lancashire headquartered family business with a distinguished past that continues to look to the future.

The motor trade is in current managing director Adam Turner’s blood. He spent his childhood growing up in car showrooms as dad Andrew, now group chairman, grew the business which started with the sale of used motors from the family home in 1989.

Adam joined full-time in 2010 after completing his university studies and took over as managing director in 2020 after spells in business development director and sales director roles. His aunt Pauline was the group’s previous MD.

He says: “I never had a conversation with my dad about coming into the business, it was just going to happen.

“I was in every day after school. I’ve been in the game since I was around three years old.”

Chorley Group currently operates 15 dealer franchises across the North West and employs close to 400 people. Adam says: “We’re proud of being a family business and we think that translates to how we operate. Our customers recognise and appreciate that.”

Looking at the advantages a family run concern has, he says: “It is speed of decision making. You can miss opportunities by being too slow.

“We also run our business like it is our own money because it is our own money. We invest it where we want to and for a reason. And we have strong business foundations, because we are in it for the long haul.

“You’re trying to protect the family silver and build longevity for the family. The decisions we make are for the long-term sustainability of the business.”

Adam adds: “There’s also closeness in a family company. We have created an environment where people can flourish.

“As a family business grows there is a danger it loses that family feel and that is a challenge a lot of businesses will have.”

He believes having the right culture is key: “My dad said we treat every single person with respect, whether they are a third party contractor, a member of our team or a client coming through the door. That is still really important to us.”

He goes on: “In a family business you own every single day, you never put it down.”

Sue Howorth is a founder of the Family Business Community group based in Kendal, which counts a number of Lancashire companies amongst its 3,500-strong membership.

She points out that 85 per cent of all private businesses are family owned, including some of our biggest companies.

Sue says: “The impact these businesses make in their communities is huge.”

In 2020, family businesses across the whole of the UK generated £575bn in gross value added (GVA) contribution to GDP (gross domestic product) and employed 13.9 million people.

Despite that she believes they are often overlooked when it comes to matters of policy making by those in the corridors of power.

Sue believes one of the things that make family businesses different is the way they plan ahead, sometimes with generations that haven’t been born yet in mind.

And she points out that they are also flexible in their approach, as seen during the Covid pandemic, when many were able to quickly switch their operations to cope with the vastly different landscape they found themselves in.

“They are proven to have longevity, to be sustainable and very resilient,” she says, and adds: “When family businesses are making decisions, they are making them for everybody in the business, not just those people sitting round the boardroom table.”

Enjoyed this? Read more from Ged Henderson

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