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Tom Green first joined Charles Green, a family-run jeweller that has been in business for nearly 200 years, as a summer job while he was still in school. Now Mr Green, 63, is chairman but says his children — a science graduate and a university student — “won’t ever go into the business”.
“In the past, it was expected that the sons went into the family business,” he says. “The mood has changed and you now encourage your children to follow their own dreams.”
Family businesses that depend on skill and craftsmanship are struggling to hand over to the next generation, and some experts are warning that small, UK-based family-owned jewellers in particular are facing succession troubles.
“In the UK, the career preference of the younger generation tends to be following a professional route,” says Ajay Bhalla, professor of global innovation and family business at Cass Business School. “Over the last 20 years especially, that trend has been encouraged by families, even those with their own businesses.”
He says the challenges are severe for family businesses that are built on a specific craft, such as jewellery or watchmaking.
“In terms of the jewellery business, much of it is skill-based,” he says. “You cannot be parachuted into the family business at the age of 25 or 26 when you have finished your education. You have to be involved from a very young age.”
Historically, the attraction of the family jewellery business was strong enough to pull some individuals back from a professional career.
Jason Holt worked as a lawyer specialising in commercial litigation before leaving the City in 1999 to join his father, Robert, as a gem dealer in Hatton Garden.
“I practised law, but [the family business] was always in the back of my mind,” says Mr Holt, who now runs the family business, Holts Gems. “My dad was a great man. I wanted to spend time with him.”
Stephen Alabaster, of jewellers Alabaster & Wilson, also started out in a different field — reading French at university and working as a teacher — before joining his father in their own family’s business.
“It was something I really always thought I would do,” Mr Alabaster says. “I had always felt it was my destiny.”
Fiona Graham, director of external affairs and policy at the Institute for Family Business, a UK organisation that works to promote the interests of family businesses, thinks that attraction is part of what defines successful family businesses.
“A strong sense of purpose and family values are often what generate, and continue to drive, family businesses,” says Ms Graham.
If the younger generation can be persuaded to come on board it can make all the difference to a company’s fortunes.
Henry Deakin, 35, and his brother James, 41, did not hesitate to join their family company after a childhood spent following their father to trade shows and other industry events. The brothers are the seventh generation of their family to manage Deakin & Francis, a jewellery company specialising in cufflinks and signet rings.
For most of its history, the company was a supplier to other jewellery companies. But when Henry and James took over from their father in 2006 — after qualifying as gemologists — they decided that in order to grow, the business needed to have a brand of its own.
“We very quickly realised that we had to have our name on the product,” Henry says.
The brothers opened their first retail shop in London last October, something that Henry says has already provided a boost to turnover.
Yet the Deakins are decades younger than most of their peers in an industry where many managers are nearing retirement without a next generation to inherit the business.
Mr Green plans to hand over the reins of his business to a non-family member when he retires, saying the manufacturer will go from being “family-run” to “family-owned”.
“If you want to succeed, you have to be prepared to put a non-family member in charge,” he says.
However, Alabaster & Wilson closed its doors in December after 130 years in business and is now the process of winding down.
Mr Alabaster explains that as he, his siblings and the company’s skilled craftsmen got closer to retirement age, he did not push his two children — a banker and a lawyer — to take over the business. In the end, they decided to wind down the business rather than sell it.
“We had always worked at a certain high quality,” he says. “We did not want people to use our name to sell things at a lesser quality.
“There will be more and more businesses like ours that will decide that the current generation will be the last.”
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