Have you ever heard about the Henokiens? Maybe the names Peugeot, De Kuyper, or Vitale Barberis Canonico are more familiar to you. You may not be aware of the existence of this very peculiar business association, but it is quite possible that you have purchased, or have been in contact with one or many of their members’ products. Born out of the initiative of French entrepreneur Gérard Glotin, once CEO of Marie Brizard (the liquor company), in 1981, this association brings together the world’s most ancient family businesses. And — it goes without saying — the people working there.
In order to become part of the larger Henokiens family, companies must answer to a variety of criteria. The two most important being: having a seniority of more than 200 years, and at least 50% of shares held by the descendants of the founder. Today, about 45 companies can pride themselves in belonging to the association; its oldest member is the Japanese hotel Hōshi ryokan, founded in 717. Once you’re in, the association provides its members with moral, cultural and philosophical mutual aid around the values and concept of family business, an alternative to multinationals, while promoting dynamism and modernity. As our guest of the day told us: “Henokiens do not exchange services, only ideas.”
In order to learn more about the very specificity of the Henokiens, and family business in general, Francesco Barberis Canonico, creative director of Vitale Barberis Canonico, agreed to answer a few of our questions.
Vitale Barberis Canonico is an Henokien company that was born in Italy in 1663 and is globally recognised for its high-end fabrics. A long history that, according to Francesco Barberis Canonico, should not confine the company to radical seriousness:
“We are always very aware that we have a long history. But I think we mustn’t take it too seriously. If you start doing so, you risk getting scared of doing anything and just thinking about your past. I think it is important for a company like us to have very strong roots and to know where we come from. But we also have to look ahead and think of the future, of the new generations of our customers. A rich history can become dangerous in some cases, as you might end up being very repetitive,” he says. “In our work as in our collections, we like to put a twist, a bit of sense of humour. We want our buyers, when they look at our fabrics, to think, ‘Why have they done this?’ If it’s caught their attention — bingo!”
I think it is important for a company like us to have very strong roots and to know where we come from. But we also have to look ahead and think of the future, of the new generations of our customers.
To catch and retain the attention of younger customers, Vitale Barberis Canonico has had to reinvent itself many times throughout history.
Indeed, as one can easily conceive, European history has not spared the more-than-300-year-old textile company: “We faced many crises, pandemics and four different industrial revolutions, and the first one saw my great grandfather dealing with the move towards industrialisation. My grandfather decided to move from mid-level-quality to high-quality when the automatic looms became available. In 1970, we started to invest heavily in automation. Machines helped workers and vice versa. The market was growing so I think the trend of internationalisation helped to expand into new markets, in five different continents. We survived because we grew around the world. We can compete not only in the high-end market but also the mid-level range, globally. Not only is the suit an important item for the luxury market, but it is also important for the general business segment of ready-to-wear and we hope for the new generations”
Adaptation is an important quality shared by many — if not all —members of the Hénokiens. But we are not talking about mere long-lasting companies here; these are perennial family businesses. A quality that should make us consider the utility of a strong sense of belonging and a driving corporate culture. Values that Francesco Barberis Cannonico reassures us are as important as ever : “Family, Innovation and Heritage are amongst our most important values. The strong sense of family is not just about the family members. People who work with us are considered part of our family too: their father most likely worked with my father, their grandfather with my grandfather and so on. They feel like the company is theirs too. They’re very proud to work there. Half of our employees are from our little village whose population is just 800. They work with a lot of passion, whether as menders, weavers, spinners or any other job, and I think the results speak for themselves.”
“European family businesses have the capability to adapt themselves to changes quicker than others.”
And this sense of family can actually be observed in the many layers that make up the European economy. In Europe, family businesses make up for more than 60% of all companies. A number that shows the particularly fertile ground Europe is able to provide for family businesses. “The Europeans have a long tradition in business, and they have been marketing products and manufacturing for centuries. European family businesses have the capability to adapt themselves to changes quicker than others. Some of the best companies in Europe are known as family names; for example, the main car producers. Europe is also full of small and medium companies which make world-class products that are known throughout the world for excellence.”
Some of the best companies in Europe are known as family names; for example, the main car producers.
Amid the global crisis sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic, there is no doubt that family businesses, in the way they relate to the world and their own locality, will play an important part in the recovery. Provided with their sense of long-term vision and resilience, these family-held companies may be able to participate in the next economic recovery by caring for their communities the way they usually do.
“Family businesses care for their communities as well as for the environment and they have demonstrated it with commitments. For example, at Vitale Barberis Canonico, sustainability is not a trend to follow just because the current market requires it or because it’s fashionable, but it is something deeply rooted in our company’s culture and in the values that have been handed down from generation to generation. In 2019, we decided to “move from action to words” with our first Sustainability Report, a tool which has enabled us to study the achieved results in order to raise the bar and set even more challenging standards for the future. It is undoubtedly important to start to think about how we will manage to get out of the present crisis. The world, after this terrible pandemic, won’t be the same,” finally adds Francesco Barberis Canonico.