Lessons from a 630-Year-Old Family Business

The Cantina at the Antinori Winery.

The Cantina at the Antinori Winery.

The Antinori family of Italy traces the founding of its family-owned wine business to 1385.  That’s 630 years and 26 generations of business continuity. Consider the risks that a business faces over a span of that period, including war, plague, economic crisis, political turmoil, family health, and sibling rivalries just to name a few.    Any one of these events could easily end a fragile family business, and many Antinori generations have faced more than one.

There is much we can learn from studying successful multi-generational family businesses.  Sure, there is some luck involved along the way, but there are also other characteristics that we can apply to any business:

1. Long-term Thinking.  The Antinori family places the long-term success and survival of the company above short-term gains.  There is always the temptation to maximize profits this quarter, but at what cost?  Thinking long-term is about laying the foundation for a business that will thrive for your grandchildren and great grandchildren.  In the 1990s, the Antinori family partnered with Chateau Ste. Michelle winery to expand wine production in Washington State.   Executives from Ste. Michelle found land that was perfect and where the state was offering a 40-year lease.  The Antinori family rejected it on grounds that it never thinks that short-term.  The partnership kept looking and eventually found an ideal plot of land with a much longer lease.

2. Resist the Temptation to Sell-Out.  This is closely related to long-term thinking, but it deserves special attention because it runs so counter to conventional wisdom.  The current family patriarch,  Marquis Piero Antinori, talks about the frequent pitches he gets from bankers, with advice like “now is the time to sell” and “you’ll never get a better price.”  Sure, the family business can always be converted into cash, but what about the intangible value the business brings to the family?  These intangible values are often lost on investment bankers, but they are paramount to the Antinori family.

3. Invest in the Next Generation of Talent.  You might think that each Antinori generation has little choice but to take up the family business.  However, the family insists on never pushing the business on the next generation, and instead the focus is on investing in the individual and letting them make up their own mind about joining the business.  In the end, this strategy has served the family well.  Often family members start their careers somewhere else, but eventually come back to the family business.  The Marquis insists that his father never pushed him into the business, and now the torch is being passed to his three daughters, Albiera, Alessia and Allegra.

4. Share Stories.  The rich history and legacy of the family business is passed along through stories, often shared around the dinner table or at family gatherings.  These stories serve to reinforce family values, instill long-term thinking and maintain a stoic attitude.  One famous German wine-making family tells a story of the “great-great-great-great uncle who rode his horse to Paris to repurchase the family winery at auction after it was seized by Napoleon.”  These stories provide the confidence and motivation to overcome the inevitable challenges that each generation will face.  It’s hard to complain about one poor vintage or the loss of one customer when you consider the sacrifices and hardship endured by previous generations.

Sean P. Murray is an author, speaker and consultant in the areas of leadership development and talent management.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.  Picture: The Cantina at the Antinori Winery

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