Interviews

Published

2010: Britain’s top family businesses

9 Mins

We’re big fans of family businesses here at Real Business. We like their commitment to long-term quality, positive social values and tendency not to make knee-jerk decisions. So it was intriguing to receive the Institute for Family Business’s research into what, it reckons, are the top ten family businesses in Britain.

It’s heartening to see relatively new family business dynasties emerging, such as Sir Peter Rigby’s SCH. The Sheppard family’s European Metal Recycling is a business that’s gaining more and more fans, and we’ll be taking a look in more detail. One quibble (which will doubtless be posed by RB regular John Timpson) is the absence of his family cobblers chain, Timpson. That aside, here’s the IFB’s view.

Associated British Foods (Weston family, sales £9.26bn)
In first place, one of the biggest beasts of all. Not a household name, but most of us will be familiar with the brands of this food to retail multinational – Kingsmill, Pataks, Primark, Ryvita, Twinings, and other marques, some of which were originally family firms in their own right. Founded by Toronto-born W Garfield Weston in 1935, the Weston family control ABF through family holding company Wittington Investments which also owns the luxury food store Fortnum & Mason and Heals. Third generation George Weston, 46, is currently chief executive of ABF.

Stemcor (Oppenheimer family, sales £3.54bn)
Second, the world’s largest independent steel trader is involved in every aspect of the industry from minehead to factory floor trading globally around 20m tonnes of steel and steel-making raw materials per annum. Formed in 1951 by Hans Oppenheimer, the majority of shares are still held by the family with his son Ralph Oppenheimer, 68, once a government economist, as executive chairman. Management & staff have an important minority ownership stake in the business.

Swire Group (Swire family, sales £3.24bn)
Founded in Liverpool in 1816 this company was one of the success stories of Britain’s global expansion in the nineteenth-century and is still going strong with its power base in Hong Kong and the Asian Pacific. The Swire Group’s privately owned parent company is John Swire & Sons Limited. Its best known operating company is the airline Cathay Pacific, but the group is also active in property, beverages, marine services, and trading and industrial investments and employs 125,000 worldwide. It is still a family concern and its current honorary and life presidents Sir Adrian, 77, and Sir John Swire 82, are great-great-grandsons of the founder John Swire and the next generation is represented on the board by Barnaby Swire.

European Metal Recycling (Sheppard family, sales, £3.10bn)
Scrap metal is big business and with environmental laws getting stricter, plus the government’s ‘cash for bangers’ scheme, recent years have been good to EMR and to the Sheppard family. The Warrington-based company crushes 1m cars and 600,000 fridges a year and employs 2,300 people. The company was created in 1994 and its founder Philip Sheppard has built it up since then into a worldwide business with plants in the UK, USA and China. Other family members work in the firm’s management, including Sheppard’s son Chris.

Laing O’Rourke (O’Rourke family, sales £2.5bn)
Ireland-born Ray O’Rourke came to Britain in 1967 and initially found work as a labourer, after setting up his own business as a subcontractor in 1978 in his family’s garage his company has gone on to become the UK’s biggest privately-owned construction firm. The company is involved in some of the highest profile building projects project-managing work on the 2012 Olympics and previously worked on Heathrow Terminal 5. The business has grown spectacularly since the acquisition of John Laing in 2001 and has 31,000 employees, but it remains a family concern with Ray O’Rourke as chairman and chief executive and his brother Des the joint deputy chairman.

SCH (Rigby family, sales £2.32bn)
The Birmingham-based company, Specialist Computer Holdings, is the largest privately-owned IT group in Europe and provides computer networks and services to blue chip companies and government organisations. The company started back in 1975 with just £2,000 in the pocket of its founder and group chief executive Sir Peter Rigby and has gained in size through regular acquisitions. The family is heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the firm with sons James and Steven both senior directors. An aviation enthusiast Sir Peter is a qualified pilot and owns Patriot Aviation, as well as the upmarket hotel chain Eden Hotel Collection.

Arnold Clark Automobiles (Clark family, sales, £2.21bn)
Europe’s largest privately-owned car dealer and one of Scotland’s biggest companies, the firm has been going for 50 years and its eponymous founder is still in charge. Unable find a job after leaving the RAF in 1954 Glasgow-born Arnold Clark (now Sir Arnold) buying, repairing and selling cars and as the company grew it added rental, a finance arm and dealerships to its core used car sales operation. Sir Arnold is now into his 80s and has been joined in the business by his children and grand-children.

Daily Mail and General Trust (Viscount Rothermere and family £2.12bn)
Although principally associated with the Daily Mail newspaper DMGT is also one of Europe’s largest media companies with newspaper, radio, television or publishing interests in Australia, USA and eastern Europe totalling 16,000 employees and 150 companies. Lord Rothermere took over the Daily Mail in 1922 and his family is still in control of the company and is headed by the 4th Viscount Rothermere, Jonathan Harmsworth, 42, who was appointed chairman aged 30 on the death of his father.

JCB (Bamford family, sales £2,010bn)
Named after its founder, the legendary businessman, Joe Bamford, the company’s name is synonymous with all types of engineering vehicle from diggers to excavators and engines. Its 300 different machines in total are used in construction, agriculture and by the military across the world. It’s now one of the world’s top three manufacturers of construction equipment, employing 7,000 people. The firm was founded in 1945 with Joe Bamford constructing the first vehicle, a farm trailer, himself using welding equipment bought for 50 shillings. After he retired in 1975 the business was taken on by his two sons. Sir Anthony Bamford, now chairman of the company, was born on the day JCB first opened for business.

Bestway Group (Pervez family, sales £1.895bn)
Britain’s largest Asian family business is headed up by Sir Anwar Pervez who arrived from Pakistan in 1956 as 21-year-old. He took on various jobs, including bus conductor, and finally launched his own business, the Kashmir convenience store in Earl’s Court, London in 1963. With a team of associates that has stayed with him since the early days his big break came in the 1976 when he decided to go into the cash-and-carry market. 

His strategy was to undercut the wholesalers at the time by making four per cent gross profit rather than ten per cent as was the norm. Sir Anwar never looked back and the Bestway Group is the UK’s second largest wholesale cash and carry operator with 52 warehouses supplying 100,000 independent retailers. The business has also diversified into cement and banking in Pakistan and employs nearly 20,000 people worldwide. Sir Anwar’s two sons also work in the business and his nephew Zameer Choudrey is chief executive.

Share this story

Dragons controversy: update
What entrepreneurs want from their accountants
Send this to a friend