5 family firms that reinvented themselves

The building where Samsung sold its first noodles. 
The building where Samsung sold its first noodles. 

There are two types of family businesses: those which innovate, and those which fail. Of course, some keep going for a long time but sooner or later they will die if they don’t change. In fact, the very phrase “family businesses” is misleading and in most cases it is far more accurate to talk about “business families”, which are unafraid to use their business nous to move into other areas. Here are five which adapted to thrive.

Fred. Olsen & Co

“My mother’s family was in fish-hooks and horseshoe nails,” said the 86-year-old Norwegian shipping billionaire Fred Olsen recently. “Those businesses came and went. That’s why it’s so important to catch the wave, to keep innovating, keep changing.” The third-gen Olsen regenerated his family shipping firm – founded in 1848 – into an oil drilling one in the 1960s, then moved into renewables in the 1990s. Most amazingly, though, he transformed a bomb-fuse company his father had bought in the 1940s into Timex, still the US’s second-biggest watch company by sales. Olsen invented the sports watch, the smartwatch (with Microsoft in the 1990s) and the glow-in-the-dark dial.

Salam International

These days the vast Qatari conglomerate spans the oil and gas industry, luxury goods, IT, hotels and construction. But it all started in the late 1940s when Abdul Salam Mohammed Abu Issa, a teenage welder from Palestine, moved to Qatar to work on an oil pipeline. He took up photography as a hobby and opened the tiny Salam Studios. As the only man in the entire country with a camera, he was invited to become the royal photographer. His business took off and he soon diversified – royal contacts no doubt helping. Salam is now run by his three sons and transition to the third generation is under way.


The third generation South Korean chaebol is a sprawling group that includes smartphones, construction and even amusement parks. Its beginnings were more modest, though. It was founded in 1938 by Lee Byung-chull as a small trading company employing 40 people to sell dried fish and Samsung Sanghoe brand noodles. Lee owned a sugar mill and a wool mill before going into electronics in the late 1960s – a black and white TV was its first product.


For the first 50 years of its existence, Suzuki couldn’t decide whether it was in textiles or motor-cars. The business was founded in 1909 as a loom-maker for the Japanese silk industry. In the late 1930s they moved into cars but during the Second World War the government declared civilian cars non-essential and banned their manufacture. So it was back to looms. Following a collapse in the cotton market in the early 1950s, Suzuki made a bicycle fitted with an engine. Proper motorcycles followed and cotton became a memory.


The French luxury group started life as a harness maker founded by German Thierry Hermès in 1837, which sold to European noblemen. Thierry’s son moved into saddles, but with the rise of the motor car they had to change. Cleverly, the family won the patent to use the zip in France (it was known as the “fermeture Hermès”) and produced a zip-up golf bag for the Prince of Wales. By the end of the 1920s they were making bags, scarves and clothing. In a nod to their past, to this day Hermès’ logo is a horse and carriage motif.