People Recommended

Five failed family business dynasties


The world has seen many great family business dynasties. Some of them have survived, indeed, flourished for more than 100 years, like the Rothschilds, the Fords and Merck family in Germany. They may have been the lucky ones, because many have also fallen by the wayside. Here are five fallen dynasties – although, in some cases, the wealth remains, but the business ownership is no longer.  


The Bancroft family appeared to rely too much on outside managers to run the business their family had owned for more than 70 years. They were effectively absentee landlords, collecting rent (dividends) from their property, Dow Jones, the publisher of America’s famed newspaper The Wall Street Journal. Ultimately, their greed – Rupert Murdoch and his media empire offered shareholders $60 a share, or $5 billion for their business in 2007  – and inability to act together as a family unit, led the Bancrofts to sell their 60% stake. Of course, the 30-plus members of the Bancrofts might no longer own the business they became synonymous with, but they can console themselves with a pretty big cheque.


The UK’s oldest merchant bank, with more than 200 years of history, was also family run, until it was declared bankrupt in 1995. Few tales of financial folly are more tawdry than the demise of Barings Bank, involving as it did the family owners’ seeming incompetence to see the mess they were in and the infamous fraudulent derivatives dealer employed by Barings called Nick Leeson. Back in 1974 when Barings managed to steer clear of a banking crisis, one anonymous family member was asked how they managed to avoid trouble. He said with a certain amount of irony: “We felt we weren’t clever enough.” That remark, of course, was to come back to haunt them in 20 and a bit years time.


The Cadbury family are best known for their eponymous chocolate company that has a special place in the hearts of most people in the UK. The family business came about through John Cadbury setting up a chocolate business in Birmingham in 1824. The business prospered under family ownership for many years, until around the late 1960s when Cadbury merged with the drinks company Schweppes. Family ownership was diluted during the next forty years until the business was eventually taken over by the huge American food company Kraft in 2010.


The Krupp family in Germany were among the most powerful and richest families in the world in much of the 19th and 20th century. The business the family started, Friedrich Krupp, was the biggest company in Europe in turns of revenues in the early 20th century. But the family’s control and influence over the steel and armaments company gradually waned to virtually nothing in the late 20th century. As with so many family controlled businesses in Germany, Krupp’s involvement in the Nazi war effort didn’t directly end up hurting the business. The company did well out of the post-war boom in Germany. But biggest shareholder Alfried Krupp’s decision to turn his holding of the business into a foundation with a philanthropic purpose upon his death in 1967 effectively cut the family out of control of the business. Any residual influence the family had on the business, which had become ThyssenKrupp in 1999, through the foundation ended in 2013 after the merged steel company experienced years of underperformance, diluting the foundation’s ownership to an insignificant level.  


Few Greek family names conjure up wealth and romance as much as Aristotle Onassis – the Greek shipping magnate and dealmaker extraordinaire. His marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of the American president John F. Kennedy helped to create Onassis’ fame. What is less well known is the tragic death of his two children, which effectively put an end to the family business-side of the dynasty. His son Alexander died in a plane accident in 1973 aged just 24. At the time he was head of a subsidiary of Olympic Airways, the Greek national airline, which his father had owned. Alexander’s death led his father to start grooming his sister, Christina, to take over the family business, but Aristotle died two years after his son and no formal handover ever took place. Christina died in 1988 after suffering from long periods of depression. Her estate passed over to her daughter Athina Onassis de Miranda, the only surviving descendant of Aristotle Onassis.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *