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Family businesses of the First World War

A poppy commemorates the loss of life in the First World War
Press Association

On 11 November 1918, the Great War came to end. CampdenFB takes a look at the way it impacted five family businesses that are still in existence today.

Called for service
Fellowes Inc, US

Fellowes Inc has diversified into all types of office products today, but it started as a simple file box company back in 1917. Founded by Walter Nickel, the business was sold when he was called up for service in the First World War.

Harry Fellowes was the entrepreneur who bought the business – paying just $50. The US government had just passed legislation requiring businesses to keep written records for tax purposes, and the business took off.

Jump ahead a century, and his great-grandson John Fellowes II this year became the fourth generation to run the family business, which now makes paper shredders, laminators, binders, guillotines and trimmers, and as annual revenues upwards of $500 million.

As for Walter Nickel, he returned from service and rejoined Fellowes in the business. In patriotic tribute, their humble filing box was named the Liberty Box.

The power of the pen
Daily Mail and General Trust, UK

"Next to the Kaiser, Lord Northcliffe has done more than any living man to bring about the war," London evening newspaper The Star told its readers, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War.

An Irish-born journalist, Lord Northcliffe controlled half of London’s newspapers by the outbreak of the war – a platform he exploited with very anti-German sentiment. His newspaper The Times appealed to the ruling classes, while the Daily Mail was popular with the masses.

Born Alfred Harmsworth, his opposition to enemy forces was such that a German warship was sent to shell his country home in Kent in an attempt to assassinate him. He is credited with seriously undermining then-prime minister Herbert Asquith, paving the way for his preferred leader David Lloyd George. Before the war’s end he would be appointed director of propaganda.

Today, fourth-generation Jonathan Harmsworth chairs the newspaper group, which has its headquarters in Northcliffe House, London, named for the £2 billion empire’s founder.

Tending to the wounds of war
Ottobock, Germany

Tragically one of the catalysts that led to the founding of German family business Ottobock in 1919 was the large number of injured veterans returning from the First World War.

But its founder, Otto Bock, realised traditional craftsmanship processes could not meet demand, so he changed the manufacturing process – producing series of prosthetic components to be delivered directly to prosthetists on site. According to the company website, this “laid the foundation for the orthopaedic industry”.

Only three people have headed the company in its almost century-long history – its eponymous founder, who started it in his late 30s, passed the business on to his son-in-law Dr Max Nader, and today it is run by third-gen Professor Hans Georg Nader. The company focuses on prosthetics, orthotics, neurorehabilitation, wheelchairs, and clinics, and has also been a loyal partner to the Paralympic Games.

In 2012 the company took out the top honour for family business of the year at CampdenFB’s European Families in Business Awards.

A business brews
Teekanne, Germany

With loose-leaf tea being too impractical for life in the trenches, German family business Teekanne developed the “tea bomb” for troops. Initially manufactured by hand, the gauze bags contained lightly sweetened tea portions.

Forerunners to tea bags had already been patented in the US, but it wasn’t until their use in the trenches that the product became widespread. As the war came to an end, Teekanne had a chance to develop its product, abandoning cloth in favour of more neutral tasting parchment paper. A decade later it had created machinery to manufacturer its tea bags.

The same two families have owned the company since 1898 – descended from entrepreneurs Rudolf Anders and Eugen Nissle. The company would barely survive the Second World War, with its Dresden facilities heavily bombed, but today it has seven production facilities around the world and employs 1,500 people.

War and peace
Ford Motor Company

After the US entered the First World War in 1917, the Ford Motor Company became a major supplier of weapons, as well as engines for airplanes and anti-submarine boats.

But at the outbreak of the war several years earlier the company’s founder, industrialist Henry Ford, had very publicly established himself as a pacificist. In 1915, Ford launched an amateur peace mission of 170 delegates to Europe aboard Oscar II, nicknamed the Peace Ship.

Ford declared the mission a success, on the grounds it stimulated discussions about peace, but it was widely reported in the media as a failure. There were reports of infighting and illness, and little diplomatic progress was said to be made in the European destinations it headed to.

Ford still stood by his pacifist sentiment throughout the war, even running for senate in Michigan to push his agenda. 

Today the family business is headed by fourth-gen Bill Ford, and last year fifth-gen Elena Ford was appointed vice president of the strategy and customer service division.

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