Foucault and the family business

By Jeremy Hazlehurst

In one episode of the iconic British sitcom Only Fools and Horses, the street-sweeper Trigger tells Del Boy and Rodney that he has had the same broom for 20 years. They are amazed. Yes, he explains, the same broom – just with 17 new heads and 14 new shafts. Trigger insists it is the same broom. Del Boy thinks he’s barmy. Who is right?

The ancients were also puzzled by the same question. Plutarch, Heraclitus and Socrates wondered about Theseus’ ship, whose timbers, oars and sails had all been replaced over the years. The English philosopher John Locke more prosaically asked how much you could darn a sock before it was a new sock. (This says a lot about English philosophy. Perhaps about the English, too.)

This problem also applies to businesses. How much can a business change and still be the same thing? Does it matter? WPP, the world’s biggest advertising company, started life as a maker of shopping baskets – the name stands for Wire and Plastic Products.

In family businesses, the question is even more pointed. The port-maker Cockburn’s was set up by Robert Cockburn in 1815 and the family owned it until it was sold to Harvey’s in 1962, and was then owned by a number of other companies until it was bought by the Symington family in 2010.

Most people would probably agree that the modern company is the same one as Robert Cockburn’s. If you start asking why, though, it’s a bit perplexing. Is it the name that counts? Or did it actually stop being the same company when the founder’s family sold it, despite the name remaining? In this case it’s even more complicated, because Cockburn’s new owners say they are going to return to an old recipe and old-style bottles to refresh the brand. Imagine Heraclitus’ confusion.

Questions of continuity matter in family businesses, especially where succession is involved. Sometimes fundamental things have to be changed to make a business more profitable, but when does it stop being the old business? Does that matter? How much is a business tied up to its original products or services? How far can it diversify before it loses its identity? How far is loyalty to a particular supplier fundamental to the business? In family businesses there is often an emotional resistance to change, or perceived change.

The French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault was fascinated by continuity and rupture. He saw that, for example, what counted as “science” was different in different times. Read medicine from the early 17th century and it’s barely recognisable, from our point of view, as medicine. And yet in some sense it is still medicine. To simplify Foucault massively, continuities and ruptures are largely a question of perception. What’s interesting isn’t whether Trigger’s broom is or isn’t the same one, but whether people think it is, and why.

For what it’s worth my intuition is that WPP isn’t the same business that it was when it was founded, while Cockburn’s would be even if it changed its name. Probably that’s because of the way they approach their own roots. Maybe continuity is less about personnel, products or culture and more about telling a convincing story – not least to yourself.

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