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Mining the past: How 'history scripting' strategies can help family businesses achieve competitive advantages

By Alfredo De Massis

“Spanning almost a hundred years, the story behind this restaurant [is told in] the lives of three generations of remarkable Chinese women. Their extraordinary journey takes us from the brutal poverty of village life in mainland China, to newly prosperous 1930s Hong Kong and finally to the UK. Their lives were as dramatic as the times they lived through.” – Sweet Mandarin.

While many might consider history as just something that happened in the past, it is found in our research to have the potential to create important competitive advantages for family businesses and even new entrepreneurs.

Through looking at the highly recognised family business—Sweet Mandarin in the United Kingdom—we found that the current generations used scripted history to facilitate acceptance by broader communities, build a reputation of continuity, and inspire innovation through tradition.

Therefore, instead of discussing whether history is the real representation of the past, we revealed how it can be presented to attract external stakeholders’ attention thus creating competitive advantages for family enterprises and entrepreneurial families. The key question here is when and how that knowledge of the past is shared by a family enterprise. Below, we discuss three history scripting strategies that we found in our research.

Bingbing Ge is a lecturer.Embedding family history

This history scripting strategy is when the entrepreneurial family embeds the history of the family as well as that of the business in the institutional past. This then includes many institutional-level stories by naming significant historical periods and linking family wisdom with social conventions. In so doing, the family business is accepted by a broader set of audience.

In the Sweet Mandarin case, for example, the compelling history of the entrepreneurial family is linked to the Japanese invasion and the hardship of Hong Kong through their autobiography and books, making the business particularly appealing for communities with similar experiences.

Elaborating family history

History here is scripted, rather than following a chronological order, based on needs to provide linkage between the previous generations and the current generations. This strategy involves many family-level stories that link family memories with business behaviours. Through this, Sweet Mandarin infuses trust from customers and builds a reputation of longevity.

Sweet Mandarin is a non-traditional family business in the sense that the current generation did not inherit a physical family business yet a culinary history. Therefore, Sweet Mandarin in the customers’ eyes is a brand-new business, if without the family history. Helen and Lisa thus have often predated the business to previous generations by bringing family memories of previous businesses, e.g., the Lung Feng and chip shop.  

Josip Kotlar is a family business professor.Building family history

Last but not least, this history scripting strategy is essential as it represents a new chapter for the current generation to signal the continuity of the past endeavours, but more importantly the future directions of it. This focuses more on the individual, especially the current generation’s stories, of them learning from their family and their unique achievements.

It goes without saying that the current generation has to have something different from previous generations. Lisa and Helen, the current generation, not only demonstrate that they have a legacy, but need to be accepted by the external stakeholders as ‘capable’ of stirring the Sweet Mandarin ship. In light of this, they have emphasised the contribution and new introduction of their own efforts in the family’s culinary journey, by differentiating from the previous generations, for examples., through social media, competitions and external recognitions.

Reference: Ge B., De Massis A., Kotlar J. (2021). Mining the past: History scripting strategies and competitive advantage in a family business. Entrepreneurship Theory & Practice, 2021.

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