COLUMN: Learning from the past when it comes to business

The Old Queen's Head in Sheffield has been trading for centuries
The Old Queen's Head in Sheffield has been trading for centuries
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Some businesses thrive for centuries. It is hard to believe that there are British businesses still trading which were in existence in the twelfth century or earlier.

Amongst the oldest surviving are a number of pubs, inns and hotels.

Locally, we have a number of very old pubs - and endless arguments about which holds the title of being the oldest.

Some say The Old Queen’s Head on Pond Hill but others argue that it was not always a pub and that the Nailmakers Arms at Gleadless Valley has held a licence for longer.

It has been suggested that even earlier, the monks of Ecclesfield Priory supplied the old Black Bull with beer - clearly not to the current building but apparently previously there was a much older pub on the same site.

So why do some businesses survive for centuries while others fall by the wayside? The ones that survive have owners that have the ability to adapt to change. They are able to “read” the market and identify and react to their customers’ changing tastes and needs.

Take the retail industry for example. Why have companies like Woolworths disappeared? “Woolies” had hundreds of shops across the country and graced our High Streets for almost 100 years. In common with other well-known names like C & A and BHS, Woolworths was slow to react to changing customer preferences.

New competitors appeared selling online. And of course selling from a warehouse without the high costs of a retail network was a more cost-effective business model, so these “new guys on the block” could offer lower prices and undercut the established stores.

The survivors were quick to supplement their High Street shopping experience with an on-line alternative, and to draw people back into the shops offered “click and collect”. Retailers who are thriving are having to offer something different – whether it is quality or service or perhaps a different shopping experience.

Another local business which ran into difficulties was Viners – world famous for its cutlery. In the 1960s it streamlined its production processes, but during the 1970s little investment was made.

When cheap foreign imports started to threaten their market they reacted by trying to cut costs by transferring some production abroad (at the expense of quality) and compete on price. But their American customers wanted the quality for which Sheffield cutlery was famous.

Although no longer in Sheffield, the Viners name and intellectual property is owned by Liverpool-based Rayware Group.

This column is brought to you in association with Phil Meekin, Head of Marketing for Wilson Field.