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Lessons from some of the world's oldest companies

Established: 1198, 1498, 1515, 1519, 1534, 1570, 1698, 1705, 1715, 1759, 1824, 1891. An inn, a removals company, a butchers, a ferry, a printing press, a bell foundry, a wine merchants, a stone carvers, a scale makers, a brewers, an agricultural company, a gum manufacturer. How on earth have they managed that? And what are their secrets of survival?

In Established, twelve business writers set out to find the answers to these questions and to tell the stories of these companies that have survived scores of booms and busts, black sheep in the family and strange twists of fate.

But they’re not your typical team of business writers. The twelve are from the Dark Angels stable, the brand that since 2004 has been encouraging authentic voices in business writers through its residential courses and workshops. Storytelling is at the heart of the Dark Angels approach. In Established you will find that each of these enduring businesses has a great story, each of which is told in an individual voice that brings range and freshness to the book and makes it quite unlike the mainstream ‘how to’ hardback.

But the lessons the stories contain are every bit as instructive, from the eschewal of nepotism to the generational mantra of ‘humility and rebellion’. The reader will find contradictions, on questions like world domination or keeping it to the one shop. And that’s the joy of this book, that readers looking for insight as well as good old entertainment will gravitate towards the business that most resembles theirs in spirit and set-up if not in actual trade.

The lesson in every instance that is closest to the writers’ hearts is that the story itself is one of the greatest assets of every business – and when you’ve got over 500 years of records it’s quite a challenge to tell it, especially in a couple of thousand words. Established does just that.

The Companies

The Brazen Head
The Shore Porters Society
R.J. Balson & Son
The Hampton Ferry
Whitechapel Bell Foundry
Cambridge University Press
Berry Brothers & Rudd
The John Stevens Shop
John White & Son
Guinness
Australian Agricultural Company
Wrigley

Dark Angels is a writing programme established in 2004 – just newcomers, then…. We take writers to remote places and help them to write more effectively at work. We believe in business communication that is creative, engaging and human – that’s what makes it effective.

Because good ideas thrive, work is more meaningful, organisations prosper and relationships flourish when people respect the power of language and use words with skill and care.

We run courses that help people to develop their writing skills and creative confidence in ways that are fun, challenging and safe. When they return to work, they can write in more natural, human and engaging ways. They can use the power of stories to connect with people. They can explain their ideas more clearly. And they are more effective communicators.

The programme was established by Stuart Delves, Jamie Jauncey and John Simmons whose book Dark Angels describes the philosophy. In 2016 Dark Angels is growing beyond its three founders. We are delighted to welcome new Associate Partners who will spread the Dark Angels experience more widely. They are all highly regarded writers and trainers who will add new dimensions to Dark Angels. And they have each written a chapter of this book. They are: Neil Baker, Claire Bodanis, Gillian Colhoun, Mike Gogan, Martin Lee, Elen Lewis, Andy Milligan, Richard Pelletier and Mark Watkins.

Many of these writers were authors in the Dark Angels collective novel Keeping Mum, published by Unbound in 2014.

The Brush, the Mallet, the Chisel, the Letter

The good and true story of The John Stevens Shop

by Richard Pelletier

“John Stevens, Stone Cutter Takes this method to inform the public and his former employers in particular THAT he carries on the stone-cutters business at his shop the North end of Thames Street where any persons may be supplied with tombstones, gravestones, hearths, and printers press stones, and where every kind of work in stone is performed in the neatest and most elegant manner.”

Newport Mercury, October 27, 1781

29 Thames Street, Newport Rhode Island

Late afternoon. A warm September day. Autumn light drifts down through the windows and skylights of Nicholas Benson’s stone carving shop on Thames Street in Newport, Rhode Island. High on the wall, a likeness of Nick’s grandfather. He is John Howard Benson, whose creative fires stoke this place like the light of an endless sun. Nick Benson is at his workbench. Overhead on a wooden shelf, a row of mallets and wood planes, smoothed and worn, register the yawn of time, gathering dust.

The space is intimate, glorious. Thick, exposed, load-bearing beams; mallets and chisels and wood planes and ropes. Small blocks of stone carved with the letter R. Shelves and drawers and walls are lovingly filled with old tools, drawings and sketches, letters and photographs, books and letterforms. There are thick slabs of granite, marble and slate. It’s the studio of an artist of the Old World, sumptuous and magical, a visual feast. All that light. A sense of order.

In the glare of a simple desk lamp, Paul Russo carves a honed granite headstone that leans on a large wooden easel. A twenty-plus-years stone-carver, he’s Nick's main man. Russo has just finished a line drawing of a sailboat and now comes the world's shortest biography—name, date of arrival, date of departure. The going is slow; it will take him two weeks to finish. It’s slow because granite is the hardest stone there is. And because this is how they do it here. To watch for a minute is to know two things. A hand-carved headstone is a sensitive, lasting and loving tribute. And it is fierce, hard, painstaking work. “My hands are fine,” Russo says, “it’s my elbows. I have tendinitis.”

“I have carpal tunnel,” says Nick. “I have bad legs and my knees are killing me.”

The pace in the workshop tends toward a normal eight-hour workday. On large, site-specific projects (for which the Shop is renowned) it’s different. “On those we’re going fast,” says Nick, “putting in nine and 10 hour days. It’s brutal.”

As chisel meets granite, a rapid fire, metallic ‘tenk’ sound fills the workshop. Tenk, tenk, tenk, tenk, tenk. Tenk, tenk. Tenk, tenk, tenk. Memorializing the dead in granite has a music and rhythm to it, a syncopation that repeats until it doesn’t. John Cage are you listening?

Between the shop’s first, somewhat crude scratchings from the early days of the 18th century, and the elegant letters that Russo carves today, stand two families. The Stevens family came first. Then came the Bensons, of whom Nicholas Waite Benson is the latest. Which means that the John Stevens Shop has survived six generations of one family and three generations of another.

To be continued…

Read more...

Tricks of time

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

For what seemed like a long time, but was only a few months, the twelve Dark Angels authors worked in parallel streams: first to get our book Established funded, second to write our individual chapters about some of the world’s oldest companies.

So it was with some relief that we reached our funding target in November and started on the production process. Our chapters were finished and handed…

Thank you

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Thank you to all supporters of the Dark Angels book 'Established'. I'm thrilled to report that the book is now 100% funded (though there's still time for new pledgers to get their names in the book. It was a remarkable effort by more than 300 Dark Angels supporters to fund what will be a beautiful and entertaining book. As a bonus, we think it will also be useful!

Next steps are for us now to move…

Founding moments

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

By Jamie Jauncey, author of the chapter on John White & Son, scalemakers, established 1715

How does one establish the founding moment of any business? Was it a flash-in-the-pan, for example, when the founder or founders first had that random spark of inspiration, triggered by some chance observation or thought; or alternatively the solution to some long-chewed-over problem suddenly presented…

Whatever it takes

Monday, 5 September 2016

Gillian Colhoun – Author of the chapter on The Brazen Head, reputedly established 1198

(likely to have been much earlier)

I’ve got a thing about talent. Whenever I meet any successful person, my first question is usually, ‘Have you always been naturally good at (insert talent here) or was there a moment where you consciously decided to be brilliant?” This question elicits interesting…

Craft and Kin

Monday, 15 August 2016

Robbie Minto shows me a picture of the plaque he crafted from wood and metal.

‘From all his colleagues in the Brewery’. The etched words framed by four ancient copper rivets, each the size of a walnut.

“I won’t be getting one of those when my time comes”, he jokes with a smile that’s got years to go before it’ll retire.

Robbie is a carpenter and craftsman and like the person retiring, one…

The legacy of pioneers

Monday, 8 August 2016

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More on his visit to Stroud NSW, by Mark Watkins, author of the chapter on the Australian Agricultural Company, established 1826.

In many ways, Stroud NSW is a cartoon town – an English village that isn’t in England; a company town long since abandoned by the company that built it. Think of a hybrid of the English village at Disney’s Epcot Center and a Yorkshire mining town long after the pit…

Messing about on boats and what established businesses have in common with seven salted almonds and the poise of a president

Sunday, 31 July 2016

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Photo and story by Elen Lewis, author of the chapter: Custard pies, Kitty the Suffragette and a boat called Big Love: the tale of the Hampton Ferry

1. First day of the summer holidays. My children, Rosie, Arthur and I sail home along the Thames from Richmond to Teddington Lock in the ferry. ‘So much better than the 33 bus,’ says Arthur (6). Rosie (9) is quiet, locked into the red-streaked…

History

Thursday, 21 July 2016

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Dark Angels is a tiny organisation of writers. We were 'established in 2004', just a blink away in historical time. So why are we writing this book about the world's oldest companies? Perhaps it has something to do with a writer's relationship with history, a belief that writers can be the best connections between history and a story.

Since Dark Angels was founded, here are some events that…

In search of roots

Sunday, 3 July 2016

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Mark Watkins, author of the chapter on the Australian Agricultural Company, established 1826.

It is May 2016 and I am in Stroud, near Gloucester. To all intents and purposes an English village, named after its west country counterpart, only this one is a few hours north of Sydney, Australia.

I have come here to uncover the roots of the company I am writing about – the Australian Agricultural…

What is interesting is when (14 or so bonbons in pursuit of funders, fortune, fame

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

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photo and story by Richard Pelletier, author of The Brush, the Mallet, the Chisel, the Letter, the chapter on the John Stevens Shop, of Newport, Rhode Island, est. 1705

 

1. I open Google Maps. The squiggly lines and text show a 1.5, 1.6 or a 1.7-mile walk from my home to the original Starbucks in the Pike Place Market, Seattle’s teeming phantasmagoria where salmon, just flown in from Alaska…

Getting to the meat of it

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Balson delivery bike 1935

Professor Richard Foster of Yale University has discovered that the average longevity of a company in the S&P 500 has gone down from 61 years in 1958, to a scant 18 years today. Based on this rate of churn, the implication is that within about ten years, over two thirds of the companies on the S&P 500 will be businesses we've not even heard of now.

Perhaps now more than ever we need to celebrate…

Balancing act

Sunday, 5 June 2016

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Jamie Jauncey, author of the chapter about John White & Son, established 1715.

There’s a surprising contemporary twist to my company’s tale – a twist that nearly put paid to the chapter being written at all.

I had picked Scotland’s oldest family business, John White & Son, scalemakers of Auchtermuchty, as my subject. Founded by a Fife blacksmith in 1715, the weighing machine…

Got the t-shirt?

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Mike Gogan, author of the chapter about Guinness, established 1759.

 

I’ve noticed a lot of established dates recently.  Mainly the ones emblazoned on t-shirts where brands use chest space indiscriminately to tell us how long they’ve been around.  The broad bellied, the flat chested, the small, the large.  Brands aren’t fussy about the colour, shape or size of the medium so long as their message…

Same moon, freighted gold

Sunday, 15 May 2016

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Stuart Delves – Author of the chapter on The Shore Porters Society, established 1498.

 

With my mug on the video and pitch in the introduction you don’t want another shed-load from me! So I’ll keep it short and sweet.

I first started thinking about this project when I found a list of the world’s oldest surviving companies on the web. Seven of the world’s ten oldest are Japanese, with…

Live Long and Prosper

Sunday, 8 May 2016

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Gillian Colhoun – Author of the chapter on The Brazen Head, reputedly established 1198

(likely to have been much earlier)

Today, I discovered something about Mr Spock’s iconic Vulcan salute. My Star Wars obsessed, nine year old son has recently discovered Star Trek. Delighted to have fallen into a black hole of endless hours of space travel, he did eventually come up for air long enough to…

Why this book matters

Sunday, 24 April 2016

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Why does this book matter? The world will certainly go on without it. But books can make a difference, and perhaps this is the right book at the right time to make at least a small difference.

Why?

There’s increasing awareness of the power of stories. Here are twelve companies that, not least because of their age, have great stories. Our twelve writers aim to tell those stories well, to make…

How to love your co-authors

Monday, 18 April 2016

Claire Bodanis – author of the chapter on Cambridge University Press, established 1534

Whenever I tell people about our collective book project, one of the first things they ask is – how does it work? Who decides? Don’t you all end up arguing? What if you don’t like their chapter? Or they don’t like yours? Or questions along those lines. Basically they’re all asking the same question…

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