Nine of the oldest companies in the UK – and what you can learn from their success

Britain was once famously described as “a nation of shopkeepers”. Although this was meant as an insult, hurled at the country by a certain French emperor, the saying quickly became a source of pride and remains a strong compliment about the supposed entrepreneurial spirit of the country to this day.

The UK was and continues to be a pioneer for global capitalism and entrepreneurship, hosting the highest number of successful startups in Europe as well as several of the world’s most profitable companies.

Some of these companies have been in business for a very long time and continue to enjoy a roaring trade in 2019. Read on to find out more about some of the longest-running successful business in the UK, and what you can learn from them.

Harrods (Est. 1834)

The Knightsbridge-based department store, currently owned by Mohamed Al-Fayed, is synonymous around the world with unparalleled luxury. Originally opened as a haberdashery and grocery store, the business quickly expanded into luxury goods during a time when rare items such as silk, tea, and China were pouring into Britain during the height of the empire. They’ve never wavered from their mission to stock a huge variety of luxury goods and impeccable customer service, which is why they’re still going today.

Sotheby’s (Est. 1744)

Sotheby’s is one of the oldest auction houses in the world, having been established in 18th century London to facilitate the sale of rare books. As London grew into the business and cultural capital of the world, Sotheby’s quickly leveraged its connections to dominate the fine art market, which remains to this day the chief source of its £3 billion a year annual turnover. Sotheby’s teache us the value of connections when it comes to cornering a market.

Boots (Est. 1849)

The beauty and healthcare retailer Boots is also one of the largest pharmaceutical providers in the country, operating 2500 profitable outlets in the UK and Ireland. From the very beginning Boots has placed a focus on offering affordable beauty and healthcare products with a friendly, professional, and well-trained staff. Knowledgable customer service has been key to Boots’ success, forging their reputation as one of the most trusted retailers in the UK.

Ladbrokes (Est. 1886)

Ladbrokes may have started from not-so-humble beginnings, offering sports betting and horse trading to the British aristocracy, but they have come a long way since the Victorian era. They are now one of the largest sports betting platforms in the world, cornering the horse racing market an enjoying an annual income of over £1 billion. According to the online betting platform Oddschecker, a key to their success has been their ability to adapt to the digital age, thanks to their popular smartphone betting app.

Lloyds Banking Group (Est. 1765)

After the Bank of England, Lloyds is the oldest surviving banking group in the UK. Found in Birmingham in 1765, the bank has gone on to become one of the largest financial institutions on the planet, with assets estimated at around £800 billion. Key to their success has been the reputation for sound banking and trustworthiness, which is why everyone from politicians, the global business magnates, to students choose to bank with Lloyds.

Cadbury (Est. 1824)

Another global company founded in Birmingham, Cadbury is now owned by the US multinational Mondalez (formerly Kraft Foods) but retains its headquarters in London. Cadbury has never been too focused on producing the next big hit, preferring to stick to a small range of products that enjoy immense popularity among consumers of all ages. If any new business has something to learn from Cadbury, it’s “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, given that their famous chocolate recipe has remained unchanged for almost 200 years.

Cambridge University Press (Est. 1534)

Originally founded as an ecclesiastical printing house by Henry VIII, Cambridge University Press is now the second largest publishing house in the entire world (beaten out only by the slightly younger Oxford University Press). They have since expanded well beyond their Cambridge headquarters and have offices in 40 countries, publishing around 50,000 texts every single year. Their continued success lies in their ability to attract the leading lights of the publishing world to work for them, which in turn guarantees excellent results.

Burberry (Est. 1856)

Whilst Britain’s neighbour France might get most of the attention when it comes to high fashion, Burberry is the closest thing the UK has to an iconic haute couture fashion house. They have stuck firmly with their instantly-recognisable pattern designs ever since their inception, with Burberry items not being synonymous with luxury and good taste to the point where they’re referenced in rap songs, Hollywood films, and romantic novels to this day. After a brief and unsuccessful foray into sportswear, the brand is now back to doing what they do best and enjoying healthy profits.

Sainsbury’s (Est. 1869)

Sainsbury’s has always been an innovator. Starting off as a small grocer in London’s Drury Lane, the supermarket chain has gone on to be the first one to introduce supermarkets to the UK, as well as one of the first ever grocery chains to roll-out self-service checkouts in their shops. Tradition and reputation are important, but Sainsbury’s teaches us that in order to be profitable for 150 years, it is necessary to embrace change.

These British success stories have something to teach every business. The most important thing seems to be the importance of establishing yourself as reliable and consistent, so that customers will keep coming back for years.