Kongo Gumi

Kongō Gumi was founded in 578. Don’t worry about doing the math. It began a century after the fall of the Roman Empire. So a really long time ago.

It operated for more than 1,400 years as an independent family business before becoming a subsidiary of Takamatsu Kensetsu in 2006. It continues to operate today, constructing, maintaining, and repairing Buddhist temples, using the same traditional tools and techniques passed down for centuries.

The impeccable quality and consistency of Kongō Gumi’s work is certainly one factor in the company’s longevity. A new worker could expect to undergo ten years of apprenticeship to perfect the techniques demanded by the work (and another ten years of training to become a master carpenter). The craftsmen were then organized into kumi, or workgroups that often competed among themselves to prove who produced the best work. The reward was not more money. It was simply an exercise in teamwork and the pursuit of excellence.

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Additionally, a code of conduct for everyone who worked at Kongō Gumi was developed early on. Kongo Gumi was a builder of Buddhist temples, after all. However, it was only memorialized in writing during the Meiji Period for a particular and profound reason.

The Meiji era was an era of Japanese history that extended from 1868 to 1912 when Japan moved from an isolated, feudal society to a modern, industrialized power. Much of the country whole-heartedly embraced Western scientific, technological, philosophical, political, legal, and aesthetic ideas.

But some, particularly the leadership of Kongō Gumi, felt it showed disrespect for the country’s past. So, in order to preserve its legacy in the face of industrialization, employees were expected to not only follow certain business principles but also embody the tenets of the ancient religion it served.

The creed, later titled Shokuke kokoroe no koto, or ‘family knowledge of the trade’, is a list of 16 precepts among them how to dress (in keeping with one’s station), how much to drink (in moderation) and how to treat others (with the utmost respect).

Strong leadership was imperative. Not only were the carpentry skills passed down the family line, but also control and ownership of the business. If there were no male heirs or the heirs that existed were deemed unfit to run the family business, the reins would pass to a son-in-law, who would take on the Kongō name, or to a daughter. In each case, the family member to take control of the company was carefully selected based on their leadership skills.

The approach showed that skill was what mattered the most. Historically, there are plenty of companies that have failed on the shoulders of nepotism, just filling a seat because it’s family. It engenders resentment and can rob a company of valuable resources, simply because the most qualified person is not blood. So it’s an incredible thing to be able to say, that Kongō Gumi’s brand sustainability and its reputation mattered more than a shared last name.

It meant the company believed in delivering the best. And if the best was not a son, if the best was a daughter, then she was the rightful leader. There are too many companies that keep or hire people for the wrong reasons. So many companies should have fired somebody 10 years ago, or at least, replaced them into a different role. But they say, “Oh no, he’s been doing it for 20 years, and it’s his thing.” It doesn’t serve anybody, but focusing on the merit, I think is huge.

Another key to Kongō Gumi’s success is attributed to its flexibility in times of crisis. When World War II struck, building temples was not on anyone’s priority list, so the company responded quickly and used their resources and carpentry skills to prepare thousands of coffins, which sadly were in high demand.

Following the war, a huge effort was needed to reconstruct shrines and temples that had been destroyed. However, Kongō Gumi saw that wooden constructions were not the most resilient against earthquakes, fires, and war damage, so they evolved to develop new concrete construction methods, which would help their buildings endure for longer, yet would still retain their aesthetic value.

Despite Kongō Gumi’s centuries-long history, stable industry, strong leadership, and flexibility in times of crisis, nothing could protect this historic firm from Japan’s unfavorable business climate of 2006, and the world’s oldest continuously operating family business finally came to an end.

Kongō Gumi could no longer sustain its debt and the company went into liquidation. In 2008, it was absorbed by Takamatsu Ltd. Kanji Ogawa, the new president of Takamatsu told Financial Times “There was some sentiment involved, it’s true. If the company had gone under, all that experience and all that wonderful history would have scattered to the winds and gone to waste.”

Kongō Gumi’s final president, Masakazu Kongo, was the last in a line of 40 family members who led the company during its 1428-year life.

Two generations earlier, Kongō Gumi’s 38th leader was the company’s one and only female president, Masakuzo’s grandmother Yoshie. Yoshie Kongo’s leadership was born of extraordinary circumstances when her predecessor committed suicide.

Nevertheless, she developed the business as capably as any of its male leaders, overseeing the intensive reconstruction of Shitennoji’s five-story pagoda after it was hit by a typhoon in 1934. Masakazu Kongō reportedly said of his grandmother, “If anyone is a superhero in our family, it’s her.”

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