Eight of the most successful UK family businesses

Nearly 9 out of 10 private companies in the UK are family-owned and they remain essential to the British economy, marketing consultant Sharon Fishburne finds.

British family businesses are a global success story, recognised worldwide for their ability to take risks, innovate, and think many decades ahead.

Family businesses generate more than 50 percent of America’s GDP; in Europe they provide jobs for more than 60 million people, and in Germany, where the government goes out of its way to celebrate and encourage family businesses, a whopping 90 per cent of all businesses are family owned or run.

Family businesses are the backbone of the UK economy too. They account for more than 88 per cent of private companies in Britain and many are recognised worldwide for their innovative and visionary approach.

Post-Brexit our government needs to find ways to support their success and encourage the next generation of entrepreneurs to keep their businesses in the family.

Here are some of the most successful and inspiring UK family firms.


At a time when manufacturing is under pressure, family businesses often invest in heavy industry. Some of the UK’s largest industrial companies are family owned.

JCB is an example of just such a business. Founded by Joseph Bamford in 1945 from a garage in Uttoxeter, the company now employs more than 12,000 people on four continents and is run by his son, Lord Bamford. Innovators from the start, JCB developed and pioneered many of the machines that are the mainstay of the construction and agriculture industries today.


Family businesses are also innovators – often because they’re driven by a single individual with a vision, combined with their ability to think long term and not be beholden to short-term profits.

Dyson is one of the UK’s most successful examples. The visionary behind the innovative vacuum company is Sir James Dyson, the engineer who turned his bright idea into a business in 1991. Working on another product he noticed that traditional vacuum cleaners were inefficient and spotted the opportunity to bring the latest engineering to bear on the challenge. The rest is history.


The retail sector is one of the UK’s largest employers, and a large number of these businesses were founded, built and are still run by families.

One of the most famous examples is Arcadia, which owns Burtons, Topshop, and Dorothy Perkins, amongst others.  When 18-year-old Montague Burton arrived in the UK in the early 1900s no one could have foreseen that by the time of his death in 1952, the company he founded with £100 would be the largest multiple tailor in the world. Now owned by the Green family, Arcadia brands are the mainstay of every single British high street.


Family businesses grow quickly, often reaching national prominence in one generation, because they are not at the beck and call of shareholders.

Launched in 1984, Specsavers is a proud family owned business built by husband and wife team, Doug and Mary Perkins. Starting out with just one store on the channel island of Guernsey, Specsavers now has more than 1300 stores across the UK, Europe and as far afield as New Zealand.


Family businesses have a stability and long-term vision that cannot be matched by public companies. With a history stretching back to 1825, Clarks is one of the UK’s oldest family businesses, and one of its most successful. The company was founded by brothers Cyrus and James Clark in Street, Somerset, who used sheepskin off-cuts to make slippers. The company’s innovation was an instant success and today this family firm exports worldwide.

Pentland Group

Given their focus on the long-term, family businesses often grow very quickly through acquisitions – this is because families often have the long-term view and will commit large amounts of capital to underperforming businesses to turn them around.

One such example if Pentland Group. Starting out as the Liverpool Shoe Company, founded in 1932, the family firm was one of the very first European businesses to source and import shoes from Asia. With a visionary outlook, in 1981 the business bought a majority stake in an almost unknown athletics brand called Reebok USA, and began a rapid rise to success. Today this proud third-generation, family owned business owns a host of household-name brands including Speedo and Berghaus, as well as holding the majority stake in J D Sports.


Family businesses are also some of the most significant exporters in the UK.

Nisbets is one such example. Founded in 1983, Andrew Nisbet started selling knives, catering and textbooks to catering college students in Bristol. Today, Nisbets employs more than 2000 people, and has offices across Europe and Australia. One of the UK’s largest exporters, it ships to more than 100 countries and was awarded The Queen’s Award for Enterprise in International Trade in 2017.


Overall though, family businesses often are inventive, ambitious and opportunistic – because that represents the personality of the person at the top of the business. Where public companies might have multiple layers of bureaucracy, family businesses often come from the undiluted ambitions of a single person – or a few family members.

Bestway grew from just one store in Earls Court, London, opened by Sir Anwar Pervez in 1963. Spotting a gap in the market, Pervez took a pioneering step and made halal meat and other halal food products accessible to the local Muslim community. Using this success as a stepping stone he never looked back and today Bestway employs more than 33,000 people and is still growing fast.

Britain should be proud of its family businesses, which not only create jobs – but are also powerful drivers of innovation; export around the world, and have the patience to invest in companies and turn them around.

Find out more: Sharon Fishburne consultancy

Further reading on family businesses

Keeping it in the family – Control and succession in family businesses

Michael Somerville

Michael Somerville

Michael was senior reporter for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2018 to 2019.