LONDON -- As the annual Sunday Times "Rich List" regularly reminds us, a good number of Britain's wealthiest families are the custodians of a shareholding passed from generation to generation.
Consider the Warburton family, for instance, who own Bolton-based bread manufacturers Warburtons, valued by the Sunday Times at 500 million pounds. Or the Bamford family, owners of 3.1 billion pounds excavator manufacturer JCB. Or the Clark family, owners of -- you guessed it -- shoe manufacturer and retailer Clark's.
Nor does a family have to own the whole business. Consider the Sainsbury family, whose 9% stake in eponymous supermarket giant Sainsbury is worth 520 million pounds. Or the Cayzer family, with a 33% stake in investment trust Caledonia Investments worth 487 million pounds.
In each case, the logic is simple. Build a stake in a solid and sustainable business, look after it, and pass it on to the next generation -- while enjoying a decent stream of dividends in the process.
While there are obvious questions of inheritance tax to consider, there's nothing to stop any of us building up a stake in a decent business and passing that shareholding on.
And note, here, that I'm talking "business" -- and not businesses. Pass on a portfolio, and there will inevitably be trading decisions to be made as companies are acquired or merge -- trading decisions that your heirs might get wrong.
Instead, I'm talking about companies with the muscle and clout to be the one that is doing the acquiring or instigating the merger -- prosperous survivors, in short, that can grow and throw off dividends over the long term.
And be under no illusion: We are talking about the long term, here -- the very long term.
As I've written several times before, longevity is increasing sharply. A growing number of people will live to see a hundred, for instance. And even for those that don't, current estimates of mortality see many of us reaching our late 80s and early 90s.
So, at the very least, it seems reasonable to assume that a share chosen for its intergenerational sturdiness needs to have decent prospects of prospering solidly for a hundred years.
Madness, you might think. How can any business survive and prosper for that length of time -- especially in today's turbulent world, with its fast-changing technologies?
For which I have a ready answer: Many already have survived and prospered for that long already -- in an era that has seen two world wars, the advent of the motor car and the airplane, the first man on the moon, and the development of the computer.
The Sainsbury family stake, for instance, is in a business dating back to 1869. The Warburton family is the fifth generation of the family to own to own the business, which dates from 1876. The Cayzer family's stake in Caledonia Investments dates back to C. W. Cayzer & Company, established in 1877. And so on.
So which of today's businesses look set to stand the test of time? One obvious avenue to consider is Britain's rich seam of investment trusts.
Several are themselves well over a hundred years old: Alliance Trust and Foreign & Colonial Investment Trust, for instance, date back to 1888 and 1868, respectively. Monks dates back to 1929. Scottish Mortgage has been riding out uncertain economic conditions since 1909.
And what about businesses well-placed to benefit from big geopolitical trends?
Take emerging markets, for instance. Here I'd consider another investment trust: Templeton Emerging Markets Investment Trust. Another pick is Unilever (NYSE: UL ) , which has a clutch of durable brands and is growing far faster overseas than it is back at home. The two businesses that became Unilever in 1930 date back to 1872 and 1885, respectively, and look set to continue in business for another hundred years.
Defense is another strong bet. BAE Systems, for instance, can trace its history back to 1560, when the Royal Powder Factory was established at Waltham Abbey in Essex. Rolls-Royce, too, is another strong contender.
Health care is worth a look as well. Here, GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK ) is well worth considering: The business that became Allen & Hanburys dates from 1715; Beechams dates from 1842; and Glaxo itself dates from 1906. The odds the business will see another hundred years? Pretty good, I'd say.
As for my No. 1 choice? A bank. For whatever else happens in the world of technology and health care, I reckon we'll always need money and financial services. And in my book, HSBC (NYSE: HBC ) , which has done the business since 1865, looks set to do it for a hundred years more.
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