Masakazu Kongo: Never say die

Spanning 40 generations the firm, Kongo Gumi, has survived everything from feudal battles to modern wars as well as major slumps in the economy.

The family firm is seen as a reminder that businesses can survive almost anything if they have focus -- and if the potential CEOs avoid life-threatening risks.
   
"Since I was the only child, my parents often told me not to die young," laughed Masakazu Kongo, who succeeded his father as head of the Osaka-based company last September. "When I told them I wanted to do sky-diving, they said: 'no way'."
   
When his ancestors started building temples for the Japanese emperor in 578 CE, Europe was mired in the Dark Ages barely a century after the fall of the Roman Empire. Japan was still more than a millennium away from opening up to the West.
   
While it is not an official title yet, the United States-based magazine "Family Business" recently identified Kongo Gumi as the oldest family firm and it has now applied to the Guinness Book of Records. 
   
The first Kongo built Shitennoji, one of Japan's first Buddhist temples, in Osaka and the company still serves as its "chief carpenter", handling repairs and construction of new buildings almost exclusively. 

Clear focus
   
The present-day CEO said there was no real mystery to the firm's success, just a consistent focus on its core business.  Just as it did in 578 AD, the firm specialises in building traditional Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.

The firm has been in profit for as long as employees can remember, racking up sales of 9.4 billion yen ($80 million) in 2001.   

In the late 19th century, business nearly came to a halt due to an anti-Buddhist movement that led to the destruction of some temples. During the last war, the company managed to survive by building wooden boxes for military use. 
    
Kongo is confident the company will be around for "another while", partly because the elder of his two daughters is willing to take over as boss one day.