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UK father-son businesses make a comeback

UK father-son businesses make a comeback


W Stephens & Sons is a London-based plumbing firm founded in 1945 by Walter Stephens on his return from the war. Pictured: Walter Stephens’ son and grandson, Ray and Chris.

AXA Business Insurance research suggests that far from being a thing of the past, legacy father-son businesses are making a come back as young people are increasingly choosing to follow in dad’s footsteps when choosing a career.

The building trades in particular have seen a renaissance in father-to-son firms, as millennials value a solid ‘trade for life’ over navigating a precarious job market.

15 per cent of young business owners say they took over the family firm, double the number of older people (6 per cent). The results vary greatly between occupations, however. A tradesman’s son is four times more likely to follow his dad’s occupation than the rest of the population. In the building trades, 26 per cent of people say they learnt their trade from their dad, and one in five trace their trade back to their grandfather’s generation. In retail, 15 per cent took up dad’s occupation, and just 6 per cent in graduate professions.

The building trades have seen a sharp acceleration in father-to-son businesses over the past generation. Almost half of tradesmen in the 18 to 35 category say their dad was a tradesman (compared to 23 per cent across previous generations).

Long-term job stability  was the top reason for young men to take up dad’s trade. This is particularly understandable, given that in a separate study, AXA found the average 25 year old today has already changed jobs four times, and most people will make a major career change once every decade.

Why the building trades?

Three in four tradespeople surveyed said they would recommend their trade to a young person starting out today, at a record 90 per cent in the plumbing trades. Good income levels, and high job satisfaction were valued almost as much as job stability.

Chris Stephens who followed his dad and granddad into London plumbing and heating firm W Stephens & Sons is testament to this trend. “My own son was born this week, and I feel I am building this business for him, just as my dad, uncle and granddad did for me. It is a good career for a young person today: treat your customers well, and you’ll have independence and a good life, and you will always have work.”

“We have customers that go as far back as the 1960’s, and we’ve gone through everything together. A lot has changed since my granddad started out in 1945 carrying his tools on his bicycle around London. He wouldn’t recognise the trade, the technologies have changed so much, but we’ve adapted and we’ve survived through recession and everything life can throw at us.”

Given that just 5.2 per cent of tradespeople are women today, the family tradition is overwhelmingly a male one in the building trades.

The AXA research did find evidence that ‘& Daughter’ businesses are a small, but growing, tradition, too. 17 per cent of tradeswomen say they were inspired by their dad to take up a trade, accounting for an estimated 15,600 building firms in the UK today.

“University costs have soared in a generation, while automation, zero hours culture and Brexit make many of the UK sectors that previously drove social mobility look uncertain. Returning to a family business tradition, makes absolute sense,” Gareth Howell, AXA Insurance MD says.

“There are no or very low training costs if you’re largely learning your skills from family members. You have a living stake in your business, and threats like redundancy are less likely than when you’re working for strangers.”

There is also a lasting legacy to pass to your children, which is more secure than property or money on paper, he adds. “The building trades are one of the areas that lend themselves best to inter-generational businesses given the resilience of the core skills to change. As long as humans exist, it’s likely they’ll need homes built and maintained.”



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