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The second city of the empire: A family business success story

By Niall MacKenzie - Posted on 11 September 2013

Dr Niall MacKenzie, Lecturer in Entrepreneurship and Family Business at Strathclyde Business School’s Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship, looks at how Glasgow’s family businesses built the ‘second city of the British Empire’…

While little remains of the shipbuilding, chemicals and textile industries which saw Glasgow become ‘the second city of the British Empire’, their history is well documented. Yet, the role family enterprise played in this journey from Clydeside rural backwater to industrial powerhouse is often overlooked.

Founded on the Isle of Dogs in London’s East End, shipbuilder Yarrow & Company was one of the earliest to realise the potential of shipbuilding in the Clyde, relocating its entire operation and more than 300 workers to Glasgow in 1908.

Successive generations steered the Yarrow’s Scotstoun-based shipyard through recessions and wars, innovating and diversifying to ensure the business survived. Although industrial decline eventually saw the company name disappear in 1999, with its sale to BAE, the Scotstoun yard remains to this day a testament to the longevity family businesses can enjoy, and the economic impact they can have.

While the Yarrow’s were developing Glasgow’s industry another family firm, led by a local carpenter, was beginning to build the wider city we know today. Born in Govanhill, John Lawrence built his first house in the early 1920s.

In the years that followed his business pioneered new building methods, including the use of gypsum-based construction materials which reduced costs and sped-up the construction process, and used them to rebuild vast swathes of post-war Glasgow. Scotland’s largest private housebuilder at the time, John Lawrence Ltd employed more than 2000 people by the 1960’s.

When it was eventually wound-up in 2012, the use of ground-breaking construction techniques had seen the carpenter from Govanhill’s family make a fortune and deliver more than 40,000 homes across Scotland.

As the temperance movement took hold of Glasgow at the turn of the 20th century, the population began looking for a new – non alcoholic – way to quench their thirst. With poor sanitation and unclean drinking water still widespread, the sale of soft drinks boomed.

While the competition was fierce, another family business spotted an opportunity to relocate from its home to exploit this growing market. Established in Falkirk by Robert Barr, RF Barr – as it was then known – opened its first premises in Glasgow in 1887.  Having passed to Andrew Grieg Barr just five years later, significant investment saw expanded premises, increased production, and the introduction of AG Barr & Co. Ltd’s ‘Iron Brew’ by 1904.

Despite having been removed from sale during World War 2, and having had its name changed due to labelling concerns in the late forties, a revolutionary approach to advertising has established ‘Irn-Bru’ as Scotland’s most popular soft drink and an internationally-recognisable brand.

Today, family enterprises are the most common form of business organisations in the UK, employing more than 50% of the private workforce in Scotland alone. Yet they remain under-researched and under-represented, which is something my colleagues and I are working to address.

Starting with our Family Enterprise Lectures – the first in a series of planned joint initiatives–Strathclyde Business School’s Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship will be working closely with the Scottish Family Business Association, to highlight the valuable role these businesses have to play in not just our past, but importantly, our economic future.

Are we doing enough to promote family businesses in Scotland? What more can we do to highlight the importance of these essential components of our economic success? Let us know in the comments below…..

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