The Friday Fillip: Changing and Staying the Same

Some things change. Some things stay the same. And some things do both.

We all know people who maintain aspects of their character even as they age. Heck, our own selves are perfect examples of this business of changing and remaining: despite life’s continual renewal we maintain a sense of constant identity — “Identity” from Latin idem, the same — but the same as what? as yesterday? and the day before? and so into regression back to the beginning of no character at all? (If this sort of thing interests you, have a look at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Identity Over Time.)

Remarkable though this form of constructed consistency may be in an individual, the span of an adult life isn’t yet great enough to win the persistence-through-change sweepstakes. That prize must belong to group work, which means professions, businesses and families.

I used to think that the joke was that the legal profession is the second oldest profession, right after sex work — which made it supposedly funny. Turns out that I must have been slipped that thigh slapper at an impressionable young age by someone who simply didn’t know the first thing about the second oldest profession. (Though there is that wretched joke about lawyers being there at the beginning to create chaos.) No, any number of professions other than law vie for the number two slot, the commonest contender being that of spy, curiously enough. But ours is still old enough and has kept enough of its core functions that members from a thousand years ago might not have insuperable difficulties talking to our current colleagues — provided the conversation was in law French or Latin. Stare decisis, after all.

With some businesses its easier to see their unchanging nature, or at least the unchanging nature of their public face, their brand image. I’ll give you two examples that you’ll likely recognize immediately.

michelin_man 120px-L'Omino_Bialetti_2008-12-30_.svg

The first is, of course, the Michelin Man, or, as he was named at birth in 1898, Bibendum, from the Latin motto on the first poster “Nunc ist bibendum” — now is the time to drink. Seemingly it had to do with an advertising campaign in which Michelin tires would “drink up” the obstacles in the road. And though he’s had a tweaking over the years, Bibendum has remained recognizably the pneumatic icon of Michelin. His story can be found here.

The little fellow to the right of Bibendum is in fact l’omino con i baffi — the little man with the moustache — and he’s ordering an espresso. This is the mark of Bialetti and can be found on my Bialetti Moka Express coffee maker today, having come to life in 1953 and remained unchanged since then.

We in Canada know a thing or two about corporate longevity, being the geographical base for the Hudson’s Bay Company, an outfit that can trace its beginnings to 1670 and, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia is “the oldest incorporated joint-stock merchandising company in the English-speaking world.” Mind you, it’s changed fairly radically from its origins as a massive land owner and trader in furs.

For more constancy along with change we have to unite family and business, which gives us Houshi Ryokan, “the oldest still running family business in the world,” some 1300 years old. Up until the latest generation each owner, the eldest son of the one before, has been called Zengoro Houshi. Now the 47th owner will be different. The short and rather poignant documentary film below tells you the story (in Japanese with English subtitles) of the struggles the family has endured and the challenges that it now faces, particularly those of the young woman who is expected to carry forward the tradition.

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