Article Thumbnail

How ‘& Sons’ Became a Retail Trope — and the Cruelest Lie in Branding

Family businesses are dying. Don’t let this trend fool you.

In 2015, the British government was forced to pay £8.8 million to Taylor & Sons when the Welsh engineering firm went into liquidation, and in so doing, laid off its 250-person team. On the surface, that might sound weird. After all, why would a government pay out a seven-figure sum to a midsize firm that went bankrupt?

In short, in all came down to a typo, a complex business bureaucracy and the odd practice of naming businesses.

The story of Taylor & Sons’ big payout began in 2009, after the government’s official registrar for all companies in the U.K., Companies House, mistook Taylor & Sons — at that point, a flourishing firm that had been operating for 134 years — with Taylor & Son Limited, a body shop based in Manchester, which had reported plans to shut down. The mix-up meant the British government had shut down all of Taylor & Sons accounts, bank transactions and U.K.-based trusts. Contracts were lost, staff didn’t get paid and the firm’s credit agreements with suppliers were no longer valid. And so, by the end of 2009, Taylor & Sons (the engineering firm) was forced to shut down for good.

After a six-year court battle, Taylor & Sons owner Philip Davison-Sebry won the payout for irreparable damages in London’s high court. (He’s currently using that money to start a new firm.) For its part, the British government still blames the incident on a clerical error, part of which it attributes to the large number of businesses in the U.K. that have some variation of the “& Son(s)” suffix in their names.

While there’s no exact figure on the number of businesses with “& Son(s)” or “and Son(s)” currently operating in the U.K. — let alone worldwide — a basic search on Companies House yields more than 200,000 current results. Some of these businesses are expected — e.g., established bars like James Smith & Sons, a famous London umbrella makers that’s been in operation since the 1830s and is still run by members of the James family, or White and Sons, a real-estate firm first established in 1817 that specializes in luxury country property.

Newer businesses, though — including streetwear brands like ONLY & SONS (est. 2014) or coffee shops like Parker & Sons (est. 2015) — have also used the suffix as part of their branding, despite being new, and most importantly, not being set up as family-owned businesses. Moreover, the resonance of “& Son(s)” isn’t just a clever form of linguistic branding, it’s an aesthetic one too, with brands like the U.K.-based “& Sons” clothing brand building ad campaigns around sons emulating their fathers in “dapper” work clothes, and old, industrial tool-shops being used as the backdrop for photoshoots for handmade leather belts and heavy-duty denim shirts — all, of course, shot on 35-millimeter film.

Obviously, the “& Son(s)” suffix isn’t exclusively used for businesses. In fact, the folk-indie band Mumford & Sons probably represents its most successful contemporary usage. In 2016, the band’s founder and lead singer, Marcus Mumford, told NME that in retrospect, he believed the name of his band was “rubbish” and that it had been formed in a hurry. At the same time, he said that the name initially resonated because it felt like an antidote to a changing London. More specifically, he explained that “there’s a bit of trying to stop the demise of London venues,” and so, he wanted to create an “antiquated family business name” that was rare to see in the city.

Mumford might now see his band’s name as slightly ridiculous, but the thinking behind it is still fairly common among new businesses in the U.K.’s main cities like London, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester. “We wanted a name that sounded like it could stand the test of time,” says Mark Smith, 32, the manager of Hunter & Sons coffee in Bath. The shop was founded in 2012 by Smith and two friends, who felt there was an absence of good, local coffee shops in Bath. Like Mumford, Smith liked the idea of having a place that sounded as though it was an established family name and gave the impression that this small store was part of the city’s history — the shop itself is small and intimate with a rustic-theme decor. “We didn’t want to give it a weird modern name,” Mark adds, saying that while most of his customers are young, either university students or young professionals, the city itself has a sizeable number of people around retirement age who might have been turned away from a modern-sounding, hipster name.

Smith isn’t sure whether the shop will last generations though. He and his business partners are unmarried, and none of them have children, let alone sons. But to him, “Hunter & Sons” isn’t about their legacy, it’s more about creating a place where residents can feel comfortable. “We want to make a place where you can come and work, meet your friends, or if you’re young parents, where you can take your kids,” he says. “So the name is reflective of the values we want to embody and represents a family-orientated place that gives back to the community. After all, isn’t that what all the old family businesses did?”

Curiously, this attitude isn’t shared by many men who run and work in businesses that were originally set up as father-son enterprises. Outside of a residential building site in South East London, I meet one of them — 50-year-old Phil Jenkins — in a local cafe for a cup of tea. Jenkins, wearing a dusty, torn grey T-shirt underneath a flourescent yellow jacket and black hard-hat, works as a construction manager for Jenkins & Sons, a firm his father set up shortly after World War II.

Jenkins is proud of keeping his family’s company afloat — and for continuing the legacy of his father, Michael, who passed away in 2015. He worries, though, that he’ll be the last member of his family to continue the business. His son plans to study law at university, with his eyes set on a corporate job in the city. More existentially still, high operational costs and a decreasing workload have forced Jenkins to downsize. His business’ story is a familiar one, especially in major cities like London.

When I ask Jenkins about the name “Jenkins & Sons,” he smiles, saying that when the name was chosen, there was a clear plan in mind. Its logo hasn’t changed since 1960, a simple pattern of a large triangle with a smaller triangle inside. It has no website or social media presence, let alone any kind of vintage chic-aesthetic. “We’re a family of laborers and hard grafters,” he says. “We worked hard to set up this business. It took a lot of savings. My father had to work factory jobs and then work in his free time to save money, all while looking after my mum, me and my sister.” To Jenkins, the existence of Jenkins & Sons is an embodiment of the struggle that working-class families like his have gone through — as well as a statement that the values of “honest, hard work” will continue to future generations.

It’s also a relic of an older time, he says. “Back in the day, joining the family business wasn’t a punishment, but something you should look forward to. I worked with my old man every day after I left school, and he taught me everything I know — how to use my hands, how to fix anything. So [the firm] also shows how strong our relationship was, and how much he trusted me to continue the legacy he made.”

Right now, Jenkins believes the firm has a good five years left, but he emphasises that it’s very much an exception. Friends of his who inherited firms set up by their fathers have “crashed and burned. They’ve gone bankrupt — a lot of them took a hit after the recession when they weren’t able to finance themselves and the banks cut them off.” Maybe more fatally, he believes that moments like the 2008 financial crash probably did a considerable amount of damage to the concept of family-owned business for younger generations. “I know my son saw me struggling during that period,” he says. “I’d come home stressed and angry. I’d shout at him over silly things because I wasn’t sure if the business would last. Maybe he saw all that and thought, I don’t want that stress. I want something more secure. I don’t blame him!”

As Jenkins leaves to get back to work, he says that even if Jenkins & Sons doesn’t last beyond him, he’ll be proud of what it will have left behind, which will at least outlive him — and possibly his son, too. “Foundations, frames, structuring — whatever happens, I can say we were part of that and that our family has helped people have their own familial communities here.”

Needless to say, that legacy will long outlast the antique coffee-shop aesthetic.