Construction of Shitennoji, one of the oldest Buddhist complexes in Japan, began in the year 593. One of its carpenters, Shigemitsu Kongo, traveled to Japan from the Korean kingdom of Paekche. Today, working from offices overlooking the temple, Kongo Gumi Co. is run by Masakazu Kongo, 55, the 40th Kongo to lead the 1,410-year-old company, believed to be the world's oldest family enterprise .
The UCLA-trained Masakazu says 90% of the carpentry techniques Shigemitsu brought to Japan are still used today. Yet as much as the Kongos value tradition, their firm has survived by being flexible. "Most families automatically choose the eldest son to continue their business," says Masakazu. "Our family always chose the son with the largest sense of responsibility."
Of late, Japan's changing society has posed a challenge for Kongo. Revenues are down 35% from 1998, to about $68 million. "In the past, no matter how hard times were, people always contributed to temples, so we had work," Masakazu says. Today "temples no longer have that significance." So the family repertoire has expanded to include schools and retirement homes.
Masakazu's secret for a long corporate life? Deliver lasting products and stand by them. "At Shitennoji," he says, "someone from our company is there every day." And perhaps forever. --By Hanna Kite