As part of our white paper focused on Intergenerational Leadership, we interviewed five Family Office leaders from three generations. This is just one of many extracts from the white paper which you can download, in full, by completing the form below.
In this interview, we speak to the Founder and Principal of a Family Office run philanthropy Foundation based in Europe who wanted to share his family story in a bid to help others. Naturally, given the sensitivity of the story, he has asked for his name and Family Office to be anonymised.
Our Family Office was established some 25 years ago when I became quite successful within Private Equity. I became particularly successful in one company and when I exited before the financial crisis in 2008 ended up with a pile of money and it became my business to manage it. I ran the business alone from my small office for more than two decades before bringing my children on-board and I can say it was a mistake. One that has contributed to tearing our family apart.
My children at the time were finishing university and starting out on their own careers which to me was very important. I would spend my days dealing with the Goldman Sachs of the world with no employees or family members to manage, just money. I wanted to instil in my children that they should remain ordinary people, even with money and they cannot let the assets get to their head.
We didn’t tell them about the money until they were much older, well into their 20’s. We kept them very much in the dark to avoid giving the impression that we had enough money waiting for them for when they grew up that no work needed to be done in between. We broke the news when we were satisfied, they had learned, started their own careers, and were successful, but it had anyhow at that time reached a point where it was almost untenable not to tell them. I would do the same thing again if I had the chance and while our family is no longer together, they do tell me that they will raise their own children in the same way. Nothing fancy, grounded, ordinary people with their feet in the soil so they can develop into ambitious and caring people.
We were very much involved in philanthropy from the beginning and the children picked this up, still involved in various ways. They share our values as a family and would say we all live very comfortably as opposed to living a luxurious lifestyle like many people with money. When we started to talk to our children about the future and told them about the values and composition of our assets, we had certain dreams and wanted to create something where the next generation and the generation after could get involved if they wanted to and if they were qualified to do so, without pressure to do it at all. We hoped this would be across the financial, commercial, and philanthropic side of the businesses. Creating possibilities, providing opportunities that may not be made as easily accessible elsewhere.
But that dream has been crushed.
We do not have a single Family Office because my children do not speak to each other. It didn’t work out and I don’t, thinking about the future, know how our family will go on but I just know that I do not want our Family Office to continue. Maybe on the charity side but under very strict conditions.
You think you are a close-knit family and then all of a sudden, the whole set-up is hit by something and you didn’t see it coming and when it’s coming you are very unprepared for it. Family dynamics can change quite a lot when your grown-up children get into serious long-term relationships. There were also issues boiling between them which I guess to a certain extent is quite common between siblings, but it was competition with added complications on top.
If I could do everything again, I would still keep my children in a natural environment and keep the money from them to a certain extent to protect their own values. They will naturally pick up that you have more money than your neighbour or your friends, but we gently introduced them to our wealth and would do the same thing again if we were given the chance.
It’s very difficult to say when the best time to do this is and it’s also very dependent on your children’s interests.
We thought we were so united, we had written plans, structures of how the Family Office was going to work and just thought this is as good as it’s always been, we are united but obviously not.
I think families thinking of setting up a Family Office should talk to others. We have done a lot of talking and are members of an organisation where there are lots of families like ours, lots of very wealthy families having very open and honest discussions. When you hear them you know you are not alone. Had we had heard it before I’m not sure we would have believed it, we thought we were a very structured, happy family that everyone had bought into so I’m not sure, but I definitely think to be open early and hear what obstacles; visible and hidden, lay on the road ahead would make a lot of sense.
The other piece of advice is not to rush it.
I firmly believe my children were committed when they came in. They had come to work for their father, on their own from a very organised external environment. I think that alone was a culture shock but to which during a fairly short time they added marriage and grandchildren. One of the above changes would have been enough to create commotion but all of them at the same time was enough to make them withdraw and lose their footings.
From then, the Family Office perspective, our family and our Family Office was no longer their focus. Interestingly enough they all followed more or less the same path.
They were keen to leave where they worked at the time to get freedom and have the resources available to make real change, but within a year there were complications at so many levels. I don’t know how you match that, how you resolve that. They were committed wanted to be involved, the roles were well defined and thought they would be able to work together. We only managed to have a couple of Family Office business meetings before it all blew up.
My ambition was to retire after the children got involved but because of what has happened I’ve worked more than I ever have done and see no end to it.
In this process we found it necessary to sort out the financial dealings of the family by creating a separate structure for each child and their families. Having first put all family assets in their hands through the Family Office they have now been allocated only a fraction of the total with the clear message that this is all you will get, do what you want with it, it’s yours. We did it at a time we didn’t want to do it, we wanted to work with one asset base and one set of beneficiaries in our trust.
Now, we need to decide what to do with the rest of the money. We are trying to make money on money to create wealth for our philanthropy. We must organise our new “Family Office” and structure it so that it does not stand and fall with us and so there is no risk that it gets hijacked or the funds diverted on a future date. These are things we haven’t finalised completely but it’s what it will be.
We don’t have any more family discussions because we have tried and tried and not got anywhere.
They screamed and shouted and said decisions were made on their behalf in violation of their wishes. But we felt we just had to act while there was still time to reduce the risk of making things worse should things out of our control occur.
I am prepared to share my story with others should others find it of interest or any use and as I said it is much more common than we may think.
You can’t take the Family out of the Family Office, the way I have lived and worked for 25 years. I am the business, it’s with me at every minute. It’s my life and when you get your children involved, what’s me and what’s business? It’s a package, they became very difficult with me as the boss and me and the father – the children couldn’t deal or separate the two and now of course, coming up to Christmas we cannot get together and it’s not because of COVID-19.
It’s a sad story but a common one. Talk, listen, and take your time, it could just save your family.