Practice Strategies

Communication, Emotions And Mediation: Grasping Family Dynamics

Tom Burroughes Group Editor 16 April 2024

Communication, Emotions And Mediation: Grasping Family Dynamics

We talk to a "family office doctor" who takes a different approach to talking to wealthy families than, he says, is customary in today's wealth management industry.

Sometimes amid the language of wealth management, it’s a tonic to read an advisor’s essay entitled How to deal with a bully.

This is the no-nonsense style of a March 16 article from Samy Dwek, founder and CEO of The Family Office Doctor and White Knight Consulting. A former private banker at JP Morgan, originally working in the fast-moving world of Italian and London trading floors, and later in Wall Street. These days Dwek focuses his work on the rather less testosterone-driven world of advising families on the emotional, as well as intellectual, issues that arise. Dwek, who was born in Manchester in the UK, spends much of his time overseas and relishes the shift of tone.

“I am no longer a banker, I am not a psychologist, accountant or an attorney. I am a family consultant there to tend to their emotional needs, literally where money meets emotion. I assist families in communicating, mediating, building their governance and professionalizing their family structures. I enable families to build for the future,” Dwek told Family Wealth Report in a recent interview. “I grew up in a family business ripe with emotional issues and was surrounded with other families in similar situations. On working with private families from across the world, during my time at JP Morgan I started to see a trend – there was a need not covered by their trusted advisors.

“Two specific client situations toward the end of my JP Morgan career made me realize the limits of what I was permitted to do versus what a true trusted advisor should be doing for their client, in going the extra mile for my clients,” Dwek said. (Here is an article from back in 2012 with Dwek.)

This focus on communication, governance and values might sound like a “soft” subject, but as this publication knows from talking to other advisors in the space, it is getting more traction. With trillions of dollars of financial and business assets changing hands amid intergenerational wealth transfer, getting this issue wrong leads to some very “hard” results. In fact, the need to focus more on this side of wealth management also explains why groups such as the UHNW Institute – with which Family Wealth Report is exclusive media partner – have been established. 

A problem in today’s wealth and banking sector, Dwek said, is that employers were more concerned about litigation risk, risking annuity assets and potentially losing a client relationship when assisting a client on their personal concerns. 

“This is especially true when the issues don’t fit within the definition of their role. Going to the aid of a client in their time of need that is not a banking service, creating a line they weren’t ready to cross, whereas I saw myself as duty-bound and was all in for my clients,” he said.

Dwek talked at a time when banks were hemmed in – perhaps understandably – by a raft of rules following the 2008 financial crash. The demise in 2023 of First Republic, Silicon Valley Bank, Signature Bank and Credit Suisse have only reinforced the need for bank caution. Rising interest rates to curb inflation since the pandemic have added to a cautious approach and a focus on revenue generation. This doesn’t necessarily fit with a more fiduciary mindset that private advisory work ought to have. (Dwek also has views about how some family offices should perhaps be called "founders' offices" because the people who build them dominate their management and structure.) 

There is an international mind-set with Dwek: He was born and raised in the Manchester area of the UK northwest; he studied at university in the UK, France and Italy. (He is fluent in English, French and Italian, which was to be useful in his chosen profession). Dwek said he got into the banking world almost by accident as part of a work experience stint in 1991, working in Milan on a trading floor.

Dwek returned to the UK working as a prop desk foreign exchange trader and then came back to Italy in around 1993. In 1999, he moved to Switzerland, working at Republic Bank of New York (later taken over by HSBC). In that role, he worked in the fixed income area. His JP Morgan career got going in 2000. He started – thanks to his fluency in Italian – in its private bank covering the Italian ultra-high net worth clients' book, later expanding his “territory” to Turkey, Israel and Greece. In 2011, he moved to concentrate on the family office client segment at the private bank.

FWR asked Dwek, although there is much talk about NextGen wealth transfer, how much transfer is also “lateral” – from brother to sister, or cousins, or uncles and aunts. So it is not just between generations, but within. How does Dwek address this?

“It is my opinion that very little has been done from all aspects. I wrote about this issue back in May 2021 in my article Family Office vs Founder’s Office. The planning from all aspects focuses on the holder of the wealth and does not include those that will inherit it. The same can be said of the wealth managers and planners, they focus on the patriarch (including their relationships) and seldom focus on the heirs,” he replied.

“If you look at the root of the issue, it all boils down to communication. If we can get the communication right, we have a good chance of getting the planning right. Once we understand the family dynamics, we have a better chance of ensuring they have the right planning and governance,” he said. 

FWR asked Dwek about his archive of website articles explaining areas such as “rights of passage,” written in January. 

“My articles are driven by the situations I have encountered and the cases I deal with in my practice. I enjoy focusing on the hard issues that most people don’t want to tackle such as mental health, abuse, blended families and many others. I try to keep my articles short and to the point to ensure my readers stay engaged with my content,” he said. 

Clients come from all generations, he said. “Sometimes I work with the patriarchs and in other situations I am engaged by the family members. I have the pleasure of dealing with families on most continents, including Central and South America, the Middle East and Europe and the Americas,” he said.

Register for WealthBriefingAsia today

Gain access to regular and exclusive research on the global wealth management sector along with the opportunity to attend industry events such as exclusive invites to Breakfast Briefings and Summits in the major wealth management centres and industry leading awards programmes