Family Office

Opinion Of The Week: "Succession" Proves Family Offices Really Matter

Tom Burroughes Group Editor 28 April 2023

Opinion Of The Week:

A highly-rated TV drama about the supposedly horrible lives and the behaviour of rich people has hit a nerve. But perhaps it also proves how important family offices and other structures are in achieving good outcomes for UHNW families.

A TV drama or major film can become such a hit that it frames conversations in the real world, and it appears that’s been the case with the HBO production, Succession. It is in its last series.

A few days ago I listened to BBC radio presenter and journalist Justin Webb as he interviewed Lucy Prebble, a writer and producer on the series. Prebble talked about how the plots of Succession (no spoilers here) threw an often unflattering light on the behaviours of those who inherit and acquire great wealth, or who seek it, and how it showed that women were as ruthless in this regard as men. (I am not entirely sure why this should be a surprise to anyone.) 

Prebble also reflected on the “eat the rich” phenomenon of dramas such as Succession and The White Lotus. “One of the things I am really proud of about Succession is that I do think it shows a certain amount of misery in the very rich...and an ugliness to that life…there is a lot of this [eat the rich] stuff around,” she said. No holding back here, then.

And then Prebble reflected that some of the reasons for this sort of narrative is inequality and the notion that it is rising. Of course, the unlikely best-seller, Capital in the 21st Century, by Thomas Piketty, published a few years ago, was also as popular as it was (at least with the chattering classes) because it told a familiar tale of how the “rich” are taking more and more of the pie, and that this will eventually produce a backlash. One suspects the French academic’s book also appealed to the zero-sum assumption that the wealth of A must come at the expense of B, which runs counter to the mutual benefits of exchange that Adam Smith wrote about his his 1776 masterpiece, The Wealth of Nations. Piketty’s arguments are debatable, to be polite about it, but they were influential. And it is easy to see how, in an atmosphere where his sort of analysis is deemed to be accurate, that writers of TV dramas think rich-bashing makes good entertainment. (There is also the point that it is considered fairer to "punch up" against the rich than "punch down" by poking fun at poor people.)

However ugly some of these biases are (I thought Justin Webb’s claim that the show proved that wealthy people are often “unpleasant” was pretty ugly itself), those who work in the industry know there is a perception problem. And even if it plays on prejudices about rich people, a series can still encourage people to think about how families can be more harmonious, handle disputes and wealth transfer better, instil a sense of responsibility and wisdom into inheritors, and much else besides. If one reads fiction decades ago it is full of morality tales about inheritance gone wrong or handled well. The German author, Thomas Mann, wrote a novel called Buddenbrooks, and it relayed the story of a wealthy family that goes into decline. 

And these kinds of “morality tales,” whether literary masterpieces or Hollywood kitsch, perform a useful role. They show why, for example, family offices exist in the first place. I remember talking some while ago to Bill Woodson, (co-author of The Family Office: A Comprehensive Guide for Advisers, Practitioners and Students, co-written with Edward Marshall); he told me that one under-appreciated quality of family offices is that they encourage responsible behaviour, wise wealth stewardship, and the transmission of values. He’s absolutely right, and unless one goes down the route of demanding that family wealth be confiscated with onerous wealth taxes and the rest, the fact is that HNW families will exist and will want to transfer assets wisely. They can either do this in a haphazard way that inspires TV dramas, or they can do it in a way that builds valuable legacies and well-adjusted people. 

And that’s why the work that is done by the family offices industry is so important, and deserves to be encouraged and praised. This news service, for example, works with the US-based UHNW Institute. The Institute builds ideas on how advisors and families can build and sustain wealth, ensure that children grow up to be good wealth stewards, and transfer it wisely and effectively. (See here for a White Paper from the Institute.)

There’s no doubt that in these financially uncertain times, rich people are getting shot at. If there is any justice in some of this, it is that more than a decade of central bank quantitative easing inflated asset prices, which tends to disproportionately benefit those who are already well off, and hits those on cash savings and who want to acquire assets. (That said, in my experience, those who attack the rich as such seldom focus on that issue.)  The German academic and entrepreneur, Rainer Zitelmann, has shed a sharp light on the attitudes of people around the world towards wealth and success. He has come to the bracing conclusion that a lot of prejudices about wealthy people aren’t as justice-driven as those who criticise wealthy people might suppose.

However, whatever the state of public opinion, the wealth management industry that we cover can do what it can to show a better way. A vigorous family offices sector, for example, can show that succession can be handled in a way that works, and for the wider public good. That might be a hard sell in these times but it is an argument worth making. Unfortunately, it is not easy TV fodder.

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