When a Multi-Family Office May be Better Than a Single-Family Office. Vikash Gupta explains the differences between single- and multi-family offices and how to decide which to choose.
Creators of great wealth will eventually face the question of how best to transfer
ownership and stewardship of assets and funds to the next generation.
Starting a family office is a centuries-old, tried and tested way to manage the
intergenerational transfer of wealth. A team of professionals running a dedicated
office can help a family to define its goals and strategy, and to preserve capital by
investing in new assets away from the industry in which the wealth was created.
There are hundreds of family offices around the world. They manage the fortunes
of inventive billionaires such as Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates and Google
cofounder Sergey Brin, as well as less well-known individuals who prefer to
remain anonymous. In its 2023 global family office report, UBS, Switzerland’s
biggest bank, counted 230 family offices which collectively manage $495.8 billion.
The average net worth of the families who contributed to the UBS report — which
is the largest and most comprehensive study of its kind — was $2.2 billion.
Running a family office is expensive. Annual costs are typically measured in the
millions of pounds, and the expense is proportionally higher for smaller family
offices. A family office which manages $1 billion costs 36.7 basis points of assets
annually ($3.67 million), according to UBS, while a single-family office managing
$250 million costs 46.6 basis points of assets ($1.17 million) each year. Our own
experience shows that setting up a fully-fledged family office often comes with
significant people, regulatory, technology and third-party costs, amounting to £1.5
to £2 million per annum.
For families with wealth valued up to $1 billion, it may be wiser to start by joining
a multi-family office. A multi-family office is run by a team of financial
professionals who manage the wealth of a number of families concurrently,
providing expertise for a fraction of the cost of a single-family office.
Some families may have a very clear idea of the direction they want to go in when
establishing a single-family office. They may know exactly how they want to
invest their money in new ways. But this isn’t usually the case. Appointing a
multi-family office can help ensure a clean break is made between the family
business and the family wealth at a very sensitive time.
It’s crucial to get this transition right, as a family ventures into uncharted territory.
One big risk when starting a single-family office is the tendency for families to
retain existing staff for the job — finance directors, accountants, personal assistants
and other advisers who they have worked with the family for many years, perhaps
decades. While these employees may be experts in the industry which generated
the family wealth, they may not have the skills required to create a family office
with the governance and risk management structures necessary to preserve capital
and diversify investments.
Starting With a Plan
Single- and multi-family offices both start with a plan. This plan needs to establish
how four objectives will be met: strong governance; independent oversight;
effective asset allocation; and inclusive engagement with all family members.
For a single-family office, the first step is to incorporate a company with an
appropriate legal and governance structure to hold assets. The structure should
include key decision-making bodies, such as a board of directors and an
investment committee. The board of directors may be composed mostly of family
members, while the investment committee could be mostly made up of externally
recruited investment professionals, led by a chief executive officer.
The second step in creating a single-family office is to recruit external advisors
who provide independent oversight. The purpose of these advisors is to guarantee
the professionalism of the wealth management operations of the family office.
They help ensure decision-making processes are objective, fair and impartial.
The third step is to devise an investment strategy for a well-diversified asset base
for the family office. The strategy should be based on a long-term vision which
blends active and passive investments. About half of the family’s funds will usually
be invested in actively managed assets such as private equity, real estate and hedge
funds. The rest of the funds can be invested in passive assets such as cash, incomeproducing
real estate and financial investments including exchange traded funds.
Finally, the single-family office should create an information-sharing system to
provide regular reviews and timely updates to all family members. Everyone in the
family must be fully informed about the activities and performance of the office.
Information-sharing is a two-way process — family members should be
encouraged to comment on the work of the office if they wish to do so.
A well-run single-family office will generate higher financial returns, cost savings
and effective risk management. It will also contribute to maintaining family
cohesion. The structure of the office may evolve over time, as the family refines its
vision, strategy, commercial model and technology. Offices in new geographies,
from Asia to Latin America, may be added. Investment professionals with new
competencies – perhaps in digital technology, healthcare, automation, robotics or
renewable finance — might join the team.
The Multi-Family Office
At a multi-family office, family clients work closely with professionals to define a
plan. A multi-family office may appoint one of their senior team members to serve
as a chief executive for each family client. The multi-family office may also
establish a governing board for each family, made up of family members. It might
also create a board of independent external advisors for each family too. Such a
dual governance structure enables the multi-family office to develop
understanding, trust and confidence with each family client, as well as ensuring
sound execution and strong performance.
Some family offices operate a hybrid model. This means that they manage critical
roles in-house, such as strategic investment decisions and core operational
functions, including payments and cash management. Then they outsource other
roles, such as investment management, to benefit from the scale of professional
multi-family office firms.
A strength of the multi-family office model is its flexibility. Investment strategies
and operations can be scaled up and down when the need arises. This flexibility is
particularly valuable to families during this time of great geopolitical uncertainty
and macroeconomic change. The era of low or negative interest rates is ending,
and the flood of liquidity which dominated markets in the wake of the 2008 global
financial crisis is receding. Multi-family offices can move nimbly and make quick
decisions in response to rapidly changing market conditions.
Case study – A multi-jurisdictional family.
A family spanned across three generations and multiple jurisdictions including the
UAE, UK and US. As the founder of the family transitioned the operating assets to
investments, the next generation were tasked with managing the assets to meet the
long-term objectives of all the family members. The next generation hired a
number of advisors in the family office based on their personal connections. While
the advisors were well aware of the family dynamics and objectives, they were not
ready to take on the barrage of investment decision-making based on opportunities
presented by various family members as well as various banks they dealt with.
Certain investment decisions were made based on connections, as well as pressure
from family members, leading to significant losses from the investments.
The family were then introduced to VAR Capital, which provided an independent
and rigorous investment analysis support. The VAR Capital team evaluated
investments based on their suitability to the overall strategic objectives of the
wider family. While the final decision-making remained with the family, VAR
Capital facilitated a rigorous and well-governed investment assessment, as well as
good governance in making decisions. All the family members felt more engaged
in the process. The inclusive process helped to nurture a sense of fairness and trust,
and the involvement of an external agency helped maintain discipline in the
Joining a multi-family office can be a straightforward and cost-effective way to
manage wealth measured in the tens or hundreds of millions of pounds.
If the wealth of a family continues to grow exponentially, there’s nothing to stop
the family moving on from the multi-family office and establishing a single-family
office. In fact, joining a multi-family office can be the smartest stepping-stone to
starting a single-family office. As is always the case in finance, the choice of
whether to start a single-family office or to join a multi-family office is about
making the right decision at the right time.
Vikash Gupta is the co-founder and chief executive officer of VAR Capital, a
London-based multifamily office.