Family Offices A History and Definition



It is often assumed that the acclaimed American family, the Rockefellers, pioneered the family office in the late 19th century. However, history suggests otherwise. While today’s family offices are a modern phenomenon, they have always existed in various shapes and forms since ancient times. Jan van Bueren, the Senior Wealth Planner at Union Bancaire Privée (UBP SA) and co-founder of UBP’s award-winning multi-family office selection service, FOSS Family Office Services Switzerland, explores the historical variants of family offices and reveals the delicate task of formulating a single definition of the institution.


In the distant past, wealth and possession were almost always connected to rulers and the ruling class because they were the only ones with the power and means to amass vast wealth. But what is often forgotten is that their fortunes needed the kind of management and stewardship that we can see today.


A good example of this is Emperor August Caesar, who ruled the Roman Empire from 27 BC-14 AD. Considered to be one of the wealthiest people that ever lived, he ruled an empire that generated approximately 25% of the global GDP. A great portion of the empire’s assets was directly owned by Caesar or by members of his inner circle, including Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of Rome’s leading politicians at that time.


But Caesar is just one of a long list of extremely wealthy rulers that include Emperor Shenzong (1048-1085) of China’s Song Dynasty, Alan Rufus (1040-1093) the first Lord of Richmond, Mansa Musa (1280-1337) the king of Timbuktu who became unbelievably rich from the gold production in Mali, and Akbar I (1542- 1605) the greatest emperor of India’s Mughal dynasty.


Though these figures hail from different times and lands, they are united by one common trait – they shared their wealth with a trusted inner circle comprised of high-ranking officials and local representatives, who took on roles that are reminiscent of family office staff members today. This inner circle managed his estate, industries and businesses within his jurisdiction, the military, as well as the ruler’s lifestyle through a well-organised group of appointees.


Due to their position of power, most of these close confidants were also able to amass great wealth for themselves, and they in turn employed a number of people to care for their family and possessions. The head of such a team was often referred to as a ‘majordomo’, the highest (major) person of a household (domūs) staff. In modern terms, these arrangements could be referred to as ‘embedded single-family offices’, in which family business staff members also help to manage the private wealth of the family.


While these set-ups are clearly not exactly comparable to today’s modern single-family office, the structures and motives are not dissimilar. The differences chiefly exist in what made people wealthy and the strategic allocation of their assets. 

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