“Family Business” Versus “Family Wealth”

The area of family business advising is considered by some to be a niche market, since there are not that many of us who hold ourselves out as specialists in the field. Family wealth, by contrast, seems to be a much more crowded area, perhaps because so many huge institutional players are involved in the area of wealth management.

Today I want to look at some of the similarities and some of the differences, and even throw in a couple of other terms to discuss variations of the two.

At its most basic level, the key difference is usually about the existence or absence of an operating business. When a family owns and operates a business, with facilities, employees, and the sale of goods and services, we would usually call it a family business.

In the case where a family has a good deal of wealth, but that wealth is mostly in the form of financial assets, and typically of the more liquid variety, we tend to describe them as families of wealth. There are even terms like high net worth individuals (HNWI) and ultra high net worth individuals (UHNWI) depending on whether they have $10 MM or $500 MM, for example.

There are plenty of families who do not fit so neatly into one category or the other, of course, as some are successful in exiting one line of business and turning that portion to liquid wealth, while maintaining another active operating company. Or a family may take some of its liquid wealth and invest in starting or buying another business.

What these families all have in common, though, is that the decisions that they make do not only affect their company or their money, but also many members of their family. When it comes time to think about how the business or the wealth will go from the parents’ generation to their kids, and then the grandchildren, there are many areas that can get tricky.

The Family Firm Institute, a global organisation based in Boston, offers courses and certification for those who advise these kinds of families. I recently completed the initial level of the Certificate in Family Business Advising (CBFA) as well as the Certificate in Family Wealth Advising (CFWA).

I will be doing their course on Family Governance beginning in January, as it is a requirement for both of the advanced versions of those certificates (ACFBA and ACFWA). Many of the courses for these certificates in Family Business and Family Wealth advising apply to both.

In Canada, IFEA, the Institute of Family Enterprise Advisors, offers the designation “FEA”, where they use the word “Enterprise” as more of a catch all, encompassing both business and wealth, because of the many similarities and the difficulty in labelling these families.

Much of the research in this area is currenlty focused on the area of entrepreneurialism, and creating “enterprising families”, which is often required to keep the assets of the family growing as quickly as the number of family members increases geometrically with each generation.

Tom Davidow, a veteran of this field and head of his eponymous advsiory firm, makes special mention of Real Estate families on his website, as he notes that they have many of the traits from the wealth realm but also an operations component and some tricky tax issues due to the way these assets are often owned.

I met Davidow this week at a conference for Family Offices, which is yet another term that is not always well understood, but which often operates at the intersection of family business and family wealth.

A family office is typically set up to handle the needs of one family (single family office, or SFO) or the needs of several families (multi-family office, or MFO), and can have anywhere from one employee to dozens of staff.

There are many names and not always a lot of agreement about what they mean. But when a family owns a large quantity of assets, that are destined to be kept in the family over coming generations, it is important to remember that the “family stuff” doesn’t always just take care of itself.