Family-Business-Ownership Has Its Limits

The ecosystem of professionals who work with enterprising families is naturally quite diverse, as this work has become more interdisciplinary than ever before.

This week we’re going to look at some of the models these experts use to think about and explain the complexity involved in doing this work well.

My exposure to this began with the venerable Three Circle Model from Tagiuri and Davis, which I first wrote about here in Three Circles + Seven Sectors = One A-Ha Moment.

If you check the date on that post, you’ll see that it’s now over a decade old, so it stands to reason that some of my views on this have evolved in the intervening years.

From the Family Office World

Let’s start with something I’ve seen a couple of times now from some thought leaders from the family office space.

I’ve heard about the “MLF ratio”, as in the percentage of the time spent by those who work for the family office that’s spent in each of three key areas.

It seems many family offices have a ratio of about 70 / 20 / 10.

What does that mean?

That 70% of people’s time is spent on the Money, another 20% on Legal matters, and then a final 10% is spent on the Family.

Those I’ve heard talk about this are typically in favour of finding ways to increase the Family number, to at least double or triple where it typically falls.

From the Trustee World

I recently saw a similar triumvirate that I think stemmed from the world of trustees for wealthy families.

This one looks at Assets, Documents, and Relationships.


The assets are what the family owns, the documents are the legal papers that explain who owns what (and who’s allowed to do what), and oh, yeah, let’s not forget that there are a group of family members that are being served here!

And isn’t it always the problems in the relationships of those family members where most of the problems arise?

Again, I think that those who speak about this trio are those who are in favour of finding ways to increase some of the thinking about the relationship questions on the front end of decisions, as opposed to having to then clean up a mess that resulted in poorly thought out “documents”.

From Other Family Wealth Experts

I also recall hearing someone recently noting that heirs don’t only inherit wealth, they also inherit structures.

So if we wanted to turn this into a three-point model, it might be “heirs, wealth, structures”.

Once again, we look at the wealth/assets/money/business (what) as one leg of the stool, the family/relationships/heirs (who) as another, and then the legal/ownership/documents/structures (how) as the third.

Doing Away with the Circles?

At this point, we can even do away with the circles, for the sake of simplicity.

What the Three Circle Model does so nicely is to highlight the overlaps for some of the people, because in the family business world from which it emerged, the issues caused by family-employees and family-owners versus family members who are neither (or both) are often front and center.

But as a family’s wealth increases and the portion from an operating business decreases, these other ways of looking at things often make more sense.

Who and What Aren’t Enough

The one thing that doesn’t change is that more often than not, the balance of time and effort is way off from what it should be.

Regular readers won’t be surprised to hear that I think that too much focus is put on the money, the business, the wealth, the assets, while too little focus is put on the family, the relationships, the heirs, and all things related to the human capital.

Likewise, those in charge of the documents, the structures, the legal arrangements, the ownership (beneficial and otherwise) are given far more attention than they deserve.

In its simplest terms, it boils down to Who gets What.

It is very important that all of this be spelled out properly, especially when so much is at stake.

However, there are a couple of other questions that shouldn’t be forgotten along the way.

Let’s start with some WHY questions:

  • Why are we doing it this way?
  • Why don’t we involve our heirs?

And let’s add a big HOW question:

  • How is all this actually going to work, with our family?