The weight of wealth

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 April, 2011, 12:00am


A quick read of the headlines will reveal how fraught the succession planning process can be. People know well the stories of brothers and sisters who get locked into bitter disputes when fighting for control of the family business.

What is less well known is how work on family governance can anticipate and contain these problems. Inherited businesses typically do not survive intact when in the hands of the new generation. Family enterprises willed to the sons and daughters tend to get shut down or otherwise radically changed. That should give pause to entrepreneurs who build highly successful enterprises and hope these will live on for generations.

Roy Chen, the head of the multi-family office Grace Financial and an heir to a fortune left by one of the founders of the Hong Kong-listed Hang Lung property group, has confronted these issues more deeply than most. In the 1990s Chen and his four siblings came to control investing decisions surrounding their inheritance. They had a lot of money, and they were also better prepared than most in taking this on. Following expert advice, they launched a family office to professionalise management of their inheritance.

So far so good. The Chen siblings did everything they were supposed to do, and they also had great skills to contribute to their newfound family office: one sibling was trained at private equity, another at fixed income, another was a tax lawyer, and another had an MBA. But fissures soon opened up among them. The brothers and sisters were simply unable to get along while managing the family office, and that was distressing to them.

'Being good responsible second-generationers we felt a need to steward the family business, without realising that was putting the cart before the horse. We were doing this before focusing on our own relationships,' said Chen.

Things came to a head when one of the sisters dropped out of the family office after finding herself repeatedly outvoted on business matters by her siblings.

'It became a situation of one too many times of four votes against one when making joint decisions. At some point one may start to wonder: is it me? Are they ganging up against me?' said Laura Chen, Roy's sister and the head of the family's philanthropic arm, the Zeshan Foundation. 'At that time we were so adamant about our principles we were blind to that potential impact. We lacked the sensitivity to judge how far to push, when consensus was crucial. At one point we came to an understanding that there was no way we could work together.'

It was a troubling experience for the Chen clan because they were self-aware enough to know that money and issues of control of the family inheritance were ruining their relationships, but they were not yet sufficiently versed in their problems to untangle them. That changed, but only following a determined effort on the part of the siblings. The family met, while in New York, a Montreal couple who likewise came from inherited wealth, and who led them in workshops on how to deal with common problems of control that crop up when siblings take on their birthright.

Following about a decade of seminars, the family sorted through their problems. They learned to be honest but respectful with one another. They learned that each family member needed a role. They learned that philanthropy can help in terms of providing a unifying set of values and goals. Most of all, they learned that family wealth was not worth destroying their relationships over.

Cynthia D'Anjou-Brown, a senior adviser, philanthropy and governance, HSBC Private Bank, works with rich families on achieving exactly this governance standard.

'The whole idea of multiple generations working together is not always natural. There is a lot of learned behaviour. You talk to the different generations in a certain way,' D'Anjou-Brown said. 'Governance is about formalising the involvement of family members. You institutionalise control to involve family members in collaborative decision-making,' she added.

Governance/succession issues are particularly freighted in Asia for a number of reasons. First, Asian wealth tends to be quite new. Much of the major wealth in the region is changing hands for the first time.

Second, there is a patriarchal skein to the way family firms are run. This top-down management style can mean there are few mechanisms for sharing power when the second generation come in.

Finally, the patriarch of the typical family business classically seems to believe he will live forever. That kind of thinking limits advance succession planning, which often means the siblings come into this process completely unprepared for the challenges of running the family business.

'Second generationers don't work well together. It's very difficult. Just by the way that we are brought up, which is in a very entrepreneurial and patriarchal environment,' said Roy Chen.

The good news is that people are becoming much more aware of the dangers that lurk in the passing of control of the family business from one generation to the next.

Roy Chen heads the Hong Kong chapter of the Family Business Network, which is an entity devoted to helping rich families improve their governance. The Chen family offers a number of clues on how this can be managed. Their family office has modest, generally achievable, financial targets. This lowers expectations about making lots of new money, and that avoids risky investments that could result in big losses, and lots of disappointment.

Further, the family is involved in a number of philanthropic activities through their Zeshan Foundation, such as vaccinating against hepatitis on the mainland and assisting in ongoing post-quake rebuilding in Sichuan province.

This gives the siblings a common purpose. While just focusing on making money can often lead to divisions, redefining the family agenda as something worthy such as disaster relief helps minimise disputes.

Having gone to the brink of seeing their relationships fall apart, the Chen siblings are now cohesive again, and are much happier for it.