Family Offices Face Growing Squeeze
Talent troubles, capital needs, profitability problems and competitive threats loom as the biggest concerns for family offices this year.
"Finding and training talented people who want to work in this industry is the No. 1 problem for family offices," says Sara Hamilton, founder and chief executive of the Chicago-based Family Office Exchange. "Everyone agrees this is the biggest challenge right now. You either have to develop talent in-house or steal from someone else."
Attracting and retaining both junior and senior advisors is critical, say top executives.
"This is a talent business," says Mel Lagomasino, managing partner and chief executive of New York and Miami-based WE Family Offices. "Your most valuable assets are clients and people. You have to be able to attract people who are fiduciaries and want to work with clients in a certain way and work collaboratively on a team. ... I can't tell you how many people we see that just don't fit."
Family office executives say competition for talent has been driven in part by last year's strong stock market performance, which unleashed pent-up demand for financial service companies who want to target wealthy families. "We're under attack," says Michael Casey, president and chief executive of Whittier Trust in Pasadena, Calif. -- the state's largest independent multifamily office. "More competitors want to come back into the space. They're trying to lure people away, and will pay a premium to do it."
Indeed, demand for qualified talent is expected to drive up costs for family offices and widen "gaps in service differentiation " over the next five years, according to a private wealth management forecast by BMO Financial Group's multifamily office, CTC Consulting/Harris myCFO.
"The talent war is intensifying as boomers are retiring," says CTC/Harris president John Benevides. "We're also seeing a gap in skill positions requiring expertise, in areas like legal, tax and planning. Everyone is going after the same talent pool so demand is outstripping supply."
As a result, firms are likely to increasingly hire from non-traditional sources, the study predicts -- hiring junior talent and investing in training programs. Until such changes take effect, however, finding and training young people to work in family offices remains a problem.
"There are no specialized courses available, and young people are not patient in learning the practice in-house," says Hamilton. "They think they should be experts in 18 months, and don't respect the time it takes to gain wisdom. They don't want to wait, and firms are not getting deep knowledge."
A number of senior level executives at Pitcairn -- a 25-year-old MFO in suburban Philadelphia spawned by a 90-year-old single-family office -- are retiring at the same time, says Pitcairn president and chief executive Leslie Voth. As a result, the firm is investing in a personal leadership development program to help smooth the transition.
"There's a lot of emotion involved, and we really wanted to re-think our next-generation client delivery," Voth says. "We want to do as much as we can to develop our own talent. The client-facing transition is working well, and we've asked some of the senior people to stay on as independent contractors to be part of the handoff.
"But it's taking longer than I thought," she adds. "It's not something you can do in six months."
Single-family offices are also confronting talent problems, especially when it comes to compensation. "Wealthy families are pinching pennies," says Angelo Robles, founder and chief executive of the Greenwich, Conn.-based Family Office Association. "They see their single-family offices as an expense, and they haven't shown a willingness to pay what it takes to attract top talent."
The irony, Robles says, is that for the most part these families became wealthy in the first place because they invested wisely in their businesses. "Why are families not looking for top talent the way Fortune 500 companies do?" he asks. "There's not a lack of qualified people out there. Families can afford to pay a $1.5 million salary. Families are going to have to come to their senses, step it up and pay more money."
Capital funding, expenses and profitability are also keeping family office executives up at night.
"This is a capital-intensive business," says WE managing partner Michael Zeuner. "Our capital is internally generated, and because we're not running the business to sell it, one of our priorities has been to put in significantly more capital than we needed."
Rising costs stem from the need to spend more on technology, operations, regulation -- and, of course talent. That spending is eroding profit margins, as are downward pressure on fees and "service creep" -- the perceived need to offer high-end clients additional services they aren't billed for.
"If your fees are 100% asset-based, it's very difficult to limit service creep," says Tom Livergood, founder and chief executive of the Wheaton, Ill.-based Family Wealth Alliance.
Meanwhile, pressure on fees puts another squeeze on profits.
"There is great tension between [family office] business economics and the client experience," says Jamie McLaughlin, an industry consultant specializing in the ultrahigh net-worth market. "Firms need to commit capital to staff at appropriate levels to provide advice for families of great wealth and complexity. They also need to have the derring-do to test clients' willingness to pay. Discounting and pricing concessions in this environment is a race to the bottom."
As a result of the pressure, the CTC/Harris myCFO study predicted, single-family offices and small MFOs will increasingly seek to partner or outsource "all but their end-client relationship service," while larger MFOs are likely to "expand their willingness" to sub-advise and provide private-label service to multi-client family offices and even other
"Margins will continue to be pressured in this business across 2014," says Benevides. "Contrary to what many people think, full MFO capability is a very expensive service to provide."
These cost pressures are likely to force multifamily offices with less than $600 million in assets to consolidate or seek partnerships to gain scale and leverage when negotiating with asset managers and vendors.
"Family offices shouldn't be paying more than 60 to 65 basis points to outside managers," Casey says. "And they can't do that unless they have leverage and greater purchasing power."
As the bull market and rising economy make the ultrahigh-net-worth market more desirable, multifamily offices will also be more concerned than ever with competition this year, says Livergood.
"They really want to differentiate themselves from the J.P. Morgans of the world," he says. "Sometimes they go head to head with each other, but 80% to 90% of the competition is from the big institutional players."
MFOs can point to virtues such as not selling proprietary products, objectivity, customization, internal stability and a boutique-like personal touch, Livergood says.
Yet their biggest vulnerability is still long-term sustainability, he says. "The question they have to answer is: Who will be here in 50 years?"