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Exclusive access to the Rothschild archive

Over lunch yesterday, Baron Eric de Rothschild, sixth-generation chairman of Rothschild Private Banking & Trust, admitted he does not like the word dynasty, writes Marc Smith.

This is a surprising revelation since I had just spent the best part of two hours being shown around the Rothschild archive at their London headquarters, which details over 200 years of his family's history.

NM Rothschild & Sons is not easy to find unless you know where you are going. There is no name on the outside of the building that has been its home – a stone's throw from the Bank of England – since 1822.

Once inside, however, it is unmistakably Rothschild. Baron Eric (pictured) is responsible for hanging a range of paintings in the grand entrance hall that represents a visual family tree starting with Nathan Mayer von Rothschild, the founder of what is today an investment, corporate and private banking business spanning 34 countries around the world.

It is a common myth that Nathan Mayer's father, Mayer Amschel Rothschild, sent four of his five sons to London, Paris, Vienna and Naples. In fact, as I learnt on the archive tour, the perceptive Mayer Amschel did something much cleverer.

Realising that the family business would die with him, he established a partnership agreement that acted as a governance tool and ensured his sons could work together and support each other. In the 18th century, this was truly prophetic and seeing the original agreement in the archive was to witness a real piece of history.

Of their own volition, Salomon, Nathan, Calmann and Jakob Mayer Rothschild headed to the four corners of Europe to further the Rothschild "way" of doing business. Much of the Rothschild's way is still based on partnership and taking the long-term view. All of it stems from the visionary leadership and values of Mayer Amschel. 

A parable he told his five sons – that you can easily break one arrow with one hand but not a bunch – is reflected in the family's coat of arms and imprinted on various company documents (including the place mats I can exclusively reveal). More importantly it signals the value - strength which lies in unity – that permeates through both the business and the family.

But while Baron Eric has had a successful career at the bank, he admits that his eldest son does not want to be involved in the business. This is not surprising given Baron Eric says the family has no governance structures in place to encourage the next generation to follow in the footsteps of their illustrious ancestors. Unintentionally, it is also perhaps a wider demonstration of his distaste for dynasties.

In the past, this lack of succession planning hasn't hindered the seamless chain of entrepreneurial family members coming through to take the reins at the head of the business. However, this situation is now changing.

This month, the Rothschilds welcome a non-family CEO for the first time in the company's 212-year history. Nigel Higgens, a 27 year Rothschild veteran, will take over from David de Rothschild and open a new chapter in the bank's colourful history. (Click here to read our coverage of the story)

To supplement the change of leadership, the bank is moving to brand new premises. Unfortunately for people trying to find it, it is next door to their current building and the Rothschild name will still not appear on the door.

Whether we will ever see another Rothschild at the helm remains open to question, but Baron Eric didn't seem unduly worried when I asked him. He himself wanted to be a mathematician and today spends over half his time on the family's philanthropic endeavours, not to mention the management of Chateau Lafite. He doesn't like dynasties after all.

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