Share |

A class of their own

When the sixth Duke of Westminster stepped down from his role as non-executive chairman of family-owned property company Grosvenor in May 2007, he made it clear where he saw his future role writes Marc Smith.

Instead of slipping away quietly to his shooting lodge, the Duke, who is reportedly worth €8.9 billion, decided to focus on his chairmanship of the Grosvenor Trustees – the body set up for the benefit of the Grosvenor family, of which he is head.

In choosing to step away from the property business – the richest property developer in the UK has €15 billion of assets under management and manages vast estates including large areas of Mayfair and Belgravia in London – to take control of the Grosvenor family office (GFO), the Duke was following a path that many other successful family patriachs have taken.

GFO has evolved ever since the family first had staff in the 15th century. At that point in time the family owned large amounts of land in Cheshire so even then would have had several people working on administration and tax issues.

When Sir Thomas Grosvenor married in 1677 he gained control of 300 acres of land in London, which served as the catalyst for the family business's transformation into an international property development and investment company.

Today, there is also the Eaton Estate, a farming business, a bull stud, a garden centre, a hotel, an insurance business, rural estates in North Wales, Scotland, Lancashire and Spain, a fine art collection and a charitable trust.

Premium service
Giles Graves, a 30-year-old qualified solicitor, has been working in the family's private office for the past three years. While GFO serves the wider family, family office executive Giles works expressly for the Duke, Duchess and their four children.

"Since my first day I have been visiting the family estates and businesses regularly and have learnt something new every day. The portfolio is so diverse and there is an incredible amount to get your teeth into," he explains.

His role, in short, is to take an interest in anything that the family is involved in, such as trying to get the various estates and businesses to work together more effectively, or writing research and briefing reports for the Duke himself.

"As a whole, the role of GFO is to make sure that the family gets a premium service and to ensure good communication between them, their businesses and estates, and all the other people and organisations with whom they work," says Giles.

One of the biggest challenges that any family office faces is the recruitment and retention of quality staff. GFO is no different, and Giles' route into the company is perhaps more representative than many would admit.

Despite having been offered a job with a leading law firm, he wrote to GFO with a job application after hearing from a mutual family friend that it was looking to recruit someone with his skills.

"I made a conscious career and life decision to work for the family. It was daunting stepping away from private practice but it was definitely the right decision," explains Giles, who believes he now has a lot more to offer than if he had followed the normal solicitor's career path.

The variety of subjects it is possible to be involved in was a key attraction for Giles. While the size and prestige of the Grosvenor name and portfolio affords a variety that other family offices can only dream of, it is clear that offering a job that is not focused on one particular task is something they should take heed of if they are to attract the best talent.

People are equally important in family offices and Giles says the Duke himself was another reason why he decided to join. "I had often read about his business activities, charitable and conservation work, and I wanted that kind of inspiration to put my heart and soul into my career," he says.

Crucially, Giles says that he is not just motivated by money, but also by the "exciting and interesting work, and being part of an ever expanding organisation."

He believes that it is important that family offices in general recruit people who are motivated in ways other than wealth. To emphasise the point, he recounts one of the Duke's favourite expressions: "No matter how much honey you give a bear, they will always be back for more."

What is more important than money to the family is continuity.
According to Giles the Grosvenor Estate is a testament to this, with many lifers who have spent 20, 30 even 40 years working for the family. "The family attracts loyalty," he says emphatically.

The recruitment process, which was handled by an HR team, consisted of a thorough interview process. Once through this, Giles had his terms of employment finalised and an itinerary for his first few weeks drawn up. "It was all incredibly well organised, like starting work for any large organisation should be – and of course very exciting," he recalls.

Adapting to the needs of a modern family
As with anyone who has a large portfolio of interests, not to mention a family to keep happy, the Duke is a busy man who requires concise, timely pieces of information delivered in a logical manner. This is where Giles feels his lawyer training kicks in.

"The best skill I bring to the table is the ability to disseminate large volumes of sometimes complex information and turn it into a one-page summary," he says, going on to clarify that any advice he gives must be accurate and non-bureaucratic.

Meeting people is a large part of Giles' day, and he says this is the aspect of his work that he enjoys the most. "So many people approach the family with ideas and suggestions and many are leaders in their field. It is hugely enjoyable meeting knowledgeable people who are passionate about what they do, talking through their plans and working out how we can help."

GFO has a fulltime staff of 11, not including the Duke himself and his daughter, Lady Edwina, and Giles says a family ethos permeates throughout the office. Nevertheless, he describes the working environment as purely professional. "Although based in an estate office, it is not yellowing maps and mothballed tweed. We have video conferencing, cutting edge IT systems and open plan offices," he says.

Looking forward, Giles says the biggest challenge GFO faces is its ability to adapt to the changing needs of the modern family. There is a caveat, however: "We need to always find a way to say 'yes'," he explains.

In rising to this challenge, one of his most important tasks is delivering the relevant knowledge and training to the next generation of Grosvenors. But GFO requires more than a simple knowledge transfer from one generation to the next.

According to Giles, an often overlooked aspect of teaching the next generation is the need to make it enjoyable, who says this is really important to the Duke. "There is no reason why [next generation education] shouldn't be fun," he says.

It is evident as our conversation draws to a close that Giles is enjoying himself and that he feels an affinity with the family office world and its long-term perspective. "There is no other sector I would rather be in," he concludes, which should give other family offices a reason to be cheerful.

FB People, Family Business
Click here >>