Reputational risk is a key concern for many family firms. Alistair Morgan explains some of the considerations as to how families can manage their reputations.
Setting the scene
Many wealthy families “trade” on their reputation, which has often taken years, decades or even centuries to develop. However, thanks to social media and mobile technology, we now live in a world where reputations can be won or lost in a matter of seconds or minutes. Taking the middle ground – maintaining a reputation – is far from straightforward, and is an ever-evolving task.
The reputation of a person or entity is, quite simply, an opinion which is often formed as a result of social evaluation by one part of a community or the public generally. A positive reputation can present opportunities; negative reputation on the other hand can be extremely damaging, and in the worst cases, highly disturbing.
Managing reputation is a complex business on a number of different levels. The purpose of this article is to explore how wealthy families can manage their reputation, including the role of philanthropy. Central to these matters is the role of a wealthy family’s private office.
Social media, mobile technology and the internet
We have witnessed a cultural shift in recent years whereby the public demands more intrusive and intimate information about those in positions of power or celebrity.
The private and financial affairs of wealthy individuals and families, entrepreneurs and well-known companies are ripe for public discussion and criticism, particularly if they touch on the controversy of the day. The structuring of wealthy families’ tax affairs is a notable example – more on this below.
Malicious and intrusive publications, notably online, can cause significant and lasting reputational damage. Negative publications can be devastating and wreak havoc on personal and business relationships, profitability and investment opportunities.
Once images and information have been publicised across different platforms, the task of completely removing it can be almost impossible to achieve. The old adage that “prevention is better than the cure” is particularly apt when advising wealthy families on how to manage their reputation.
Challenges faced by a family and the role of the family office
The structures that hold and administer a family’s wealth are often far from straightforward. Such families often have an array of trusts (both on and off-shore), companies (private and public), partnerships, charities and foundations. Each of these vehicles will inevitably have an ongoing, typically annual, compliance obligation which can take the form of tax returns, annual accounts and annual returns, to name but a few.
It is common for families whose affairs involve such a degree of complexity to have their own private family office. A popular misconception about private family offices is that they are simply a private investment office with an administrative function attached to it. While these services often form a part of the overall service function for a wealthy family with complex wealth arrangements, a private family office should also seek to provide families with strategic advice about many different aspects of their private wealth arrangements, and ensure that such advice is implemented appropriately.
Set out below is a number of issues that the private office of a wealthy family need to address in order to manage their reputation:
Compliance (fiscal, regulatory, accounting)
The work can either be undertaken in-house, in which case it will need to employ the appropriately qualified and experienced staff to do this, such as an in-house director of tax, head of compliance or chief financial officer. Alternatively, the work can be outsourced to a third party, but the family office should coordinate and drive the process.
The “Smell Test”
Some, or even all of the activities of a family’s wealth structure may not fall under the supervision of a regulatory body such as the Financial Conduct Authority, or have a statutory need to be audited. However, in the absence of statutory or regulatory obligations, a family may want to ensure that all of its private wealth arrangements are governed and operated in accordance with “best professional practice”. As a result, a private family office must aim to operate such that its policies and procedures conform to the standards required if it were under the supervision of a professional or regulatory body.
One way to achieve this is for a private family office to establish an Audit and Risk Committee (ARC), which can also be used to monitor a family office’s obligations when it does fall under the supervision of a professional or regulatory body. Ideally the ARC should be chaired by an independent individual who is neither a family member, nor an employee, either within the family office itself or in a business owned by the family.
Furthermore, families can elect to have their entities audited by a professional auditing firm in the event that there is no statutory audit requirement. For example, an offshore family trust structure may have greater complexity, quantum of wealth, and number of financial transactions each year than a company listed on the London Stock Exchange, and the latter would need to have a full statutory audit. The audit of a private trust structure can help to provide family members with an additional level of comfort that their affairs are being administered in a way which is unlikely to have an adverse impact on their reputation, with the full support of a professional firm’s report.
Having a robust security plan is integral to maintaining a wealthy family’s privacy and reputation. Intrusion, for example through a breach of an IT system or as a result of an employment matter, can have a detrimental impact on a family’s reputation. A private family office can develop a coordinated strategy for them in order to help prevent, detect and respond to a breach of security.
For some wealthy families, having a public profile is inevitable and simply unavoidable. This may range from a family member being the CEO of a public company, to being the family of a well-known sporting celebrity. A private family office may need to engage a consultant who can advise them on how to manage their public profile, and by implication their reputation. Such a consultant will also be an integral part of any exercise that is required to manage an attack on that reputation, irrespective of whether there is any truth behind allegations made by an unscrupulous third party.
How to react when disclosure is threatened or a breach of confidentiality occurs. The previous points all confirm the need for a family office to have a clear strategy and plan to deal with a “Crisis” before one actually occurs. This then needs to be integrated with a disaster recovery plan for the private family office in order to deal with events such as, inter-alia, the death of a key (and probably publicly well-known) member of the family, the broadcast of a story or event in the public press, or a transaction involving one of their business interests.
The plan should also include a set of procedures to deal with a third party seeking to tarnish the reputation of a family. In advance of such an event taking place, the private family office will need to consult with them about their views on the extent to which they would want to trace and bring to account a perpetrator of an attack against their reputation.
Attitudes to tax
Much has been discussed and written about attitudes to tax in recent times, both nationally and internationally. Popular themes and their respective drivers include:
The national deficit – political pressure to generate sufficient revenue from taxation in order to pay for the cost of providing public services.
The on-going search for someone to bear the responsibility for the 2007/08 financial crisis. Bankers have taken much of the pain, coupled with the perception that they were the main promoters and users of aggressive tax avoidance schemes that have cost the Treasury access to many billions of pounds of taxation revenue.
The moral argument about tax avoidance and the blurring of the lines with tax evasion.
A wealthy family’s approach to taxation is therefore a critical aspect of how they manage their reputation. As has been recently seen by the string of celebrities embroiled in suspected tax avoidance schemes, it is not possible (not least from a legal perspective) for wealthy families to simply leave it to their tax accountant “to get on with it”. Each family member has to take responsibility for the management of their tax affairs – to do so otherwise could have a serious detrimental impact on their reputation even if they were simply following the advice of their professional adviser. Failure to comply with these obligations could result in a public trial and prosecution, bringing with it the inevitable impact on the family’s reputation (irrespective of the eventual outcome).
A private family office can assist with this by dealing with the following issues:
A private family office may be mandated to maintain all of the personal financial records of the members of the family. The office may also maintain the accounting records of the entities (corporations, trusts, partnerships, charities etc.) that exist within the family’s private wealth structure. Typically the data produced and maintained by the family office will be presented to their tax accountant to enable them to prepare and submit tax returns.
The late or incorrect submission of a tax return can result in negative connotations for a family. While such a submission may not become public knowledge, a wealthy family’s relationships with taxation and regulatory bodies are critically important to the successful administration of their wealth.
It is therefore imperative that a family’s private office is structured and managed in a way that will enable the tax compliance obligations to be met accurately and in a timely manner, working alongside the professional tax community where necessary and appropriate.
A private family office is likely to be involved with the planning and implementation of transactions on behalf of the family and their wealth structures. It is highly likely that any such transaction will have a fiscal implication, and so the manner in which the process is driven and organised by the family office will potentially have an impact on its outcome. The senior family office executives need to work closely with the family and its professional advisers to identify the key tax issues and risks, to give them clear and definitive advice on the potential implications of the transaction.
The role of philanthropy
Wealthy families engage in philanthropy for a variety of reasons, including a moral desire – people who may feel that they would like to contribute more may make philanthropic donations of their own choosing rather than contribute to the public purse. Or they may simply wish to continue their family’s history of philanthropy.
One of the many advantages of being involved in philanthropy is the positive effect that it can have on a family’s reputation (whether such attention is desired or not). Executed well, philanthropy can present them with a favourable public image. However, get it wrong and the negative impact can be disastrous.
It is therefore imperative that a wealthy family’s involvement with philanthropy is properly managed and administered, and their private family office should play an integral role in this by establishing the appropriate governance structure for their philanthropic interests. The private family office can also help to bring cohesion to this matter by delivering a consistent set of policies and procedures to the governance of the family’s interests generally.
Typically, a wealthy family’s involvement in philanthropy will take the form of a charity that is specifically incorporated to pursue their philanthropic interests, which I will refer to as a “Family’s Private Charity” (as opposed to a “public” charity, such as the Charities Aid Foundation.
The issues that a wealthy family need to be mindful of when involving themselves in philanthropy include:
The public perception as being an ineffective funder if a grant made by the Family’s Private Charity is misused or the charity folds.
Grantees could perceive the Family’s Private Charity as being an inefficient funder if it rejects requests for subsequent grants, or withdraws a commitment before full payment is made (for whatever reason).
Conflicts of interest need to be handled appropriately, particularly where a family has many diverse interests aside from their philanthropic pursuits. For example, difficulties can arise if a business that is owned and operated by one family member appears to pursue activities that are contrary to a Family’s Private Charity which is run by another member or branch of the same family.
Compliance with charitable legislation and regulations appropriate to the charity’s activities, such as those issued by the Charity Commission.
Internal financial controls – if a Family’s Private Charity is managed ineffectively, it will reflect badly upon the family, particularly if one or more of the family members are involved in a commercial enterprise (“they should know better” syndrome).
Managing the reputation for a wealthy family is far from straightforward. There are many pitfalls, but there also a number of proactive steps that can be taken to mitigate these risks. A well-organised private family office, which operates with clear policies and procedures, is a good method of enabling them to be strategically advised on these issues.
Philanthropy is an integral part of managing a wealthy family’s reputation. However, a family’s interest in philanthropy should be led by their philanthropic interests and objectives, rather than a means of managing their reputation.
About the Author - Alistair Morgan is CEO of Mayfair Private. This article was first published by Familia, the official magazine of the Family Office Council and has been reproduced with their permission.