Joseph's Coat: A Family Office Tale

#Lifestyle Wealth


During my college years, I performed in the musical written by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. My role as one of the 12 brothers (Levi) kept me in the action, and even allowed me to croon of the travails of our presumed dead brother, Joseph. Well, those college and performing days are long past, but as Head of Family Office Services for Wells Fargo‘s Multi Family Office, Abbot Downing, I recently found myself dreaming of some key family office principles that exist in this colorful tale.

The story begins in Canaan with Joseph as the favored son of Jacob.  Family dynamics issues were quickly evident as the father demonstrated favoritism, and Joseph alienated his brothers by sharing his grandiose dreams.  Joseph, ever oblivious in these younger years, found himself the victim of his brother’s envy and sold away to a caravan of camel traders.

Joseph landed in Egypt as a slave and earned his way to the CEO role of the Potiphar Family Office. Potiphar served in Pharaoh’s court as captain of the guard and was so impressed with Joseph’s business acumen, that he granted Joseph authority over all his possessions.  Potiphar only concerned himself with wine and food.  While Joseph excelled at asset-management and grew the Potiphar portfolio year after year, his family office career was cut short by a difference of opinion with the matriarch.

Potiphar would hear none of it, and cast Joseph away to the Egyptian dungeon.  I know if Joseph had enlisted Abbot Downing’s Institute of Family Culture to craft a governance strategy to define roles, expectations, and limits, he could have avoided the ire of his employer and ensuing termination.

While fraternizing with the prison guards, Joseph must have been reflecting on his pitfalls (pun intended).  Joseph’s second chance to run a Family Office came about when Pharaoh was unsettled by some recurring dreams.  When summoned to Pharaoh’s court, Joseph listened intently and provided wise counsel.  Pharaoh was taken with Joseph’s wisdom and appointed him to head the Pharaoh Family Office.  Instantly, Joseph was number two in all the land.

Joseph had learned from his mistakes.  He started with a thoughtfully defined role, urban plan and budget. He led the nation through years of plenty while amassing assets and investors.  When times turned, the preparations were sufficient to provide not only for Pharaoh’s domain, but also desperate, repentant families from Canaan.   Despite difficult times, the Pharaoh and Joseph came out on top!

While it may be a stretch to call a slave donning favor a family office, the parallels are colorful.  Joseph should have made it a priority to consider these well-established family office tenets:

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  • Governance – Written policies which provide the structure for decision making.  They should reflect the family’s values and be developed through familial consensus. Governance can be an effective way to navigate wealth’s complexities.
  • Mission – Clear statements providing clarity of purpose to unite family members and the family office team.  May be based on the family’s history or upon values of the current generation. For wealth and legacy to transcend generations, the family and family office team need to understand the overarching goals they hope to achieve.
  • Education – Every member of the family has a role to play, albeit beneficiary, trustee, board member, or parent.  Developing future heirs and leaders begins at an early age and should continue throughout everyone’s lifetimes.  The family office team can serve the family well as a resource, coach, mentor, facilitator, etc.

Although family offices are as varied as the colors of the storied coat, governance, mission and education are foundational to avoid a constricted outcome and ensuring that the family can thrive despite feast or famine.

Joe Freeman is Head of Family Office Services for Wells Fargo‘s Multi Family Office, Abbot Downing.

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