It takes diplomacy, anthropology and psychology to serve the world’s super-rich. But only trust opens their purse strings
If you want to understand rich people, talk to their servants. This was the intuition that made a cultural phenomenon of Upstairs, Downstairs in the 1970s, and Downton Abbey 40 years later. The same idea underlies the drama of Bleak House (1853), Charles Dickens’s novel of wealth and family intrigue: the servants know all, but no one knows more than Mr Tulkinghorn, the lawyer who manages the fortune of Lord and Lady Dedlock. Tulkinghorn, who appears at first to be a mere employee of his noble clients, is soon revealed to be pulling the strings as ‘master of the mysteries of great houses’.Previously:
The 21st century has seen a proliferation of Tulkinghorns; today, there are tens of thousands of professionals worldwide who specialise in managing the fortunes of the world’s richest people. As global wealth has grown, and become increasingly concentrated in a few hands, there has been an explosion in demand for experts to protect it from tax, and from any other laws or obligations that the rich find inconvenient. Wealth managers, as these professionals are now known, are called upon to do everything from secreting clients’ assets offshore, to resolving disputes about succession in family businesses, to vetting potential marital partners. To do this, they have to know everything about their clients, just like their 19th-century counterparts. But now, with some of the world’s largest private fortunes coming from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, they have to do it across boundaries of culture, class, nationality and religion that their predecessors could never have imagined.
Working with such clients, and earning their trust in terms meaningful within their social idioms, requires extraordinary social skills and sensitivity. Like many professions, wealth management requires mastery of both technical knowledge (mostly in law and finance) and a cultural skill-set that organisation theorists have described as a combination of ‘mannerisms, attitudes and social rituals’.
The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu defined the professionalism of lawyers as ‘a technical competence which is inevitably social’. This is why, as he explained in Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977), so many professions ‘set such store on the seemingly most insignificant details of dress, bearing, physical and verbal manners’.
These demands are accentuated in wealth management to a degree rarely seen in professional work. More than good manners or good bearing are required, because the social conventions of the ultra-rich represent as distinct a culture as that of any remote and little-known tribe. As one recent study of elite lawyers in London noted: ‘A common story told by junior lawyers is that wearing the right colour socks and shoes is vital for success’; conversely, the same study reported that one wrong move (sartorial or otherwise) can spell the end of clients’ trust, and the end of one’s career prospects.
If anything, such dynamics are accentuated in wealth management. Thus, job advertisements for wealth managers rarely mention technical skills – those are taken for granted – but place great emphasis on social skills. For example, a Swiss firm invited applications for a wealth management position with an advertisement that almost exclusively detailed social abilities, such as ‘exceptional diplomatic skills’ along with ‘excellence in complex negotiations’.
These observations are connected to two of the most surprising things I learned during the eight years I spent interviewing 65 wealth managers in 18 countries. First, they are not immune to the charms of glimpsing ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous’. Stan, an otherwise sober and serious practitioner in Chicago, conceded that one of the chief enjoyments of his job was the ‘tabloidesque aspect’ of his clients’ lives. Eleanor, a wealth manager practising in Switzerland, echoed this sentiment, saying of her work: ‘It’s like being a voyeur … the client has to undress in front of you.’
Because great fortunes are genuine targets of attack, the rich come to suspect that it’s safest to trust no one
The interviews with these and other practitioners around the world that I conducted for my book Capital Without Borders (2016) provided a tantalising glimpse into a realm of elites that is otherwise carefully hidden from view. This is not the world of the Kardashians or other celebrities, but one of almost unimaginable privilege. The 167,669 ‘ultra-high-net-worth’ individuals who form the main client base for the wealth managers I studied own at least $30 million in investable assets – not including their primary residences – and are at great pains to protect themselves from any public notoriety.
This is connected to the second thing I learned from wealth managers about the rich: they can be exceptionally difficult people to serve, in no small part because many of them are deeply suspicious of others. Robert, an English wealth manager I interviewed in Guernsey, observed that:
A major downside of wealth that we see … is that people who have a lot of money can become very suspicious and isolated, because they become convinced that everyone who meets them is trying to take advantage of them.This suspicion might be more than paranoia. Wealth turns people into targets. Mark, an Englishman with a practice based in Dubai, observed of his clients that ‘people want to con them, scam them, rob them, kidnap them’. Sherman, an Englishman working in the British Virgin Islands, said his clients from Mexico and Brazil had told him: ‘You can go down to a bank and for $100 get the names and addresses of all depositors with accounts over $100 million.’ This information becomes a ‘hit list’ for kidnappers. But such threats don’t just come from strangers or corrupt governments: sometimes, they come from within a family. As Mark in Dubai added: ‘If you are a leader of a small country, one of your family members might want to rise up and kill you and take your wealth.’ Because great fortunes are genuinely targets of attack by a wide variety of actors, the rich can come to suspect that the safest course is to trust no one.....MUCH MORE
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And as noted in the intro to 2013's "The Robots Are Coming (To Mow Your Lawn)":
I understand that domestic employment for positions ranging from butler to valet to cook to gardener is booming but some people aren't able to afford servants.
For them there are robots.*...
...* I couldn't resist the supercilious tone. Sorry.
Here's The Guardian:Which was followed by the slightly down-market "Robo-advisors: A Family Office For Everyone!".
Who wants to serve a billionaire?
The rich are getting richer – and that means jobs on superyachts for those who can meet their employer's every whim. But first trainees must learn how to fold a towel ...
"...At the more arcane end of the spectrum are the people who staff superyachts, who need to be equipped with discretion,