These are the 21 advisors, accountants, and lawyers to know if you’re thinking about starting your own family office
Congratulations to our UHNW Institute leaders Steve Prostano, Bill Woodson, Barbara Hauser, Tom Handler, Thom Melcher and Natasha Pearl for their recognition by Business Insider as one of the top 21 professionals to know when starting a family office.
Previously published by Business Insider on July 13, 2021.
Despite two financial crises and a once-in-a-century pandemic, global wealth surged to $418.3 trillion at the end of 2020 from $117.9 trillion in 2000, per Credit Suisse.
Whether they’re rags-to-riches entrepreneurs or old-money heirs, many of the wealthy have created their own family offices to oversee their assets. Citi estimates that as many as 15,000 family offices have been created in the past two decades alone.
These offices vary in size and purpose, from hedge-fund-esque vehicles with chief investment officers and hundreds of employees to small operations with a few employees who handle bill pay and outsource services like wealth management.
It’s pricier than going to multifamily offices — even billionaires balk at paying a CEO $500,000 — but for some, it’s worth it to have complete control and confidentiality. Insider spoke with more than a dozen family-office professionals to find out who the wealthy go to when deciding to set up their own shops. Whether they’re lawyers or wealth managers, here are 21 must-know family-office experts.
Wendy Craft, chief of staff at Fulcrum Equities
A family-office veteran, Craft is known as a quarterback or an expert generalist who doles out candid advice in the eager-to-please world of family offices.
“With her, there’s no BS, which is refreshing,” the lawyer Tom Handler told Insider. “Most people in this space are so gracious and genteel. They would never say, ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t talk to that guy if I were you.'”
Craft runs the single-family office of the real-estate heir Kent Swig and generally gives free advice and referrals. She got her start in the family-office world as vice president and general counsel to the Schneider real-estate family.
Barbara Hauser, advisor and founder of the consultancy Barbara R. Hauser
Hauser, a former law-firm partner, has worked with affluent families for more than 25 years, setting up family offices across the world, including in Dubai to Switzerland. She started her own consultancy in 2009. Hauser’s responsibilities include advising on succession conflicts and explaining offshore trusts.
One of the biggest challenges when starting a new family office is making job expectations clear when hiring staff, Hauser said.
“An extreme service attitude is required,” she said via email. “Someone new to the family office environment may be surprised to be asked to make charter plane reservations and buy new sunglasses, in addition to managing a substantial investment portfolio.”
Natasha Pearl, chief executive and founder of Aston Pearl
When clients come to Pearl looking to set up a family office, her first priority is finding out whether they even need one. About 25% decide not to start one.
“We have billionaire clients who do not have single-family offices and are happy working with a combination of major banks and accounting firms and attorneys,” Pearl said. “The main reason to have a single-family office is a desire to control things and a strong desire for privacy. If those aren’t strong needs for you, then maybe you don’t want to spend the money.”
Pearl, a former management consultant, set up her own advisory in 2003. One of her top priorities is helping clients get a full picture of their expenses, which can be unwieldy with multiple homes and other assets.
Stephen Prostano, partner and head of family advisory services of PKF O’Connor Davies
Courtesy of PKF O’Connor Davies.
Prostano has launched and restructured family offices for more than 30 years, advising on wealth planning, philanthropy, and other topics.
Most of his clients are worth $100 million or more, and Prostano helps them set up hybrid family offices, which have a small dedicated staff but outsource services such as portfolio management or accounting. He sets up only brick-and-mortar family offices, which outsource little to no services, for families worth at least $500 million.
Prostano’s first step with new clients is assessing the goals and finances of each member of the family who would use the office to see whether their priorities align.
“I ask whether or not they as a family have a common mission,” he told Insider. “Getting to that point is a really important part of the establishment of the family office if it’s really going to last for multiple generations.”
Kirby Rosplock, chief learning officer and founder of Tamarind Partners
Rosplock got her introduction to the family-office world early as a fourth-generation heir to Babcock Lumber Company, started by her great grandfather in 1889. She worked at GenSpring for 10 years, heading research and development for its family-office arm, and she also worked at a broker-dealer before founding her consultancy in 2013. As a generalist, she advises on a number of topics, varying from outsourcing services to compliance and succession planning.
“We joke that we work ourselves out of a job. It’s our job to create autonomy and help that family operate without the requirements of an ongoing consultant,” she said.
Kathryn McCarthy, consultant
McCarthy has managed offices for wealthy families for more than 25 years, including the Sulzbergers, who own The New York Times. McCarthy is now an independent consultant and serves on multiple family-office investment committees. She is also a director of the Rockefeller Trust Company and SEI Investments, a publicly traded financial-services firm.
“I think the biggest hurdle to family offices in general is the reluctance to change,” McCarthy said on a podcast hosted by the family-office advisor Kirby Rosplock. “COVID has brought out a willingness to change. A little bit of a shift there, and maybe we’ll see more.”
Todd Angkatavanich, principal of national tax at Ernst & Young
Angkatavanich is a tax wizard in the family-office world. He works with affluent families and family offices across the globe, focusing on tax, trusts and estates, and business succession. He is known for advising on complex entities such as trusts and limited partnerships that allow families to pass on wealth and businesses while minimizing taxes.
Demand for family-office services has gone up due to global rise in wealth. Angkatavanich is keeping a close eye on tax proposals, such as President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan, that have his rich clients nervous.
“All these things could have dramatic implications for trust structures, entity structures that family offices manage,” he said. “We are trying to get ahead of that.”
Bill Bijesse, global family-office markets leader at RSM
Bjiesse has been an advisor to billionaire families since 1995.
Bjiesse now advises new family offices on best practices and governance and also sets them up with service providers, like insurers and outsourced chief investment officers. Most of his clients are worth $100 million to $750 million. He joined RSM in January from AllianceBernstein, where he advised ultra-high-net-worth clients.
The most noteworthy trend Bjiesse has noticed is how family offices are shirking conventional wealth-preservation principles and chasing deals.
“Family offices are really competing with private-equity firms and buying stakes or full ownership of privately held companies,” he said. “You’re seeing private-equity people getting recruited by family offices because everybody wants to go buy companies now.”
Eric Johnson, US family-office tax leader of Deloitte
Johnson has spent his 25-year-plus accounting career forming and restructuring family offices, advising on estate planning and office executive compensation.
Before joining Deloitte in 2002, he worked for Andersen Tax (then named Arthur Andersen) and KPMG.
Thomas Handler, founder of Handler Thayer
Handler, nicknamed “Mr. Family Office” by one insider, is an advanced planning attorney. His firm, started in 1983, specializes in tax and estate planning as well as governance and executive compensation. Handler has represented families in legal battles over contested wills and taxes.
His firm usually sets up or restructures seven family offices per year, but they secured 14 new clients in the first quarter of 2021 alone.
“This Biden tax plan has been very, very good for our business,” Handler told Insider. “People are livid, angry, and upset, and they’re motivated into action. The phone is ringing off the hook.”
William Kambas and David Stein, US private-client and tax partners at Withers Bergman
Kambas and Stein advise wealthy families and business owners in the US and abroad. Kambas specializes in tax planning for multinational and multistate businesses and investments, helpful for clients who have assets across the globe. Stein, based in Connecticut but admitted to also practice in California, advises many tech entrepreneurs and executives. Both have been at Withers Bergman for more than 15 years.
People thinking about setting up a family office should think of it as taking on a job, Kambas said.
“A family office is about being in the business of managing the assets for a broad set of family members and their trusts,” he said. “It’s not simply managing your own investments and doing what you would do on your own anyway.”
Elise McGee, partner at McDermott Will & Emery
McGee’s clients vary from multigenerational families with billions in assets to 20-somethings with massive concentrations of bitcoin. Most of her clients have at least $20 million in assets.
She specializes in forming private-trust companies for clients who are usually worth more than $100 million. Private-trust companies are more expensive to establish than family offices but have some advantages. For instance, they may have fewer disclosure requirements and allow for control over governance even when future generations take the reins.
“It’s a nice tool for some people who are interested in the succession of family businesses and want more control over who can act as decision-makers,” McGee said.
Lisa Featherngill, national director of wealth planning at Comerica Bank
Featherngill joined Comerica in April after nearly 14 years with Abbot Downing, where she was the head of legacy and wealth planning. Her specialties include wealth transfer strategies and tax-efficient philanthropy.
A 35-year industry veteran, Featherngill helps families decide whether to use a multi-family office or start their own single family office. If they go the single family office route, she and her team advise on which services to outsource as well as corporate structure and staffing. Comerica often provides services to single family offices, including cash and investment management, reporting, and wealth planning.
David Fox, president of global family and private-investment office services at Northern Trust
Nearly a third of American’s 400 richest people work with Fox’s team, according to Northern Trust. Fox’s team of 250 administers $630 billion of client assets, advising on wealth and asset management, and provides private banking as well as data management IT. These services are often sold a la carte to family offices until an event, such as the sale of a business, leads a family to centralize its office operations.
Fox joined Northern Trust in 2012 after more than 25 years at JPMorgan.
Heather Jablow, cohead of Cambridge Associates’ Americas private-client practice
Jablow has worked at Cambridge Associates since 2005. The certified financial planner oversees a practice with nearly 200 family offices and private clients, who are based in the US, Canada, and Latin America. Jablow and her team advise new family offices on devising governance structures as well as impact investing strategies that align with their mission statements.
Before joining Cambridge Associates, she was a senior consultant with Ernst & Young’s corporate tax practice and a summer associate at Lehman Brothers.
Thomas Melcher, director of family wealth at Glenmede
Melcher was dubbed “agitator-in-chief” by Barron’s when he was chief investment officer at PNC and known for pushing his team to develop new investment products for the richest clients. He moved to Glenmede in 2015 and took over the family-wealth division in eight months.
He determines what services are best for clients from their goals for their lifestyle, legacy, and philanthropy. Deciding whether to start a single-family office requires full disclosure of a family’s finances, which can be anxiety inducing.
“I think of it as healthcare,” he said. “Let me run a bunch of diagnostic tests. Let me really understand your symptoms. And let you know, really have an open and deep dialogue about what you need. Because then, and only then, am I in a position to sort of give you a diagnosis, if you will.”
Randy Webb, head of family office at Brown Advisory
Webb’s division advises more than 150 families with assets ranging from $100 million to more than $1 billion. He works directly with families on long-term strategy from asset allocation to financial education for heirs.
“You start with the big picture and then boil that big picture into little pieces that support that ultimate strategic goal,” Webb told Insider of setting up a family office. “For first-generation wealth creators, it’s a process they’re super familiar with because they’ve done that with the company they built.”
He joined Brown Advisory in 2018 after the Baltimore firm acquired the multifamily office Signature Family Wealth Advisors, where he was CEO and president.
Bill Woodson, head of wealth advisory and family office services at Boston Private
Working with families requires a concierge touch. Early in his career, Woodson negotiated a $25 million real-estate deal for a family and expedited a visa for one of its staff members; the family was more grateful for the visa.
“If the real-estate deal had fallen apart, that would have actually been OK,” Woodson recounted to The Wall Street Journal in 2019. “But if I hadn’t gotten the visa, I may not have been employed the next day.”
After three decades in the business, Woodson no longer takes care of visas, but he still advises the family offices and business owners on investment management, estate planning, taxes, and financial-literacy education, among other topics.
Serge Bukhar, founder and chief executive of Atlas Technica
The pandemic was good for Atlas Technica, which doubled its business, per Bukhar, as family offices took their operations virtual. The 6-year-old managed service provider helps small financial firms including hedge funds and family offices that don’t want to hire a full-time chief technology officer or even an IT guy.
With the surge in remote work, family offices need to stay vigilant about their cybersecurity. Even before offices took work virtual during the pandemic, nearly a third of family offices had experienced a cyberattack, per Campden Research.
“The security implications of that have been dramatic,” he said. “You have to secure the individual endpoints — the computers, the mobile phones, the iPad, all these different devices — all over the place.”
Jason Elmer, chief executive at Drawbridge
Keeping it in the family isn’t enough to keep an office’s data secure, said Elmer, who runs the cybersecurity software and IT startup. He told Insider that family offices frequently give too many family members or staff access to bank accounts of data.
“For family offices that are multigenerational with 100 different family members that are involved, there needs to be some process around who all needs access,” he said. “Treat it like it was any other business that you would set up. You want to know who has access to data and what it is that they’re doing with it.”