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Book Review: The Family Office, By William Woodson and Edward Marshall

Tom Burroughes

19 October 2021

There are about 18,000 families around the world worth $250 million or more, and depending on some measures, as many as 10,000 single family offices, which means that there’s big growth potential in this sometimes shadowy sector.

The world’s family offices sector is certainly well known to readers of this publication, but beyond the confines of high-end wealth management, it is still mysterious and little understood. That’s starting to change, if not always for positive reasons, however. With a higher profile comes new interest. For many business owners and former owners struggling to get an idea of how to manage their fortunes, they need to get acquainted with this sector. For those running business schools and finance courses in colleges, this is a space that deserves wider understanding. 

Financial industry professionals, whether in investment, tax, law, compliance, concierge or technology fields can make a good, rewarding living in the family offices space. However, working with wealthy families comes with all kinds of idiosyncratic features that aren’t standard issue information that one might learn from a business school or regular finance textbook. 

But Edward Marshall and William Woodson have not just filled this knowledge gap, they have triumphantly raised the bar in analysing how those who want to set up, work in, and manage family offices should set about these tasks. The Family Office: A Comprehensive Guide For Advisers, Practitioners and Students (Columbia Business School, 338 pages), is, as its title suggests, aimed at a variety of audiences. 

The book starts by sketching out what family offices are – they come in different flavours and ownership structures – before talking about staffing, the in-house/outsourcing decision, accounting and bill-paying, tax, investment management, concierge, healthcare, aviation services, real estate management, security – both physical and cyber – reputation management, philanthropy, structuring, financial literacy and succession and governance. The authors create a particular fictitious family, headed by “John,” who has built and sold a business - “Rybat Manufacturing” - and then work through the steps that John, his wife and family need to take. The authors describe their book as a “first-of-its-kind combination academic textbook and comprehensive practitioner’s reference manual.” In each chapter, the task in hand is set out, a range of issues and ideas are described, and then the authors pose a set of questions for the reader, giving their suggested answers. 

This isn’t light reading – the reader needs to go through every jot and comma of this book to get the most out of it. Setting up and running a family office is a complex, even daunting task, and it is hard not to go through the various steps without thinking how overwhelming all this must be. (Example, the discussion about the pros and cons of private trust companies shows how complex wealth structuring is.) But for anyone with the grit to master the subject matter, and patience to reflect on what they learn, this book is a gem. It is also packed with data and has a useful glossary. 

The authors bring plenty of experience to the table. Woodson is a lecturer on wealth management at Columbia University, and on the advisory board for the Stanford University Global Family Office Initiative; he has headed family office practices in a number of banks. Co-author Edward Marshall is now head of the family office practice at , the law firm, and has worked at Credit Suisse, Citibank, Boston Private, and an SVB company. This news service knows both men well and they have contributed many insights into the family offices space.

Your reviewer knew from past experience that the kind of information contained in this book would be first class. But having actually read the book, it has beaten even those expectations. It needs to be widely read.