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OPINION OF THE WEEK: The Case For HNW Clients Having A "Chief Of Staff"

10 March 2024

A fortnight ago, while waiting interminably for my flight from London to Chicago (eventually delayed a whole day because of a faulty aircraft – thanks, British Airways!), I thought about a few of the chores that business professionals face. One is the task of having to sort out flights, hotels, connections and meetings and handle situations smoothly when things go wrong. Another – related to this – is what are the true “value-add” features of wealth management these days? 

Even in these supposedly more carbon-conscious times, private bankers, wealth managers and yes, we journalists, travel a lot. We certainly gain an insight into the fact that financial centers, whether they are onshore (New York, Paris, Chicago or London) or offshore (Switzerland, Hong Kong, Dubai and Singapore) need to be close to efficient, well-run airports with good rapid transit and roads. The hour-long slog of a taxi journey from Manhattan to JFK, for example, tests the blood pressure amid worries about a missed flight connection. The kind of delays and problems that travelers in London, New York and other cities can endure actively hamper their development as financial centers when other old advantages are not as clear as they were before. 

Financial hubs are competing with one another more intensely than ever – and geopolitics and technology feeds into the mix. In the US, the shift of some firms’ HQs to places such as Texas, Florida or Tennessee might be fueled by a number of factors, such as taxes and crime, but I’d wager that improved transport links play a part. I have marveled at how it can take often as little as 15 minutes to go from the exit at Zurich Airport to reach the Swiss city by train. Miami appears to have less of a transport gap between the airport and a hotel than is the case with some US cities. These factors all stack up because time is money. If a banker thinks that a long trip will waste hours and carry potential risks of missed meetings, he or she might prefer to stick to Zoom or Teams instead, or have to spend more. 

A second related point on this is that organizing all these trips and handling schedules is a time-consuming business, and while modern technologies, booking apps and so on can reduce some of the paper-based tedium, they don’t eliminate it. Being able to manage time efficiently and effectively is vital, and that doesn’t just apply to working professionals looking after HNW clients. The clients themselves sometimes need to have this sort of “concierge” service on tap. But I think the term “concierge” doesn’t entirely cover what I think ought to be a more visible “value-add” aspect.

Maybe we should think of the services I mean as “wealth support,” or “outsourced chief of staff services” (OCSS). An HNW individual and family have busy schedules, need to remember important dates, meetings, specific commitments and calls on their time. With even the snazziest mobile calendar apps, important details can fall through the gaps. I can see this being an area of business growth.

Also, there is a need to have backup when things go wrong (canceled flights, sudden illnesses or problems requiring a change of schedule, etc). An HNW individual will sometimes use trusted advisors such as an accountant or lawyer for some of life’s emergencies or chores, but they often won’t have a dedicated “fixer” or personal assistant to do so. 

The more I look at wealth management – and I’ve been doing so for more than 20 years – the more I think that as technology and other forces commoditize so much of the value chain, with AI adding to this, the need to prove added value from the human side grows more urgent. Look at much of what drives family offices. It’s not their investment management savvy. It’s the unsexy but important stuff such as prompt and efficient bill payment, cash management, diary management, property oversight and transport management. It is about the work that a family office does in removing the grind and annoyances of daily life.

In future, I hope and expect that the wealth sector increasingly embraces this service aspect and integrates it more completely with the financial side of its work. Wealth firms might want to make more in their branding and marketing of this "wealth support" work. Time is money, and anything that firms and advisors can do to free up people’s time so they can produce wealth, and enjoy life, is what the ultimate value proposition must be all about. 

Anyway, it won’t be long before I am at an airport again.

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