There is a mystical element to the concept of a Family Office. Seen, but not heard. Looked for, but not found. In the past few years the Family Office has become a commonly used term when it comes to raising capital. Someone you know has relationships, is targeting, or working with a large Family Office, or a group of them. When I first heard the term, I thought to myself “This is a group of investors we have to get connected with. We built our company by delivering informed strategy and highly personalized service to private investors and owners of commercial real estate. They are the ideal client profile!” So, we embarked upon a journey to build a set of relationships with high quality, high net worth family offices who were looking to get more out of commercial real estate. We soon realized that it wasn’t going to be easy.
We started our research where any astute business person would; we googled it, “Family Office Investing” and up came the results. Pages and pages of lists, referral sources, strategies and conferences that would give us access to the names, locations and in some cases investment strategies for all shapes and sizes of family offices. We didn’t feel like buying a list of names for $4,000 was the best value proposition so we attended conferences where we might connect with a few of them (there are many to choose from). I can tell you from personal experience, few if any of these family offices or their representatives want to be solicited at a conference. Unless you have a direct referral into them, or a preexisting relationship, connecting was not easy. Soliciting really isn’t our style anyway, so we were left in a bit of a lurch as to next steps.
With little success in making connections to new family office relationships, we paused and took a long look at our own company. We needed to get a better idea of who we were and whether or not we were a fitting partner for family offices. We were just getting started with a branding project and part of that project was to interview our current clients in order to better understand their expectations of us. The process resulted in a new name, look and set of internal values that really spoke to who we were.
A significant part of the branding project was research. We interviewed internal stakeholders and fifteen clients across all categories of the service platform. These interviews gave us incredibly valuable insight as to what our clients liked and disliked about the various services we provided for them. It was then that we realized we were going about the idea of building our client base with family offices the wrong way. We knew we could do good work for them, and we knew we wanted to grow relationships with like-minded investors. However, we didn’t understand that the value our company offered them wasn’t as important to them as our values. By clarifying our values, we took the first and most important step in building a platform that would put us in a position to broaden the set of investors for whom we worked. Today, many of them are family offices and the way we have done it has been an enlightening and fun journey.
There are many kinds of family offices and they need trusted partners with whom they can invest. We recognized this because when we analyzed our current list of clients, we found that a couple of them had portfolios with significant value. They trusted us to manage and lease multiple properties worth millions! They were our best clients and they were actually running a micro-family office.
A micro family office is characterized by the volume under management being much smaller than the normal minimum threshold to set up a family office. We were working for two micro-family offices but just didn’t think about them that way. In fact, and this is often the case with micro family offices, they did not view themselves to be in this category of family offices at all. We had built deep relationships with these clients over the years and had a successful track record of performance for them. Understanding their bigger picture objectives-legacy, transference of wealth, charity, and many other dynamics of their family office helped us put together a road map for future family office clients.
Single family and multi-family offices generally operate on a much higher scale than the micro-family office. Here is the distinction: The single-family office only serves one single family and does not accept external management mandates. The multi-family office services more than one family and may offer a more generic solution to their clients. In fact, many of the family offices that would seek out a multi-family office partner to support them are so large that they operate much like an institution.
Remember a little earlier when I mentioned values? An integral aspect of our branding project was establishing core values. In our company, they are Wisdom, Equality, Determination, Ingenuity, Stewardship and Collaboration. These values speak to the internal qualities that govern our conduct, and external qualities that support our clients. With that clarity, our entire organization has circled around a path that is destined to enhance the lives of those we serve. Our brand promise, “vision and guidance to help you get more out of commercial real estate”, similarly supplied us with critical direction. By defining who we were internally and how we had helped our clients over the years, we developed the correct ethos with which to engage this mystical entity called the family office.
The reality that we were already working with micro family offices helped us be more intuitive as we serviced them. Some still don’t think of themselves in the micro family office category, but they are. Our relationship with our micro-family offices blossomed with the start of our first fund. It gave us the opportunity to put our own money into investments alongside of them and elevate the trust they have in us. Fortunately, they told a few friends about what we were doing, and we built relationships with a few new families.
Today, we have grown into the proud manager of commercial real estate for six family offices that vary in size. The smallest of those is a $30M family and the largest is a family worth hundreds of millions. We learned that the key to building those relationships was creating a matching set of values, and a service profile that matched as well. That took us to new product offerings and to new relationships that allow us to do what we do best. The mystical element didn’t really exist at all…we were already doing work for them and just needed to define the alignment that had made us successful partners over the years.