Date: Sep 11 2019
In this episode, we sit down with Karen McNeill, Head of Family History at Ascent Private Capital Management of U.S. Bank, to discuss her fascinating role in researching family histories as part of a comprehensive wealth planning platform. Here, she discusses how applying historical knowledge to family culture can play an enormous role in supporting family preservation and success.
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Below is a transcript from the conversation:
KC: Speaking with a family history expert is not something most families expect when working with a capital management firm. How did your role originate?
Karen McNeill: So, when Ascent was created, it was created as a holistic, multidisciplinary approach to wealth management. But we also recognize failure rates in wealth transfer and business succession. So, we have experts to address the soft issues like trust, communication, mission, vision, values, preparing heirs—the issues that when not addressed can lead to these high rates of wealth loss.
So, as a data point, as many as 70 percent of generational wealth transfers fail, in most cases, not because of tax or investment problems—those traditional services—but, because of a lack of communication, trust, and preparation between family members—or, those soft issues that I mentioned.
KC: Can you explain, real quick, what you mean by “they fail?”
KM: It’s not like the families go from being significantly wealthy to impoverished, but the wealth dissipates. So maybe a family, because it lacks that trust in communication, all of the inheriting generation splinters off into their own lines. So again, it's not like they have suddenly become poor. But what they could have done as a family unit, and aggregating that wealth together, is very different from what they can do—and what they have—as individual units. And so, that's one generation of splintering and then it goes on from there.
And so, I'm on a national team comprised of experts in tax and estate planning, risk management, CFO services, coaches with backgrounds in psychology, and historians. And together, we address the tactical and strategic side of wealth management. Again, those soft issues I mentioned, to help address the challenges these families face
KC: Well, honestly your role sounds really fascinating. What is your background that that led you to Ascent?
KM: So, I have a PhD in History from U.C. Berkeley. And all of my scholarship is on an architect named Julia Morgan. I focused on how she built her business and career, but also on how women, in particular, use their position of wealth to make a lasting impact across a broad range of issues in their communities. And in that work, I did tons of biographical and genealogical research. And then I taught for a long time. Then I moved on to historic preservation, where what fascinated me was the application of history to the real world. So, I would do a research project and that building would get on the national register, and then the owners of that building might be able to apply for tax credits or something to help be a steward of that asset. Right? So, then this job came along, and it was just this sort of beautiful marriage of the role of family history and applying history to the real issues that families and businesses are facing.
KC: Yeah, truly that's what it sounds like. How long have you been in that role?
KM: Six-and-a-half years.
KC: And did you originate this role, or did it already exist?
KM: No, I originated it. It was a wonderful lump of clay that I've been able to shape and reshape and have a tremendous amount of fun with.
KC: When this role was identified as something that was beneficial to families, how did you present that as part of a wealth-management, comprehensive package?
KM: So, with this background of, especially the historic preservation side of seeing how the application to real world situations really can make a change, I brought that kind of sensitivity. In showing how the struggles and triumphs that families go through, shape who they are today and helps them build character over time, it creates the family culture. And that culture may be fantastic, it may also have issues that need to be addressed. And it's just filled with fantastic stories.
I have researched hundreds of families over my career and I have never come across a story that is not fascinating. And money doesn't have anything to do with it, you know? It’s having that historical imagination and helping people to imagine what it was like to go through whatever family members went through in the past. And so, it helps families get to issues that they are dealing with today, but from the vantage point of the past. And so, they have a little bit more fun with it because they have a little bit more distance from it. And at the same time, it really hits them emotionally, because somehow this is their family.
KC: What has been some of the response that you've seen from families who go through this with you?
KM: The families are always appreciative. They are never I have not come across a family yet who is really upset that we have gone down this path of looking into the past. They are in awe of the trials and travails and triumphs of their ancestors. And sometimes they're in shock. Although, I genuinely never shock for the sake of shocking. Often, they are humbled by what their ancestors have gone through. And they're very ponderous and they usually want to know a little bit more and then figure out … In the end, it's about figuring out “OK, so what?” This is all very interesting but, so what?
KC: Yeah. So, what is the next step there? How did they go about using this information?
KM: So, we use it in a lot of creative ways. Sometimes it's an icebreaker early in family meetings. Maybe families aren't used to having these family meetings, and we begin with storytelling—just to get people talking, and having fun, and realizing that all these characters who make up the people who comprise the family now, they come from the same place, they come from the same well. And that's fun. So, it's an icebreaker.
But then also, we often use it to contextualize the bigger theme of a family meeting. For instance, governance is an educational path that we work with a lot of clients on. But, what is governance? What does that mean? And so, we can contextualize that.
With one family, they had a signer of the Declaration of Independence. And then they had generations of family members immigrating from Europe from the colonial period until the early 20th century. And so, I was able to connect the dots for the family to show them: So, the Declaration of Independence is like the vision and mission statement, but it's the constitution that's actually the legal framework for the government. And the Declaration of Independence happened fairly quickly. The Constitution took years and years to create. Why? Because you had all of those people from different colonies with different cultures, and different economies, coming together to try to hash out agreements. By the time your last ancestors arrived, the country had been through the Civil War. But the Constitution survived. Why? Because those Founding Fathers, they went through the hard work of creating the decision-making mechanisms for the governing structures. And so, if your family puts in the time now to figure out your family constitution, how you're going to make decisions, roles and responsibilities, then you will have a greater chance of your wealth lasting for generations. And so, again, it sort of really personalized the governance thing and help to demystify what the heck governance is.
KC: Do you join these families in their family meetings in order to present the histories?
KM: Oftentimes, yeah, I do. The goal, really, is to get the families sharing stories and engaging in it themselves. But I am sort of inherently excited over all of the stories. And so, I'm the one who comes in there and presents the first story, and gets the ball rolling on how exciting all this stuff is.
KC: What is your process for gathering all the information?
KM: Typically, I start with the family tree, and as I am filling out that family tree, I go to a variety of genealogy websites and other repositories that people may have heard of online. But the amount of material that is being digitized and made available online is growing all the time. So, I end up with a huge range of sources, just from filling out the family tree. Then I do a lot of oral history with the families. It's usually with the matriarch and patriarch, or the oldest generation.
In the case of business histories, it's usually with the wealth creator and key business associates in the creation of that that business. And then sometimes family archives and sometimes archival institutions. Plus, I look at secondary sources, you know, books and articles that have been published so that I understand the context of where the family comes from, or what the type of business is. And that can help me get to the “so what” questions as well.
KC: Yeah sounds very in-depth, but a lot of fun as well.
KM: Yes, people often say I have the best job in the bank
KC: Do you have any data around how families who tell and preserve their history actually do have a higher success rate?
KM: You know, that is a good question. And I would say that the data is anecdotal rather than hard data. So, James Hughes in Preparing Heirs, he refers to history as the glue that holds the family together. And it's a lot of anecdotal stuff. But I've seen it happen, too. I mean, I have my own anecdotes.
I started this one project with a family for a couple of reasons. There were three reasons. One, is that this family had a business that had never been documented. So, they wanted to know that. They had an ancestor who, it turned out, was not the person they thought he was. And so, I figured out his mystery. And then, the other reason was to build bridges with an estranged sibling. And so, that sibling was kind of like the family historian. And so, I met with him and we did this project together. And at the end of the project, he and his sibling came together for the first time in like 15 years. And so, it helped. It helped to mend fences.
KC: When you present this as an offering, are people ever hesitant?
KM: You know, people are never … people just wonder sort of why this is going to be beneficial to them. I find that most families, they're interested in learning about their families, but it's not crystal clear to them why learning that story would be of value to them. And that's especially true among new wealth. And that's because they have a perception that history is something that is done by “important people,” and don't inherently understand that history belongs to everybody. And there's value in all of the stories that have made us who we are and where we are today. And so, helping families understand why they want to pursue this, is one obstacle. So often, they say “okay and good luck interviewing my mom, she doesn't talk.” And invariably, then I interview that person and I'm there for like eight hours. People have a lot to say. They love this stuff.
KC: Oh, I'm sure. So, can you talk a little bit about the range of the families you work with—you mentioned there's probably somebody who just had a liquidity event and doesn't have much familiarity with their family history, versus legacy families?
KM: Yeah. Some of the families we work with are legacy families. A lot of the families we work with—and this is really important actually—a lot of the families that we work with have operating businesses, but a succession is clearly on the horizon. Whether it is the sale of the business and a big liquidity event, or the generation is going to take a takeover leadership, or the family is no longer going to be actively in a leadership role in the business—something like that. And so, in preparation for this new stage of the family history and the business history, we look into what has happened. What has gotten the business to where it is today? What is the culture, how is it defined?
And that helps the business going forward, it helps them understand that usually it's the culture that's actually the most important thing to the business’s success in that succession moment. Holding on to that, because that culture is what has really made people excited about the business. And whatever the product or service or policies or whatever, they're there is secondary to that culture that makes people excited to work there. And if the family is selling the business, then it's really important for them to understand the story behind where their wealth came from and to have it documented. Because, all of a sudden, when that business is gone, there's a vacuum. And future generations, you know they'll have no relationship to the business, but it's important for them to know where it's from—where the money's from. And the living generations who suddenly see that business disappear, it's really important for them to have a grasp of the family history, because the family preexisted the business, and exists well beyond the business. So, it helps to mitigate the turbulence of that period of change.
KC: Love it. That was such a great answer. If somebody was interested in hearing more, how could they get in contact with you?
KM: They can either contact me directly. email@example.com, or they can contact any of the regional managers in Seattle, California, Denver, Cincinnati, or Minneapolis.
KC: Perfect and I'm going to include the link. Thank you so much for joining me today. It was fascinating and lovely to hear about what it is that you do.
KM: Thank you very much. I've enjoyed talking to you.