The Challenge

Our client was the principal of one of the wealthiest families in Europe and in the Forbes top 50 globally. We had got to know him through his time as a corporate board member. What had resonated with him was that we said what we thought was in the best interests of the client, and not just what was easiest to say or what they wanted to hear. Having sold the family-owned operating company, he spent around two thirds of his time running a financial holding company. He needed a CEO quality individual, happy to be a COO and propose strategy to the board, and run the businesses day to day without needing to take the limelight.

Our Approach

Not many of our assignments are more dependent on personal chemistry than this one; importantly, someone too much in the principal’s own image was not suitable either. Thus, we spent considerable time with both the principal and his closest advisors at the beginning of the assignment to educate ourselves on the personality and culture of the family as best as possible.

Our brief was to identify an individual of the highest institutional standard, to help the financial holding company develop a world beating business. It comprised five firms, each of which had mature, entrepreneurial business leaders in their own right. When this was combined with the need for no one to outshine the principal, it required a character prepared to take all of the responsibility but none of the credit.

In our research of the market, financial firms were given consideration as they were arguably the most relevant to the business today; however, there was a natural bias to the industrial/commercial world because this was the direction of travel over a three to five year period. This was also partly as we wanted to avoid appointing someone that would try to replicate or fulfil any of the roles of the respective business leaders.

After an extensive search and considerable interviews, we narrowed it to a final three candidates. Firstly, a CFO that had grown up in one of the world’s largest conglomerates and had expertise aligned to the heritage operating company’s sector, where many of the future investments would be. Secondly, the COO of a family run financial firm with breadth across the sector. Finally, the COO of a nearly 300 year old family holding company with interests in diverse sectors.

The third individual played back to us what the role probably entailed, giving a clearer summary of the brief than either we or the principal were able to convey. He also brought with him the structured approach and authority that the relatively new, organically growing financial holding company needed. Importantly, as the candidate and principal were very different personalities, they were complementary and it fostered a mutual respect. The principal was won around when he decided the candidate would induce him to make the changes that he might not always want to make, but knew he probably should – in the best interests of future generations of his family.

The lead independent director of the holding company board worked with us on the financial negotiations with the candidate to avoid any potential clash with the principal. Independent third parties were also used to conduct impartial valuations of some of the candidate’s existing financial interests to ensure complete objectivity.

The Outcome

The new COO was appointed and he has since developed a manner of diplomatically but successfully confronting what were previously perceived as unapproachable dilemmas within the organisation in a fair and decisive style. In addition, he has involved one or two of the other family members more than before and made the activities of the holding company more inclusive. This has better represented the interests of all family members and acted as a healthy, natural check and balance on occasion. While the principal had before felt overly consumed with having to tend to the day to day management of the businesses, he now has an inherent trust that they are well tended to, and can be more selective on when and where to be involved.