Billionaire Lui Che Woo, chairman and founder of Galaxy Entertainment Group Ltd with an assistant in Hong Kong, China, 3 March 2016. Photo by Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg/Getty
It takes diplomacy, anthropology and psychology to serve the world’s super-rich. But only trust opens their purse strings
If you want to understand rich people, talk to their servants. This was the intuition that made a cultural phenomenon of Upstairs, Downstairs in the 1970s, and Downtown Abbey 40 years later. The same idea underlies the drama of Bleak House (1853), Charles Dickens’s novel of wealth and family intrigue: the servants know all, but no one knows more than Mr Tulkinghorn, the lawyer who manages the fortune of Lord and Lady Dedlock. Tulkinghorn, who appears at first to be a mere employee of his noble clients, is soon revealed to be pulling the strings as ‘master of the mysteries of great houses’.
The 21st century has seen a proliferation of Tulkinghorns; today, there are tens of thousands of professionals worldwide who specialise in managing the fortunes of the world’s richest people. As global wealth has grown, and become increasingly concentrated in a few hands, there has been an explosion in demand for experts to protect it from tax, and from any other laws or obligations that the rich find inconvenient. Wealth managers, as these professionals are now known, are called upon to do everything from secreting clients’ assets offshore, to resolving disputes about succession in family businesses, to vetting potential marital partners. To do this, they have to know everything about their clients, just like their 19th-century counterparts. But now, with some of the world’s largest private fortunes coming from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, they have to do it across boundaries of culture, class, nationality and religion that their predecessors could never have imagined.
Working with such clients, and earning their trust in terms meaningful within their social idioms, requires extraordinary social skills and sensitivity. Like many professions, wealth management requires mastery of both technical knowledge (mostly in law and finance) and a cultural skill-set that organisation theorists have described as a combination of ‘mannerisms, attitudes and social rituals’. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu definedthe professionalism of lawyers as ‘a technical competence which is inevitably social’. This is why, as he explained in Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977), so many professions ‘set such store on the seemingly most insignificant details of dress, bearing, physical and verbal manners’.
These demands are accentuated in wealth management to a degree rarely seen in professional work. More than good manners or good bearing are required, because the social conventions of the ultra-rich represent as distinct a culture as that of any remote and little-known tribe. As one recent study of elite lawyers in London noted: ‘A common story told by junior lawyers is that wearing the right colour socks and shoes is vital for success’; conversely, the same study reported that one wrong move (sartorial or otherwise) can spell the end of clients’ trust, and the end of one’s career prospects.
If anything, such dynamics are accentuated in wealth management. Thus, job advertisements for wealth managers rarely mention technical skills – those are taken for granted – but place great emphasis on social skills. Forexample, a Swiss firm invited applications for a wealth management position with an advertisement that almost exclusively detailed social abilities, such as ‘exceptional diplomatic skills’ along with ‘excellence in complex negotiations’.
These observations are connected to two of the most surprising things I learned during the eight years I spent interviewing 65 wealth managers in 18 countries. First, they are not immune to the charms of glimpsing ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous’. Stan, an otherwise sober and serious practitioner in Chicago, conceded that one of the chief enjoyments of his job was the ‘tabloidesque aspect’ of his clients’ lives. Eleanor, a wealth manager practising in Switzerland, echoed this sentiment, saying of her work: ‘It’s like being a voyeur … the client has to undress in front of you.’…