Family Offices: What They Mean for Businesses & Independent Sponsors

Why entrepreneurs should look closely at family offices

Entrepreneurs and family offices have never needed each other more. But raising capital on a deal-by-deal basis can introduce additional risks. Some entrepreneurs, including those in the US and Europe, find it difficult to tell which family offices are prepared to commit to a deal and which may just be learning about direct investing.

At the end of the day, what do family offices invest in? And how do their priorities match up with those of business owners and independent sponsors? For a fuller discussion on the independent (or fundless) sponsor model, please see our article.

Here, we’ll look at direct investing from the family office’s point of view, with an eye toward helping entrepreneurs choose the ones that offer the best prospects for sustained partnership.

What should entrepreneurs know about family offices?

In recent years, the number of family offices has grown to more than 3,100 in the US alone, according to Mordor Intelligence and Campden. This growth reflects a worldwide trend. Europe supports an estimated 2,300 family offices; Asia is home to an estimated 1,300 family offices, but that figure is projected to grow more rapidly than in any other part of the world.

Increasing returns to capital as compared to labor, in addition to reduced operating costs, have contributed to large multi-generational-type fortunes. Family offices oversee roughly $6 trillion in assets worldwide, according to Bloomberg Wealth. Some are huge—Bill and Melinda Gates’ Cascade Investment holds more than $170 billion in total assets—but most are much smaller. Modest-sized family offices may manage closer to $100 million in assets, with a staff of five or six.

The amount that family offices invest is correlated to the family’s total asset value. Family offices usually start by investing smaller amounts to “test the waters” before increasing their allocation to a single investment manager or independent sponsor.

Depending on the asset class, some family offices may start with an investment of $200k, whereas larger ones may have minimum ticket sizes of $2 million. Substantial, and usually more institutionalized, family offices are known to commit up to $20 million per investment. In the case of direct deals, most family offices invest between $2.5-$10 million, and some may even go up to $20 million.

Why do family offices seek entrepreneurs, and vice versa?

Unlike wealth managers, family offices are freestanding investment operations that outsource a family’s investments and finances. They may serve one family or several, but are not constituted (or authorized) to solicit investments from others. Largely because they are responsible for a limited number of people, family offices are subject to fewer regulations than other investment advisors.

That freedom allows family offices to take on more risk than similar investment firms. Hedge fund titan Bill Hwang, for example, was penalized several times while managing the Tiger Asia hedge fund, and was eventually barred from the hedge fund industry altogether. But it was his family office, Archegos Capital Management, that ruined him, losing $20 billion in just two days before being liquidated.

Few family offices are valued as highly as Archegos was at its height, but most of them are free to take the kinds of risks that Hwang did. That’s good news for entrepreneurs, but it can come with some strings attached.

Why do family offices seek direct deals?

Family offices are attractive financial partners for many owner-managed businesses. As investors, they do not face the same exit pressure as traditional private equity (PE) funds, and can provide patient capital with more flexibility. With so much leeway and fewer and less restrictive mandates, family offices are natural players in the PE sphere.

As family offices become more significant players in the investment field, they have naturally come to assert their interests more forcefully. Among the consequences of their growing stature is the increased desire of family offices to avoid paying the fees that accompany limited partnership in traditional PE funds. Direct investments offer investment opportunities that address this need.

Fueled by increased inflation in the (post-)pandemic economy, unstable geopolitical conditions, and unpredictable financial markets, family offices are looking to increase their chances of producing healthy returns through direct deals. Approximately six out of ten single-family offices currently invest in private equity, and of those that invest, one in four does so on a direct basis.

Many families see going direct as a way to exercise more control over their investments and the opportunity to better align their objectives and interests with their investment strategies. These types of investments can be especially intriguing given the higher overhead associated with traditional PE funds. For many family offices, then, PE represents a valuable element of a much broader portfolio, and that element must be mediated.

To keep up with market trends and source proprietary deal flow, family offices are broadening their networks, just as their PE peers have done. This requires them to build out their platforms and budgets, including an in-house team to provide operational support for their investments. However, the cost of this effort cannot be spread across multiple investors, which puts added pressure on family offices to generate high returns.

Building relationships with external parties, including independent sponsors, forms an increasingly important part of their strategy, and creates new opportunities to strike mutually beneficial agreements.

What do family offices look for when investing in direct deals?

Each family office is different, but as an investor class, family offices do tend to share some common characteristics. Entrepreneurs looking to work with family offices should understand clearly what the typical family office seeks in an investment opportunity.

Family offices prefer to invest in companies whose internal operations and leadership are prepared for significant organic growth following the introduction of new sources of capital. The company’s growth plan, in other words, should be largely coherent by the time a business owner seeks the inclusion of a family office.

For independent sponsors, the key takeaway is to focus on direct opportunities or situations that have not been widely auctioned, articulating the specific strategies that might be implemented to create value and the experience they have in realizing this outcome.

At the same time, any family office wishing to pursue direct investing will ask about more than the specific company in which they hope to invest. This observation is useful to entrepreneurs as well. When a family office asks pointed questions about the growth strategy behind an investment opportunity, entrepreneurs can take heart, knowing that their prospective partners are prepared to make a serious commitment, or to walk away from a deal early in the negotiation process without wasting either party’s time.

What are the risks for entrepreneurs of dealing with a family office?

Family offices offer ready capital and few regulatory restrictions. For entrepreneurs, that’s both a blessing and a curse. In exchange for a valuable source of new capital, independent sponsors in particular shoulder a significantly higher burden of due diligence. Simply put, family offices are as diverse as the families behind them, and not every family office with ready money is a good fit for every direct investing plan.

Remember that many family offices are intrigued by direct investing because it allows them to exercise more control over their investments. Entrepreneurs should anticipate this tendency from the very start, and should take pains to work only with family offices whose growth philosophy matches their own.

Although financial considerations are important, they should not be the only factors guiding an entrepreneur seeking partnership with family offices. A long-term relationship guided by shared principles will benefit all parties more richly in the long run than a short-sighted, hastily negotiated partnership.

Entrepreneurs must understand both their own investment strategy and that of any family office with which they deal. This includes gaining an appreciation of how involved the family office intends to be in the long run, and how prepared they are to make their involvement serious, sustained, and successful. The wrong match can lead to a once-eager family office to withdraw its support for a deal—on its timeline, not the business’—which can throw an entire investment decision into doubt.

Entrepreneurs should be ready to do a little extra research and have a few extra conversations early on in the process, rather than hoping that things will go smoothly after the investment is formalized. At a minimum, they should be prepared to answer the following questions before committing to any relationship with a family office:

  • What steps has the family office taken to identify investment opportunities? What role do such deals play in the office’s broader investment strategy?
  • How are investment decisions made by the family office? Is decision-making authority well documented?
  • What investment horizon does the family office expect? What does it seek by way of immediate returns? Long-term returns?
  • How actively does the family office expect to manage its investments? Is its interest primarily financial, operational, or a combination of both?
How can entrepreneurs find the right family office?

Along with plenty of research and conversation, business owners and independent sponsors often benefit from the advice of firms that specialize in finding the right family office for each investment opportunity. To learn about how Cap Expand Partners introduces the likeliest family offices from its international network, please contact Sergio van Luijk at info@cap-expand.com or +3212260113.

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