What keeps venerable old families together? They are, after all, only as strong as the roots that bind them.
Most of us know our relatives back to our grandparents. Counting our own children, we might have to contend with four generations.
But there are families who can trace their history back centuries. Sylvia Brown, for instance, is the 11th generation of the family whose name adorns Brown University. And Alessia Antinori is the 26th generation of the Italian winemaking family whose company bears her surname.
For families like these, their strength often lies in their hereditary wealth, in its varied forms of businesses, partnerships and foundations. But the strategies they use to stay together can be adopted by any family, whether or not money is at stake.
One thing prosperous families have in common is a sense of ownership of their wealth, either through a business or foundation.
“Owning something seems to be the most important factor because you have a responsibility to it,” said John A. Davis, chairman of the Cambridge Family Enterprise Group and a former Harvard Business School professor. “Your responsibility to it influences what you get from it, both financially and in terms of pride.”
A family business is often both the repository and generator of a family’s prosperity, which can make decisions about the business more difficult.
“I often ask my wealthy families, ‘What would this decision be like if there wasn’t any shared wealth? Would this be different if you were poor?’” said Jeff Savlov, founder of Blum & Savlov, a family wealth consultancy. “A lot of what makes these families successful is family first.”
And that is where these families — even those linked by finances — need stories, context and shared memories to continue to prosper.
“What keeps these families motivated besides wealth is a sense of mission for the family,” Davis said. “What is this family trying to do? The second part is, ‘How can I contribute to the mission?’“
Another strategy shared by such families is having a communal desire to understand their history, warts and all.
Brown said she had been motivated to delve into her family’s past after hearing a lecture at Brown University that focused on her family’s connection to slavery. She realized she could not rebut what seemed untrue to her because she did not know her family’s history well enough.
“We didn’t sit around the table discussing our ancestors,” she said. So she called her father and aunt to find out if what she had heard was true. “Their attitude was, there is very little we can do. Our ancestors were successful merchants in the 18th century when the Atlantic economy was dominated by slave-trading. They dabbled in it. But my direct ancestors were anti-slavery.”
Unlike others who might leave it there, she dove into the family archives and wrote “Grappling With Legacy: Rhode Island’s Brown Family and the American Philanthropic Impulse” (Archway, 2017). She said in the book that she wanted to come to terms with “two seminal events which may seem diametrically opposed: my father’s decision to give his inheritance (and mine) to Brown University, and the transformation of the Brown family into the poster child for the evils of the slave trade.”
In addition to exploring her family history, she also hoped the book would draw her family, which has only eight direct descendants in her generation, closer together.
The Antinori family, which traces its lineage back to the year 1000 and its entry into the wine business to 1385, is still linked by its vineyards and grand homes. It produces two of the country’s best wines, Tignanello and Solaia, as well as a Chianti Classico.
“When you grow up surrounded by art, beauty, traditions, when you are little, you don’t really feel the difference” between a multigenerational family and a smaller one, said Antinori, who runs the family business with her two older sisters. “Slowly, you come to understand the difference.”Her connection to her family’s business came from the work she, like her sisters, did with their father when they were young: marketing the wine and scouting for vineyards abroad. “We were never obligated to work in the business,” she said.
Family heritage is not always enough. People move away from their childhood homes and do not always return as adults. Communication becomes vital.
Newsletters are an easy way for families to keep in touch. But they require someone to take the lead and appoint a successor.
Mitzi Perdue, heiress to the Sheraton Hotel fortune and the last wife of the chicken magnate Frank Perdue, asks each family member to write an essay about what it means to be part of the family. They’re collected and bound in a book.
“We get to know everyone, and everyone has a different view of what it means to be us,” Perdue said.
Philanthropy is often used to help knit a family together, particularly when the family business is gone.
Brown’s family has supported causes in Rhode Island for some 250 years. But that philanthropic tradition — and what some family members felt was mistreatment by the university that bears their name — has some descendants looking to make their mark elsewhere.
Brown said only she and a cousin live in Providence; the six other descendants in her generation live farther away. When it comes to the family foundation, those relatives’ interests are not as focused on the organizations the family has traditionally supported.
Davis, the consultant, said that philanthropy was often the key to a successful family and a way for descendants to be reminded of the wealth they take for granted.
“People need to ask, What is the purpose of doing it?” he said, and more broadly: “What’s the purpose of our family?”
To answer these big questions, there is little substitute for time spent together. Brown said her generation returns to Providence or Newport, Rhode Island, once a year, though not at the same time. They do have family meetings, but people often call in rather than appear in person.
Perdue said the Henderson side of her family, to which the Sheraton wealth accrued, has an annual vacation at a family home — complete with ballroom — in Dublin, New Hampshire. Similarly, she said, Frank Perdue left an endowment for family vacations, and every 18 months, up to 60 Perdues travel somewhere together.
The Antinoris have found a way to spend most weekends together on their land in Bolgheri, near the coast in Italy.
“We’ve spent a lot of time together in the past,” Antinori said. “The important thing is for the future generation to spend time with my father because he has the history and knowledge.”
That time together helps make the family stronger.
“We don’t agree on a few things, but the important thing is, we share the same values — respect, passion, the concept that you want the business to stay in the family,” Antinori said.
No matter how well siblings and cousins get along, families are not closed systems. Spouses bring with them another family’s traditions.
Finding a way to welcome them can be tricky. Savlov said the blending of families must be handled delicately so that it did not seem like spouses were leaving their old families behind. The receiving family also must be mindful that a new member may not want to be part of everything all at once.
Perdue said that she interviewed people who married into the Henderson family about their lives and wrote biographies about them for other family members to read. The new spouses are given the essays on what it means to be a Henderson.
“If you jump into a large family and you meet 60 people, that’s going to be intimidating and overwhelming,” she said. “But if you’ve seen their pictures and know their interests ahead of time, that makes it easier.”
That transparency can help families look honestly at their past and move forward together.
As Brown said, “When you’re in the 11th generation and the family keeps meticulous records, there are going to be skeletons in your closet.”