Wealth structuring is the process of properly using companies, trusts, foundations, and other arrangements to control assets in the best interests of their owners or beneficiaries. It is about helping wealth creators control liability, manage incomings and outgoings, and plan for succession. It is a process and service driven by individual desires about family, ambition, and our place in the world: it is deeply personal. Yet if providers in this space know that every solution needs to be built from the ground up for each individual, why is it that so many firms seem well-equipped to do it for one gender but not the other?

The answer is empathy.

On the whole, men will be more comfortable dictating their wishes to advisors on a transactional basis, whereas women will place a greater value on being genuinely understood. Too many businesses, including those which provide structuring, are built with a minimal focus on empathy, and this goes a long way to explaining the failure of many institutions to deliver a good service to UHNW women. To abuse a stereotyped statement, “it’s not the advice they give, it’s the way they give it.”

Building (or choosing) a family office with empathy

Empathy is unpopular because it’s expensive: it takes more time when dealing with clients, and more time spent internally building the right culture and environment in which employees can practise it. Businesses that do invest this time will have certain markers, though, and these will be of interest to UHNW women looking to either select a provider or build their own family office.

Empathy is hard to scale, so it is most likely to be found in small, private firms. So-called ‘supermarket’ wealth managers with dozens of offices and hundreds of staff are more likely to be transactional. Empathetic organisations will naturally have more women in senior roles, as these environments are more conducive to the advancement of women. They are not, counter-intuitively, likely to feature board quotas or other ‘forced’ diversity measures. They may well be family owned, and they will be progressive in their provision of things like flexible working conditions.

Finally, they are unlikely to be the cheapest option on the market and they are more likely to take their time getting to understand clients before they put together quotes. Prospective clients should recognise these as positive signs, rather than delays or inflated costs: the empathetic business and the transactional business are selling fundamentally different services.

A case study: empathy in action

Because Boston started as a single family office and remains privately owned, we’ve been able to focus on empathy as a differentiator. There have been many cases, over the years, in which this had directly benefited our female clients.

One of our clients built a successful, international business from the ground up. She had great experience of dealing with large corporations and closing sizable deals. As a result, she was straight talking and placed a lot of emphasis on building very transparent ‘no nonsense’ relationships with third parties to ensure the job was done properly. We started working with this client as she was moving from wealth creation to wealth preservation mode, with a particular eye on succession. Several providers had identified that she should settle a ‘vanilla’ discretionary trust, which would pass on her wealth to her three children in a tax efficient and easily-administered fashion. We ultimately gave her the same solution, but the difference was in how we went about it.

Through extended discussions with both the client and her family, we came to understand that although she wanted her wealth to pass to her children, she was also very concerned that they were unprepared to handle it. This is not an uncommon concern in general, but the details always differ in subtle but important ways. Instead of rushing into the creation of the trust, we spent a significant amount of time drawing up a document that showed our understanding of her wishes and concerns, as well as a framework for the education and mentoring of the next generation. As a single mother, the client also took comfort from having professional female trustees with children of their own.

What she was offered by other providers was a transaction. What she ended up buying from Boston was empathy.

This article is taken from the report Winning Women: Key Insights for Wealth Firms Targeting Today’s Dynamic Female Clients, a 36-page study of the role women play in wealth generation globally and how firms need to adapt to support them.