Financial TimesCreating legacies from your family stories

February 10, 20210

I grew up with an enterprising and “can-do” attitude. As a teenager, I was always finding ways to make money and enjoyed working hard. I didn’t learn these traits from my parents, who did low wage jobs all their lives. It was a few older family stories that fired my entrepreneurial drive.

As a boy, I was captivated by my paternal grandfather’s tales of starting and running different businesses as a young man in the 1930s. 

His start-ups included a bed manufacturing business, which failed, quickly followed by an engineering business, which also failed. He ended up making a living by using his engineering skills to do house maintenance. It was a far cry from his early business ventures, but he didn’t see it like that. Grandad was proud that he had at least tried to start two businesses.

My grandmother’s parents gave her and my grandad the deposit to buy their family home because he had shown initiative and tried to help himself through his businesses. His business failures were seen as a badge of honour by his parents-in-law. I was proud of my grandad. His principles of striving, working hard and bouncing back inspired me.

How much do you know about the lives of your grandparents, great-grandparents or other relations? It may be worth finding out more. Many families have an untapped treasure trove of stories about their antecedents that can teach the current generation valuable life lessons — and help them sustain financial wealth over the generations.

The most financially successful and enduring families, such as the Rothschild and the Schroder banking dynasties, understand the importance of life stories, since they can serve to underpin the family’s values and common purpose.

A “rags to riches” plotline is not compulsory. When I was a teenager, I loved spending time with my uncle, doing DIY on his home and cars. He was a genius with his hands and tried to teach me wiring, plumbing, carpentry, decorating and engineering. I was hopeless, but my uncle never lost patience.

He told me the story of how, many years previously, he had gone into business with another man, setting up a prestige vehicle body repair workshop. Unfortunately, my uncle’s lack of business acumen and trusting nature meant he had unwittingly allowed borrowing for the business to be secured against his home.

His business partner eventually ran off with the cash, leaving my uncle to pick up the pieces. He had to close the company, take on two jobs and spent many years working long hours to repay the debts.

My uncle’s story taught me some important lessons. Never secure business borrowing against the family home. Always take responsibility for mistakes and do whatever it takes to make things right. When my grandad died, the money he left my uncle allowed him to repay the remaining business debts and stop working so hard for money.

The pandemic has underlined the importance of recording these kinds of family stories before it’s too late. But in the coming decades the huge and growing stock of financial assets means many more families will face questions about how to pass on family wealth. Kings Court Trust, a probate and estate administration specialist, estimates that £5.5tn of wealth will change hands between generations in the UK over the next 35 years. 

Lockdown is a perfect opportunity for every family to capture some of their powerful tales, ideally through a series of recorded video interviews with older family members. Each year I work with a handful of successful families to prepare their heirs for their legacy and this is one of the ways in which we help them. 

Ask them to recount some of the pivotal times of their lives, and those of their parents and great-grandparents. You can also include your own anecdotes by having a friend or relative interview you on a video call.

Aim to uncover stories that illustrate positive life events. I find it best to limit the length of each interview. It’s better to have several shorter sessions that reveal meaningful anecdotes than one long slog that can descend into a confusing ramble.

Transcribe the recordings using inexpensive software (I use and ask interviewees to review the transcripts. These will provide a rich source of material from which you can create a family legacy statement. This can be as simple or comprehensive as you wish, but should encapsulate what your family stands for and the principles which underpin its financial wealth.

When my father died, he left me £800. When my grandfather and uncle died, they both left me their inspiring stories. They never managed to teach me to be good at engineering or DIY. But the legacy of their values and the example they showed me was an immeasurable help when I was creating a successful business later in life.

Jason Butler is an expert on financial wellbeing and presenter of the “Real Money Stories” podcast. Twitter: @jbthewealthman

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