Giuseppe Ciucci confesses that he has ‘an unconventional background’. His Italian family, from Tuscany, moved to South Africa, where they worked in the wine and olive oil industry, and he went on to qualify as a chartered accountant and lawyer.
He trained with Deloitte & Touche before joining Stonehage in Neuchatel and then moved to what he likes to call ‘the city-state of London’ in 1997, the same year that he became Stonehage’s CEO. As both an immigrant and an emigrant, he feels that his international family background accords with the new global trend of families moving about far more than 50 years ago.
Stonehage started in 1976 as a family office for families emerging from South Africa during those troubled times and developed from a typical family office with a trust orientation to a full wealth-management entity, catering to the upper bracket of ultra-high-net-worth individuals, either in conjunction with their existing family offices or as an entirely outsourced operation.
‘Family offices have changed considerably. They were quite basic in the services they provided,’ he reflects. ‘The real opportunity in this industry is the emphasis on investment opportunities and treating family structures like public companies, with the same kind of governance and transition issues.’
Independent and owned by its 46 partners – mainly former lawyers and accountants, with a smattering of former investment bankers – Stonehage has 300 employees and caters to the needs of approximately 1,000 families. Although it began as a service for the South African Diaspora, its focus has increasingly been on European families based in London.
‘Stonehage is multi-disciplinary and multi-skilled and we are experienced at managing complex financial affairs that span several continents’ says Ciucci. ‘Most MFOs are based in one or two places. We have offices in Switzerland, South Africa, Israel, Jersey, the UK and the US, as well as a strong affiliate network of partners worldwide.
'These are different jurisdictions but we all speak the same language. There are 46 partners in our “family”. Compared to us, UBS is a Behemoth. We are competing with banks trying to sell products as opposed to solving problems, and with the smaller boutiques trying to offer investment opportunities. Other full-service family offices tend to be more region or country-focused.’
Stonehage relies on referrals from existing clients, but also receives introductions from lawyers and accountants, who are subject to strict regulatory frameworks, as well as from investment banks. The typical minimum starting-level for a family is a net worth of $25 million.
Stonehage has found that families tend to move in packs based on nationality, so an Irish family moving might encourage another 20 families to follow suit. Stonehage hosts a number of events such as concerts, art exhibitions and golf days, which allow clients to meet each other, but Ciucci says the company is very careful about the way they approach this.
‘We still believe that money talks and wealth whispers. It’s the culture of this firm that discretion is everything.’
Even so, Ciucci insists that his Swiss professional background, with its emphasis on accuracy, the work ethic and discretion, has been absolutely vital in shaping him. ‘I’m a great admirer of the Swiss and their approach to handling global wealth. There was a time when Swiss Banks were seen as expensive and had not kept up with developments in global wealth-management.
Their approach was characterised by a basic investment portfolio, high charges, protection of money and very little return. In the UK, there had been a paradigm shift caused by the impact of the US investment banks, with their more aggressive attitude, their emphasis on the bottom line, their wafer-thin margins and their high returns. The Swiss are now making a comeback.’ he says.
He is not especially concerned about the Labour government’s recently announced proposals to impose a flat annual levy of £30,000 on Non Doms. However, ‘there is still a question mark about non-doms who have been in the UK for over ten years,’ he says. ‘Whatever happens, a number of countries could benefit and Switzerland is one of them.’
Over time, Ciucci believes that Asia is where the opportunity for the family-office industry lies. The wealth management industry in Asia is undergoing a period of change, from a model of possession and control to one with greater governance and accountability.
‘We have an abundance of work in our time zone here in London, where the families we look after are Anglicised, culturally mixed, and in the main are resident non-domiciled. Earlier generations of wealthy Greeks and Italians who came to live in the city-state of London educated their children here. Because their children are Anglicised, they consider an English-style MFO as acceptable, even if they’re based in Rome or Athens.’
When asked to name any other key figures at Stonehage, he singles out Harold Gorvy, who is one of the doyens of the industry, an 80-year-old who used to head up accountancy firm Arthur Andersen in South Africa. ‘He’s going to have a contract for ever,’ he says. ‘We adore him here.’
Ciucci loves Italy and maintains the family tradition of pressing olive oil at his home in Luca, Tuscany. He and his wife Kathleen have been together since university, where they studied law. He speaks four languages, but his wife trumps this by speaking five. Ciucci is actively involved in a South African AIDS charity called MaAfrika Tikkun as well as the Stonehage Charitable Trust, to which the firm donates a percentage of profits.
‘It’s part of the culture here,’ he insists. ‘In our experience, if you do good things, good luck follows you.’ Otherwise, golf is his ‘biggest passion besides my wife and daughter’. A member of Wentworth Golf Club, he admits to an ambition to play all the best courses in the world at least twice and counts as his favourite Kingsbarns, near St. Andrew’s, in ‘sacred Scotland’, where ‘every single hole has a full ocean view’.