BUSINESS IN THE FAMILY




MOST FAMILY BUSINESSES FAIL WITHIN THREE GENERATIONS. WEATHERBYS IS NOW RUN BY MEMBERS OF THE FAMILY’S SEVENTH GENERATION. JOHN STEPEK ASKS ROGER WEATHERBY: WHAT’S THE SECRET?

If your grandparents started their own firm, the odds are very high (around 80 – 90 per cent, depending on which estimates you favour) that it is now little more than an intriguing episode in your family’s history, rather than an ongoing legacy. That makes Weatherbys rather special.

The business has an unbroken history of family ownership stretching back to 1770, when James Weatherby, a solicitor from Durham, was appointed as Secretary to the Jockey Club, looking after entry fees and prize money for the burgeoning sport of horse racing. Under his descendants, Roger and Johnny Weatherby, the business – which now spans private banking as well as every aspect of the racing industry – is led by the seventh generation of the same family, a status that only a handful of companies can ever hope to achieve.

What’s the secret of its longevity? Keeping succession as straightforward as possible helps. While many such businesses have external family shareholders to keep happy, Weatherbys has always been structured in such a way that only family members who actually work in the company benefit from it.


Roger, 55, Chief Executive of Weatherbys Bank, believes this is critical. ‘It means that everyone involved in the business has their interests aligned, for example, in terms of the balance between paying out dividends and investing for the long-term health and growth of the business. You don’t get wider family members calling for higher dividends so that they can pay for their next holiday.’

The very fact that the business has been part of the family for so long also encourages careful decision making. It’s a responsibility Roger and his 58-year-old brother Johnny, feel strongly. ‘My brother and I see ourselves as guardians of the business. It’s important to be able to hand it over to the next generation.’

Of course, as with any business, you need to be adaptable. ‘Old does not mean slow. You have to be reasonably quick to respond to technological change,’ says Roger. This adaptability, combined with its long heritage, enabled Weatherbys to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the 2008 financial crisis. Its private bank – established in 1994 – saw client numbers and deposits rise significantly as trust in the dominant banking names collapsed, providing an opening for a transparent, well capitalised bank with a strong family name.

‘The fact that we’ve been around for a long time under the stewardship of one family makes our clients feel very comfortable. They understand that if you’re the seventh generation running the family business, you don’t want to take unnecessary risks. As a result, we came out of the banking crisis much stronger.’

Clients also appreciate the fact that the family ethos extends beyond those with the Weatherby name, notes Roger.
 

'When we talk about family, we genuinely feel our clients are part
of that. And I believe that’s an important part of our appeal
– clients know that they’re going to be treated fairly,
as members of the Weatherby family.'


 

While Johnny joined the business early in his career, in 1979, Roger – similarly to his father, Christopher – first worked in the City of London, before joining Weatherbys in 1993. How do they find working together? ‘We’ve always got on very well. It helps that we have very complementary skills – he has huge experience in the racing thoroughbred world, while my experience is more on the finance side. The real key is recognising each other’s strengths and being able to communicate.’



Between them, Roger and Johnny have eight children, and they are starting to consider how the eighth generation might get involved. ‘I think we have been quite lucky,’ says Roger. Previously, ‘it was very much a pure horse racing and thoroughbred administration business, so if you were into horses, it would be much more likely that you’d join. Now we have a much broader base.’


As well as financial services, there’s also Weatherbys Scientific, which specialises in equine and livestock genetic testing. ‘That allows us to fish from a much broader pond,’ says Roger. Of course, ‘the absolute rule is that if you are not good enough – if you don’t have the expertise – you would not be allowed to join the business.’

So what would his forebears think if they could see Weatherbys today? ‘I hope they’d be pleased. As far as the private bank goes, they might be appalled that we’ve gone outside our racing roots! But they were innovators – commercial men – so hopefully see what we’ve done as a natural progression.’ And like any ambitious business founder starting out, they’d no doubt be very glad to see the family name still thriving. 
 

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