Evolutionary History of Family Offices

The concept of the family office has evolved significantly from its origins to the complex entities that exist today. Here’s a detailed history, highlighting key milestones and the progression of family offices over time.

Origins and the First Family Office

19th Century

The roots of the family office can be traced back to the 19th century. Wealthy European families initially established the concept to manage their estates, handle financial matters and preserve their wealth across generations. However, it was in the United States that the family office as we know it began to take shape.

  • The Concept of Stewardship: In the 19th century, wealthy families often employed stewards or private secretaries to manage their estates, investments and other financial affairs. While not called “family offices” at the time, these arrangements performed many of the same functions, focusing on the stewardship of family wealth and the efficient management of household and estate finances.

  • Philanthropy: Philanthropic endeavors were also a significant aspect of early family offices. Families like the Rockefellers and Carnegies were pioneers in using their wealth to fund educational, cultural and scientific initiatives. This philanthropic vision required sophisticated management strategies to sustainably support charitable causes over time, further driving the need for structured family office services.

  • Global Investments: The late 19th century saw the beginning of global investments by wealthy families, necessitating more sophisticated wealth management strategies. The expansion of family businesses and investments across international borders prompted the need for dedicated offices to manage these complexities, including currency risk, international legal issues and diversification strategies.

The Rockefeller Family Office (1882)

Perhaps the most cited example of an early family office is the one established by John D. Rockefeller, the American oil industry business magnate and philanthropist. Recognizing the need to manage his vast wealth, Rockefeller founded what is considered the first family office, which took a formalized approach to managing the family’s assets, philanthropic activities and ensuring the preservation and growth of the family wealth for future generations. This office eventually evolved into Rockefeller & Co., setting a precedent for future family offices.

20th Century: Expansion and Diversification

Early to Mid-1900s

The early to mid-20th century was a period of significant transformation and growth for family offices, influenced by economic changes (Great Depression during 1929-1939), global conflicts (World War 2 during 1939-1945) and the emergence of new wealth (Post-World War 2 Economic Boom during 1950-1973). During this time, family offices began to diversify their services and become more sophisticated in response to the evolving financial landscape. This era also saw the establishment of several notable family offices, further solidifying the role of these entities in wealth management.

Following the Rockefellers, other prominent families, such as the Phipps (partners in Carnegie Steel) and the Pitcairns (founders of Pittsburgh Plate Glass), established their own family offices. These entities focused on investment management, estate planning and family governance.

Phipps Family Office (1907)

The Phipps family, closely associated with Andrew Carnegie, one of the wealthiest individuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, amassed considerable wealth through the steel industry and later through investments in real estate, among other ventures. Henry Phipps Jr., a partner of Carnegie Steel, established Bessemer Trust in 1907 as a family office to manage his family’s wealth. Bessemer Trust began as a private office to manage the Phipps family fortune and has since evolved into a multifamily office, managing the assets of many other families as well. It is one of the earliest examples of a family office transitioning into a multifamily office structure.

Pitcairn Family Office (1923)

The Pitcairn family office was established to manage the wealth generated by John Pitcairn, co-founder of Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company (now PPG Industries), which was the first commercially successful plate glass firm in the United States. The family office, known today as Pitcairn, was formally established in 1923 by Pitcairn’s children. Initially created to manage the family’s assets and philanthropic activities, it has grown into a multifamily office that offers a wide range of services to other wealthy families as well. The establishment of Pitcairn marked a significant development in the family office space, showcasing the evolution of private wealth management into a structured organization dedicated to serving the broader needs of affluent families.

Ford Family Office

The Ford family, led by Henry Ford, amassed significant wealth through the Ford Motor Company. The family’s wealth management needs led to the development of family office services that encompassed investment management, philanthropy (notably through the establishment of the Ford Foundation in 1936) and estate planning.

Du Pont Family Office

The Du Pont family, one of America’s wealthiest families due to their chemical empire (DuPont, the chemical company founded in 1802), had long employed mechanisms to manage and protect their wealth. However, the early to mid-20th century saw the formalization and expansion of these mechanisms into what could be considered a modern family office structure. Their approach to wealth management, focused on preserving the family’s assets and financing new ventures, played a crucial role in the development of family office services.


The concept of the family office began to diversify, with more families reaching levels of wealth that required sophisticated management beyond what traditional banks and financial advisors offered. This period saw a rise in Single Family Offices, designed to serve the needs of one family.

Quantum Fund (1973)

While not a traditional family office, the Quantum Fund, co-founded by George Soros, represents an example of how individuals with significant wealth began to leverage hedge funds and private investment vehicles to manage their assets. Soros’s approach to managing his family’s wealth has influenced the strategies employed by family offices, particularly in hedge funds and active investment management.

Walton Family Office (1980s)

The Walton family, heirs to the Walmart fortune, formalized their wealth management practices in the 1980s through the establishment of Walton Enterprises LLC. The family office manages the vast wealth of the Walton family, focusing on investment management, philanthropy (notably through the Walton Family Foundation) and ensuring the preservation and growth of the family’s assets.

Late 20th Century

The globalization of markets and the tech boom (dot-com bubble) contributed to significant wealth creation, leading to a rise in the number of ultra-high-net-worth individuals and families worldwide. This era saw the emergence of Multi Family Offices, which serve multiple families and offer a way to access family office services at a lower cost, benefiting from economies of scale.

21st Century: Technological Advancements and Sustainable Investing

Early 2000s

Technological advancements transformed family offices, enabling more sophisticated investment strategies, improved risk management and better communication among family members spread across the globe.

2008 Financial Crisis

The crisis underscored the importance of risk management and due diligence in investments, leading many family offices to adopt more conservative strategies and to focus more on asset allocation and liquidity management.


The rise of impact investing and ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) criteria marked a significant shift in how family offices approached investments. There was a growing emphasis on achieving social and environmental impact alongside financial returns.


Digital transformation continues to shape family offices, with fintech, blockchain and artificial intelligence playing key roles in operations and investment decisions. The COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated the digitalization process and prompted family offices to consider more global and health-related factors in their planning.


From managing the estates of European nobility to the sophisticated, globally connected entities of today, family offices have come a long way. Their evolution reflects broader changes in the global economy, advances in technology and shifts in societal values toward sustainability and impact. As we move forward, family offices are likely to continue adapting to new challenges and opportunities, always with the goal of preserving and growing wealth for future generations.