If you belonged to one of the great American industrialist families such as the du Ponts, the Carnegies, the Hearsts or the Mellons when they were well on the road to establishing their vast fortunes at the tail end of the 19th century, the chances are you would have had at your disposal the services of a “private office” – a personal one-stop shop manned by a hand-picked staff with the ability to take care of every tiresome task, such as acquiring an extra country home, adding to your world-class art collection, overseeing the refit of your yacht or ensuring your latest mistress was paid off as quietly as possible.
But in today’s age of consultants, outsourcing and concierge services that can be at one’s beck and call 24 hours a day via the push of a mobile-phone button, the concept of the true private office is one with which many wealthy people are now unfamiliar. Yet five years ago and not long out of Oxbridge, entrepreneurs Chris Byrne and David Price had an inkling that such a service was exactly what a new (and relatively rare) breed of ultra-wealthy individuals might just be in need of.
What makes these particular individuals unusual is their age. They have fortunes in the multimillions, and sometimes billions, yet they’re in their very early 20s to early 30s. Some have inherited wealth, some have benefited from the success of family businesses, and others have made their money themselves, from scratch. Their common denominator, however, is that they want to use what they have wisely and well.
Byrne, who is a mere 30 years of age, developed the idea of PGS Private Office with Price after completing his degree in modern history at Christ Church College, Oxford, and heading out into the wider world to establish a real-estate business with the backing of family money.
“Many of my university friends were leaving to go into the law, banking and other City professions, but I just didn’t see those as being able to give me the business experience I was looking for,” he explains. “Instead, I started working on real-estate projects in the ‘super prime’ property market, and that brought me into contact with this breed of next-generation individuals from ultra-high-net-worth families. It gave me a window on how they operated, and it seemed that, in many cases, their lives were being run by their parents’ private offices – but the job was not really being done properly.”
Byrne’s observation was that, while the services being provided might have served their parents and grandparents well enough, they were not geared up for the rising super-rich of the 21st century. “It struck me that they often lacked advisors who really understood what might be called the ‘iPhone generation’ – in other words, young, intelligent people who have already Googled all the options before they even ask the question. And that made me and David realise that it might be time for a new type of private office, so we set up PGS in 2010.
“What makes us different is that, instead of being a private office run directly by a particular family, we are an outside company that looks after each of our clients completely individually, completely independently and completely impartially,” adds Byrne. “Our youngest is not yet 21 and the oldest is mid-30.” He claims that PGS does not set a lower wealth threshold, but acknowledges that all of its clients – who number in “the low double figures” – are at the top end of the high-net-worth spectrum. They pay an annual membership fee, which is based on whether they spend more than three months of the year in the UK, in exchange for which they can expect comprehensive advisory service.
One thing PGS is not, however, is a concierge service that exists to pander to the eccentric whims of its clients, a fact that’s made clear from the outset. “Of course, we do travel the world for our clients and we are available in the evenings and at weekends in exceptional situations – but, essentially, business is done during office hours. We’re not here to organise for caviar and dancing girls to be flown in at the drop of a hat. That is just not what we’re about.”
What the firm does exist for is to provide the best in business-related services, ranging from helping clients to take significant private equity stakes in emerging companies (the tech scene in San Francisco’s Bay Area is a popular target) to building a high-end real-estate portfolio or forming an heirloom art collection.
“I suppose our aim is to be the ultimate due diligence team, and a lot of that involves looking at the micro picture, not the macro one. Buying real estate for clients is, for example, a core part of what we do and that is an area in which I have a particular interest,” says Byrne. “My background in high-end London property has given me a level of local knowledge that can be very beneficial to clients from overseas. One of the first deals we completed was for a Mayfair building that we were successful in acquiring not because we made the highest offer, but because we were aware of many important details surrounding its sale.”
When required to work on projects outside their own spectrum of expertise, Byrne and the small PGS team (six people in London and two in Istanbul) will draft in the best experts in any specific field – a task that can be an art in itself. “It might sound like something an individual could quite easily do for themselves, but it is unlikely that they will know, for example, the full breadth of law firms in each particular speciality and even less likely that they will know the best individuals within those firms to suit their needs. We are particularly careful about matching skill sets as well as personalities, and a great deal of our work involves optimisation – the people we deal with have very large amounts of money, but they like to see it being properly used and are generally very careful in the way it is spent. They want luxury, but at the right price.”
With the promise of utmost discretion being at the heart of what PGS offers, Byrne is adamant that he would never name a client and is equally reluctant to cite specific services that the firm has rendered – although to provide a “flavour” of a normal day in the (private) office, he does suggest that it would not be unusual to arrange for the disposal and replacement of a fleet of private jets; to source a temporary holiday home, staff it, lay on security and equip it with suitable forms of transport; or even to arrange what he calls a “discreet backstage experience at the Grammy Awards with some of the stars a client particularly admires”.
Key to the whole operation, of course, are the relationships PGS builds with each client, every one of whom is treated absolutely individually – even in the case of married couples who both opt to take advantage of the firm’s services. And part of that involves being able to use the swish PGS offices in Mayfair’s Upper Brook Street as a place to either drop in for a friendly chat or a piece of instant advice, or as somewhere to hold a high-level business meeting. And those who do so don’t find the surroundings lacking – the expansive boardroom is decorated with enough top-drawer contemporary art to finance a sizeable Mayfair apartment, is appointed with custom-made furniture and opens out onto a perfectly manicured garden. “Clients actively use it on a regular basis, and I’m rather proud of that,” says Byrne. “Some just call by to see a friend for coffee, but others arrange meetings here with the board members of FTSE 100 companies.”
Whatever their reason for visiting, clients are likely to find Byrne in residence, together with super-savvy former lawyer Hannah Wilson, who moved to PGS after nine years as a barrister to take care of the commercial side of things – although her work has proved decidedly varied.
“I joined the company in June 2014 because I didn’t feel being a litigator was addressing all of my interests and I had found the work of a barrister to be a fairly solitary endeavour,” explains Wilson. “In contrast, what I do at PGS has proved remarkably varied. Only last week, for example, one client asked me to help her source a suitable nanny – because I have a child of my own and she valued my input – but I was also poring over contracts relating to a potential major investment in an historic Italian leather-goods company. What surprises many people is the fact that our clients are not only fascinating people, but they are generally very straightforward, very easy to communicate with and hugely appreciative of what we do for them. Contrary to what might be expected, they are the antithesis of prima donnas.”
Even so, some do, apparently, find it rather tiresome when they want to make a six-figure purchase on a credit card and the vendor-in-waiting insists on making a call to the bank to ensure the funds are “in place”. As a result, Wilson has recently been negotiating the finer points of a deal with a Swiss private bank to create a specific Visa card for the clients of PGS Private Office that will enable them to spend without such questions being asked. Not that they are likely to use the facility lightly, however.
“Just as our clients are the sort of people who are more interested in expanding their wealth than merely preserving it, so the work we do for them is not just about establishing a budget and spending it, but looking at everything we use their money for with a steely financial eye,” says Byrne. “And that means we have to offer them a level of service at a price that is significantly lower than the cost of creating their own private office – because if it isn’t, they probably will. And then we wouldn’t have a business.”
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