December 26, 2014

What the Most Fortunate Learn During the Holiday Season

From the Likes of the Roosevelts and the Haneses, Family Lessons Gleaned

AS in Christmases past, Redge Hanes had a meal with his relatives gathered at the family seat in Winston-Salem, N.C.

They number about 90 these days and are all descendants from the Hanes who started the hosiery company. The knitting company of T-shirt renown was started by a great-uncle.

“All of the Hanes family was from North Carolina from the early 1700s,” Mr. Hanes said. “Some have moved to live and work in other places. But this is their touchstone.”

Like many well-known families that have stayed wealthy over the generations, the Haneses have stories — the kind that bind but also ones that illuminate their highs and lows.

“In the best families, the family is more important than anything else,” said Donna Trammell, director of family wealth stewardship at Bessemer Trust, a firm founded in 1907 by Henry Phipps to manage his wealth from Carnegie Steel. It has grown to manage other people’s money but is still controlled by his descendants.

“This idea of getting together and sharing really galvanizes the family,” Ms. Trammell said. “Understanding the family history is so incredibly important in rooting the family.”

As the holidays approached, I asked members of a few of the most famous families in America what lessons they had learned from their own gatherings.

These are not the stories of the less fortunate that we often hear at this time. These people are the most fortunate. Unlike many families, which lose touch as time and distance separate them, the families have used their histories to stay together or at the very least, guide them as they make their own way.

Divergent Influences

Franklin Delano Roosevelt III prefers to be called Frank. That’s how his colleagues and students referred to him in his decades teaching economics at Sarah Lawrence College in Westchester County.

But Mr. Roosevelt, slight and bearded, is a combination of two great American families: the Roosevelts, which produced two presidents, including his namesake and grandfather, the 32nd president of the United States; and the DuPonts, manufacturers of gunpowder in the 19th century and chemicals today, on his mother’s side. (His wife is a descendant of Charles Goodyear, who invented the process of vulcanizing rubber in the 19th century.)

When he thinks of influences on his life, he points to his grandmother Eleanor Roosevelt, whom he came to know in the last years of her life. He was a student at Yale, and she was a well-known international figure, having been a United Nations delegate and proponent of women’s rights.

“I was halfway through college before I realized that my grandmother was not just your ordinary grandmother,” he said. “She would send me a small check for $10 or $15 every summer for my birthday with a personal note saying, ‘Frankie, here’s something for you; I’d like to see more of you.’ In the summer of 1959, I wrote her back saying I’d like to see more of you.”

They met up regularly the last three years of her life.

“She was a global force for good,” Mr. Roosevelt said. “I don’t want to attribute my whole attitude in the world just to her. But she had a big influence. I did become interested in issues of justice and fairness and poverty because of her.”

The influence of his own parents was more cautionary. After they divorced, he was sent off to boarding school at age 10. He saw his father, who was married four more times, during the summers. His mother, he said, was distant and unhappy. She committed suicide in her late 40s. “I remember the chef better than I remember my mother,” he said.

His own family took priority in his life. He has been married more than 50 years and has three children and eight grandchildren. “All three kids, in our view, have pretty good values, although none of them is into politics at all,” he said.

Leading by Example

All families have triumphant stories and more complicated ones. Mr. Hanes’s relatives include a head of the Duke University Medical School and an under secretary of the United States Treasury, who was also the founder of the New York Racing Association. But his grandfather James G. Hanes, a mayor of Winston-Salem and civic leader, was also a founder of a group that sought to sterilize people deemed “mentally unfit.”

Mr. Hanes said he took from his relatives a strong work ethic. He said what stuck with him was the example set by his father, James Jr., who presided over the merged Hanes Corporation’s substantial growth and also served as North Carolina state senator in the 1960s. “What parents say tends to bounce off of you, but watching the way they lived their life never does,” he said. “My father worked extra hard. In his business and the way he treated other people, he had integrity and honesty.”

One lesson that stood out was when his father, as state senator, sued the county to force a park to integrate. It had been willed to Winston-Salem for white residents by a descendant of R.J. Reynolds, the tobacco magnate, with the stipulation that any challenge would prompt the park to revert to the family.

“It wasn’t a good political move, but he said it was the right move,” Mr. Hanes said. His father was subsequently voted out of office.

After working in the family business, Mr. Hanes started his own company, the Xpres Corporation, which, among other things, had a system of printing the winning Super Bowl score on T-shirts within hours. He expanded the business to 1,500 people and sold it in 2008.

“The first and most important lesson was you were honest in everything that you do,” he said. “You don’t lie to people. There are some people who say all’s fair in love and war. My family wasn’t one of them.”

Embracing Culture

Winthrop H. Smith Jr.’s father died when he was 11, but his legacy guided the son’s life. Mr. Smith’s father worked behind the scenes with Charlie Merrill to help build Merrill Lynch into a brokerage firm that looked to focus on Main Street.

Many of his lessons came from the people he met when he began working at Merrill after college. “I learned how important having integrity was and having a core set of principles,” Mr. Smith said.

After 28 years rising through the ranks, Mr. Smith said, his principles prompted him to give up a plum job as a vice chairman when E. Stanley O’Neal was appointed chief executive.

“He didn’t understand our culture or direction,” Mr. Smith said. “I impulsively said, ‘Stan, I can’t work for you, best of luck,’ and I walked out. I got home that night and said, ‘What did I do?’ I had to do it because I wouldn’t have felt good looking in the mirror.”

Mr. Smith says he was vindicated. Mr. O’Neal’s actions led the firm to the brink of collapse during the financial crisis, prompting a fire sale to Bank of America.

Today Mr. Smith owns the Sugarbush Ski Resort in Vermont, to which he tries to apply similar principles. “If you focus on the customer you have a winning strategy,” he said. “If I’m pretending it’s snowing when it’s raining, that’s not in the customer’s interest — he’s going to have a lousy time.”

A Support System

The family behind Johnson & Johnson, maker of Band-Aids and Tylenol, has had numerous and embarrassing public spats over the decades. Jazz Johnson, whose brother Jamie directed the trust-fund tell-all film “Born Rich,” describes the family as being “an organization of thrill seekers who love alcohol and are borderline crazy.”

In her book “The Social Climber’s Bible,” written with her non-Johnson uncle, Dirk Wittenborn, Ms. Johnson jokes about being 7 and asking why her grandparents were no longer married. “The answer: Grandpa had met and married an incredibly gifted social climber who, besides being a penniless Polish immigrant 41 years Grandpa’s junior, also happened to be the upstairs maid,” she wrote. The noncomic version includes a lengthy legal battle over her grandfather’s $400 million estate when he died in 1983.

Ms. Johnson said one of the things she learned from her family was to ignore people’s backbiting, which led her to write her tongue-in-cheek book about social climbing. “What happens whether you’re wealthy or not is people are never satisfied,” said Ms. Johnson, who runs her family’s 2,000-acre farm in New Jersey. “People are compelled to climb the ladder.”

Today, Ms. Johnson, 36 and married with children, says she finds the formal Johnson family meetings educational and fascinating. Very little time, she said, was spent talking about the family fortune.

“Because we’re so close, we go through these exercises to get to understand the other’s perspective and how other perspectives fit into the mix and can be applied to family interactions,” she said. “Everyone is so different, but we get along well.”

She added, “Forget money. One of the great luxuries of big families is you always have your family members to fall back on.”

Originally published in The New York Times

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