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Charles Spencer on inheritance and succession planning

Will you be the one who loses what nineteen generations have managed to maintain? And if you succeed: who will you pass it on to? England’s Ninth Earl Spencer shares his principles.




13 000 acres of land, a 100 000 square foot mansion, 90 rooms, 88 fireplaces and 650 precious paintings. Welcome to Althorp – home to the Spencer family since 1508. The estate is nestled in the beautiful English county Northamptonshire and comprises woodlands, farms and entire villages. Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela were among the estate’s most prominent guests. Nineteen generations of one of England’s preeminent aristocratic families have lived in Althorp for more than 500 years. Each room has a story of its own.

“The story of the house is about the people. It is not so much about the antiques and china, but about the characters who added to it or experienced personal disasters. All parts of the human story are encapsulated in Althorp. If you have an ear for a good story, it is a privilege to live here,” says Charles Edward Maurice Spencer, who became the Ninth Earl Spencer in 1992, at the tender age of twenty-seven.

“The estate always had an extraordinary presence in my life,” he explains. “If you don’t look out, an inheritance and everything that comes with it may even dominate you. I remember feeling very insecure, even guilty, about it when I was a young boy. It’s as if you suffer from the impostor syndrome and constantly ask yourself “Am I going to make this a success or will I be the failure who lets it all slip out of the family’s hands?”.

Making it work
Over the years, however, Charles learned a few lessons:

Authenticity is good taste; good taste is authenticity
Charles Spencer: “Whoever inherits or plays an active role in a family business carries the weight of expectations on their shoulders. It is expected that you will make your mark in some way. This is not easy to cope with. The lesson I have learned over the years is to focus on the purpose of the family business. Althorp, for example, was ultimately built to be a home. A renowned expert on historic English houses once told me that “Authenticity is good taste, and good taste is authenticity”. I deploy this motto for every decision that concerns the inheritance. Ask yourself: What are the authentic key values of our family business? Why was it set up? What was it meant to achieve? Can I still achieve it? and reconnect with that.”

Do it with a smile and grace
“When you are lucky enough to inherit or own company shares, you must be able to take in the external perspective. The public might be critical of you. My advice is to listen to what they say. I, for instance, have learned a lot from letters that strangers sent to me. Embrace situations that might look like a trial, because they are not. Transform every situation into a learning opportunity.”

Keep a passion of your own
“I’m an editor, I’m a historian and I have written six books. When you are dealing with an inheritance: keep a passion of your own alive. It’s crucial. Don’t be overwhelmed by the responsibility. The healthier approach is to greet it, take it on, and make the most of it. I was able to express my creative side by publishing history books. Your ‘passion topic’ could be anything – but take ownership of something that has nothing to do with the inheritance and that nobody can take away from you. One day you want to look back and think: I wasn’t just somebody who fulfilled their duty. I was somebody who lived a full life.