Ten property dynasties - and the families behind them

New York, where many family property dynasties started. Photo: Dmitry Avdeev

New York, where many family property dynasties started. Photo: Dmitry Avdeev

How important is property? Ask John Jacob Astor, the man credited with starting one of the world’s wealthiest and most influential family dynasties. A few years before his death Astor famously said: “Could I begin life again, knowing what I now know, and had money to invest, I would buy every foot of land on the Island of Manhattan.”

Astor was smart enough to know that one of the best ways of preserving wealth is the ownership of property, particularly in prime locations like New York. Alas, much of the Astor fortune in New York property has long since gone as new property barons have muscled in on the scene. Nevertheless, the Astor money, much of it from property, was so vast that even today it filters down to descendants of the family.

Today, the really grand property dynasties are to be found in the UK, and not so much in America or the rest of Europe. Maybe that’s because there was never too much wealth distribution in the UK, escaping as it did from a full-scale revolution. Of course, in the last 100 years new property dynasties have emerged, just as big as the ones of yesteryear. Here’s a list of 10 great property dynasties, whether old or new, and in no particular order...

Duke of Westminster, the Grosvenor Group

Arguably the grandest of all property dynasties, the Duke of Westminster’s landholdings go back to 1677 with a fortuitous marriage between Sir Thomas Grosvenor, an ancestor of the Duke of Westminsters, and a heiress who inherited a large part of what is today London’s premier property area - Mayfair. The Grosvenor Group has since diversified into many other property markets around the world, including prime locations throughout the US and Asia. The current Duke of Westminster is the ninth wealthiest person in the UK, according to the Sunday Times Rich List, with a fortune estimated at £8.56 billion.

Earl Cadogan, the Cadogan Group

The other grand property dynasty of London is the Cadogan family, which own big parts of prime property in Chelsea and Knightsbridge. Like the Duke of Westminster’s property empire, much of it was acquired through a fortuitous marriage between a wealthy heiress and a member of the family - this time in the 18th century. The family today are worth close to £5 billion, according to the Sunday Times Rich List.

Richard LeFrak, LeFrak

The LeFrak family are arguably New York City’s richest property dynasties, owning large parts of the city’s prime properties. The family’s property empire began in France in the late 19th century, but moved swiftly to the US at the beginning of the 20th century. Richard LeFrak is the current CEO of the eponymous property dynasty, which includes Battery Park City at the tip of lower Manhattan and apartment blocks in Queens. The empire stretches to New Jersey and down to Florida. Forbes reckons the LeFrak family are worth around $6.3 billion.

Akira Mori, Mori Trust

Japan’s wealthiest property dynasty is led by Akira Mori, who inherited the real estate business after the death of his father in 1993. Much of the wealth was built up in the 1980s, when Tokyo property was the most valuable in the world. Today, the Mori property empire is still founded on the ownership of many prime properties in Tokyo and other cities throughout Japan. Forbes reckons Akria and his family are worth more than $3 billion.

Thomas & Raymond Kwok, Sun Hung Kai Properties

A controversial property dynasty -- Thomas was recently sent to prison for bribing a government official -- the Kwok real estate empire is nevertheless Hong Kong’s best known property group. Founded in 1958 by Thomas and Raymond’s father, Sun Hung Kai Properties own many of Hong Kong’s premier buildings. Another brother Walter left the family firm in 2010 over disagreements with his two younger brothers. Thomas and Raymond are worth around $13 billion, according to Forbes.

Frank Lowy, Westfield

OK, not strictly speaking a pure property empire, given that Westfield is also retail group, but much of the family’s fortune stems from their ownership of shopping malls - hence property - throughout the world. Frank Lowy started the Australian-based business in the 1950s, today Westfield is the biggest owner and operator of shopping malls in the world. Two of Frank’s sons are involved in the business, which owns more than A$65 billion worth of shopping centres across the world.

Donald Trump, Trump Organization

The world’s most famous property developer because of his huge public profile, which stems from a host of media engagements and of course his current bid to be the next president of the US. The family’s real estate business stems from Donald’s father, Frank Trump, who set up Elizabeth Trump & Son, a New York property group. Although the Trump brand is ubiquitous in many areas, the rump of the family’s fortune still comes from property holdings. Forbes estimates the family’s fortune to be worth more than $4 billion.

The Rothschild family

A family dynasty much better known for their financiers rather then their property empire. But in the UK, the Rothschilds own grand stately homes throughout the country, but particularly in the county of Buckinghamshire, west of London. These include the magnificent Waddesdon Manor. Jacob Rothschild and his family also own the lease on one of the biggest private houses in central London, Spencer House in St James’s. Also, a number of grand chateaux in France are still owned by the family, although many have also been sold, or donated to charitable organisations.

The Kwee family, Pontiac Land Group

One of Asia’s biggest property dynasties, the Kwee family own large parts of Singapore through their Pontiac Land Group. Henry Kwee, the man who started it all, moved from Indonesia to Singapore in the 1950s. The third generation represented by Evan Kwee now works for the sprawling property empire, which includes properties in Manhattan. Forbes estimates the family’s wealth to be close to $5 billion.

Schoerghuber family, Bayerische Hausbau

Among Europe’s wealthiest property dynasties, the Schoerghuber family control Germany’s biggest property group Bayerische Hausbau, which owns and manages many of the country’s prime commercial buildings. The empire is overseen by Alexandra Schorghuber, the widow of Stefan Schorghuber, who inherited the business empire from his father, Joseph, before his unexpected death in 2008, at the age of just 47.