Ten of the greatest European family business dynasties

Photo by Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Wavebreak Media / Getty Images
Photo by Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Wavebreak Media / Getty Images

Interestingly, the old adage about shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations might still be pertinent when it comes to billionaires, despite what Family Capital has said in the past. A quick analysis of the Forbes billionaire list reveals very few billionaire families that go back three generations, or more, when it comes to making their wealth. But there’s a sprinkling of dynastic wealth, especially in Europe, and here’s a list of 10 of the most prominent. All of them are at least three generations, or older.

Wendel

Ernest Antoine-Seilliere - successfully adapted the family business into an investment house

Ernest Antoine-Seilliere - successfully adapted the family business into an investment house

Perhaps one of the least well known family dynasties, but one of the oldest in Europe - and most influential. The Wendel family started off as an iron-makers in the Lorraine region of France in the early part of the 18th century. But it was during the Napoleonic era that the family dynasty really got going - the businesses they ran supplied Napoleon’s war effort with canons and canon balls. Wendel-owned companies went on to become one of Europe’s biggest steel manufacturers in the 19th century. Although hurt by the two world wars in the 20th century, Wendel was still France’s biggest steelmaker in the early 1970s. But disaster struck in 1974 when the French government nationalized the country’s steel industry and the family had to surrender their steel assets. This forced the family to reorganise their holdings around the parts that weren’t nationalized, ie. the non-steel companies. An investment group was set up, which went on to become the Paris investment group Wendel, which today the family own around 36% of the shares.

Wallenberg

Marcus Wallenberg - helping to lead the current generation controlling Investor AB

Marcus Wallenberg - helping to lead the current generation controlling Investor AB

Sweden’s most powerful family dynasty and one of Europe’s most famous, the Wallenbergs made their initial fortune in banking. André Oscar Wallenberg set up a bank in 1856 that was eventually to become SEB, one of Sweden’s biggest banking groups. Success in banking led the family to diversify into many industries. Today, through the family’s investment group Investor AB, they own holdings in pharmaceutical group AstraZeneca, white-goods manufacturer Electrolux, defence group Saab and telecoms-equipment maker Ericsson.

Agnelli

John Elkann - the 5th generation of Italy's most famous business dynasty 

John Elkann - the 5th generation of Italy's most famous business dynasty 

As close as Italy gets to a royal family are the Agnellis. Synonymous with the great Italian car manufacturer Fiat, which they are still the biggest shareholder, the Agnelli family may not be Europe’s wealthiest, although some are billionaires, but must be among the most glamourous and stylish. The heir apparent to the Agnelli throne is the fifth generation John Elkann, the current chairman of Fiat and the boss of the family’s investment group, Exor. Exor, like Investor AB, owns shares in a host of businesses, including The Economist.

Grosvenor

The 6th Duke of Westminster - some years ago - who runs one of the world's biggest property dynasties

The 6th Duke of Westminster - some years ago - who runs one of the world's biggest property dynasties

The Grosvenor family might be the classic case of being at the right place at the right time, or more precisely, owning the right property at the right time. The family’s wealth is based on land ownership, including owning much of Mayfair and Belgravia in London, which they inherited back in the 17th century. That land today is among the most valuable in the world. Despite their good fortune, various generations have been canny with their inheritance, buying land and property all around the world, including at one point adjacent land next to the White House in Washington. The Sixth Duke of Westminster is the current head of the family.

Quandt

Stefan Quandt, Germany's richest man - and the 3rd generation of the Quandt family dynasty

Stefan Quandt, Germany's richest man - and the 3rd generation of the Quandt family dynasty

Germany’s richest family dynasty traces their fortune back to industrialist Günther Quandt, who ended up owning big stakes in the carmakers BMW and Daimler-Benz, as well as a host of other companies. The Quandt family, now represented by the third generation, still have holdings in some of the biggest companies in Germany. Susanne Klatten and Stefan Quandt, the children of Herbert Quandt, one of Günther’s two sons, are the heirs to the BMW fortune. Harold, Günther’s other son, left his five daughters a fortune through an investment group called Harald Quandt Holding. Like many German family dynasties that survived World War Two, the Quandts aren’t without their controversies, with the first and second generations linked to the Nazi regime.

Brenninkmeijer

C&A - the main source of the Brenninkmeijer fortune

C&A - the main source of the Brenninkmeijer fortune

The Dutch-German family behind the C&A clothing retail group trace their fortune back to the 1841 when two brothers - Clemens and August - founded the group. Today, there are more than 200 members of the family. Although a great deal of their fortune is still derived from the clothing group, these days an increasing amount comes from real estate and private equity managed through a family investment group called Cofra Holding.  

Heineken

Freddy Heineken - the 3rd generation of the Netherland's most famous family business dynasties

Freddy Heineken - the 3rd generation of the Netherland's most famous family business dynasties

One of the most recognisable beer brands and also the source of a great family fortune. Gerard Adriaan Heineken started it all in the mid-19th century when he bought a brewery in Amsterdam, which went on to brew the famous beer. The third generation led by Freddy Heineken built the business up after World War Two. After he died in 2002, his daughter Charlene de Carvalho-Heineken inherited the business and went on to bring in a series of top managers to guide the drinks group, which is one of the biggest in the world. Her son Alexander sits on the board of Heineken.

Rothschild

David de Rothschild - chairman of Rothschild Bank

David de Rothschild - chairman of Rothschild Bank

Arguably the most famous of all European family dynasties, the Rothschilds are certainly one of the most recognisable family names anywhere. Many books and articles have been written about the family banking dynasty, which has prospered since the late 18th century. For years there have been numerous wings of the family sprinkled around Europe, although most of the descendants of Mayer Amschel Rothschild, the man who started it all, are today concentrated in the UK, France and Switzerland. One of the most enduring aspects of the family are their incredible ability to reinvent themselves, and start new, mostly finance-based, businesses.

Rausing

Ruben Rausing - one of Europe's greatest 20th century entrepreneurs 

Ruben Rausing - one of Europe's greatest 20th century entrepreneurs 

After the Wallenbergs, the Rausings are the other great Swedish family dynasty. There fortune was derived from the extraordinary innovation linked to the tetra pak carton, which created a revolution in packaging for the milk and soft-drinks industry. The family’s wealth is still very much derived through that innovation, which has evolved into packaging and food processing group Tetra Laval. Today, members of the third generation of the family sit on the board of the Swiss-based multinational. And most of the extended family live in the UK.

Kristiansen

Lego has created Denmark's richest family dynasties

Lego has created Denmark's richest family dynasties

The family behind the world’s most recognisable building block - Lego - are also Denmark’s wealthiest. Ole Kirk Christiansen founded the toy maker back in the 1930s. The second generation grew the business, and the third generation, represented by Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, currently own the business, although family members no longer directly manage Lego. Today, Lego is the biggest toymaker in revenue terms in the world.