A great example of entrepreneurship from the grandest of families

Biltmore House                 Photo: Biltmore Estate
Biltmore House                 Photo: Biltmore Estate

Whether true or not, blue bloods in America and aristocrats in Europe have a reputation of blowing fortunes. When you’ve got everything the material world offers entrepreneurship isn’t a priority and fortunes can disappear fast. But no so for the scion of one of America’s grandest families, William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil, who died this week at 89.

Bill Cecil, as he was better known, came from one of the world’s grandest and richest families, the Vanderbilts. His great-great-grandfather, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, and his great-grandfather, William Henry Vanderbilt, were the richest Americans of their time. In their day, few family names invoked wealth and status as much as the Vanderbilt name did. And even today the Vanderbilt brand is still pretty stellar.

When Bill was born in 1928, the family fortune might not have been quite as big as it was back in William Henry’s days, but the Vanderbilts still owned Biltmore in North Carolina, America’s biggest and arguably grandest private house. And it was at Biltmore that Bill built upon his reputation as a hardworking entrepreneur, innovator, and family business icon.

The British side teaches that property is extremely important. You keep it, it’s a responsibility. The American gene provides the entrepreneurial bent

— William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil

After graduating from Harvard and then pursuing a career as a successful Wall Street banker, Cecil returned to the family estate after his mother died in 1960. Although it was opened to the public by his parents back in the 1930s, by the time Cecil returned Biltmore was losing money. But through his efforts and vision, Cecil turned it into one of the most successful tourist attractions in the US, attracting today more than 1.4 million visitors annually.  

As one of his employees told Forbes in an interview about the Biltmore estate back in 1998: “He has a new idea every morning while he shaves. He’s always looking for a product we can be proud of and make money with — like our wine business. He saw visitors pulling grapes off an arbor and said, ‘Hey, why should I let them eat my grapes for free?’”

Cecil father was John Francis Amherst Cecil, a British aristocrat. And that influenced his vision to make Biltmore a thriving private estate. As he told Forbes back in 1998: “The British side teaches that property is extremely important. You keep it, it’s a responsibility. The American gene provides the entrepreneurial bent.”

Cecil also was a great example of stewardship. He passed the running of Biltmore over to his son, Bill Cecil, Jr., when he was in his late 60s and when Cecil, Jr. was in his late 30s. As he told Forbes in the 1998 interview: “I worked on my retirement for ten years. I wanted the successor generation to be 35 to 45 when he took over, at the beginning of the most productive time of life.”

His daughter, Dini Cecil Pickering, who sits on the board of The Biltmore Company, which runs the estate, is a big exponent of family businesses, often speaking at conferences on the subject.

Bill Cecil, Jr., CEO of The Biltmore Company, said in a statement on the death of his father: “My father’s legacy is immeasurable for our family. He will always be remembered for his leadership, vision and dedication to Biltmore. He had the foresight to do what everyone thought was impossible. He spent many years in devotion to the preservation of Biltmore, determined to make the estate self-supporting by developing its appeal for tourism.”