The day his family almost lost its bank is still fresh in the mind of Jacob Wallenberg, one of the fifth generation of a dynasty that controls almost a third of the value of companies on the Swedish stockmarket. It was in 1993, in the depths of Sweden’s banking crisis, and accountants were totting up the results for Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken (SEB), upon which the Wallenbergs’ business empire had been built a century and a half earlier. The bank’s capital ratio was being steadily depleted by a torrent of bad debts. If it fell below 8 percent, the bank would probably be nationalised. When the final tally came, the figure was 8.04 percent. “There was a deep sigh of relief,” Mr. Wallenberg recounts.
That crisis taught Mr. Wallenberg, who is now chairman of Investor, the family’s main investment-holding company, two lessons. The first was that cosy links between companies are all fine and good, but when it comes to the crunch, cash is king. “Relationships are great, but cashflow is even better,” he says. The second lesson was to remember that “sometimes life can turn sour”” and to be prudent. Almost two decades later, with rich economies around the world deep in a slump that closely echoes the one Sweden went through, the Wallenbergs are still well served by their hard-learned lessons. Neither of the family’s main companies, SEB or Investor, is completely unscathed. Yet they seem to be weathering the crisis better than most.
Although SEB holds some worrying loans, the overall quality of its book is enviable. A ranking by Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, an investment bank, puts its proportion of bad debts at 0.8 percent, among the lowest in Europe, and about a third of the average of its peers. For its part Investor, which released its annual results on January 20th, said the value of its underlying investments had fallen by about a quarter in 2008. In most years that would be a disaster. Yet when set against a 40 percent slump in the Swedish stockmarket (and falls of 30 percent or more in most big markets), it looks quite good. It looks even better when contrasted with private-equity firms’ performance.
The main reason for Investor’s resilience is that it entered the downturn flush with cash, giving it the means to support struggling subsidiaries and buy distressed assets at knock-down prices. Much of the money was raised by selling assets when markets were near their peaks. Early last year it sold its stakes in Scania, a truckmaker, and OMX, a Nordic exchange operator. Investor’s prudence may be a comfort to its shareholders today, yet for some time it was a source of great aggravation. Many criticised it for being slow to do deals in the buy-out boom and for sitting on too much cash. In this regard it was not alone.
What made Investor exceptional, however, was not that its managers were necessarily more prescient than others (though Investor’s chief executive, Börje Ekholm, gave warning well before the crash that debt was too cheap and assets too pricey). The chief reason was that it could resist pressure from outside investors, because it is almost impossible to take over. A dual-shareholding structure gives the Wallenberg family and their charitable foundations more votes per share than other shareholders, and allows them to maintain control of Investor even though they own only about a quarter of its shares.
Admirers of family-controlled companies say Investor demonstrates two of their big advantages: they are able to take longer-term decisions without worrying about being taken over or meeting short-term profit targets, and the interests of managers and shareholders are well aligned. Among the boosters of such companies is Credit Suisse, an investment bank, which in early 2007 launched an index of publicly listed family firms, saying they have proved to be more profitable than their widely held peers (those in which no single shareholder owns more than a 10 percent stake). But enthusiasm for family-controlled firms should be tempered with caution, for their record is not unambiguously positive—and because Investor is an unusual example of the breed.
It is true that family-controlled companies that are run by their founders usually generate higher returns than widely held ones. An influential study by researchers at Harvard and Wharton business schools found just that in 2004. But it also found that once management control passes to the second generation, they generally perform worse. This trend is exacerbated when dual-stock structures or other convoluted methods are used to maintain control. In the long run, being shielded from takeover breeds inefficiency. That Investor has survived beyond its third generation, while still generating good returns, makes it all the more unusual. One reason may be that its shareholding is extraordinary, too. In 1917 Knut Wallenberg set up the first, and biggest, of the charitable foundations that have become repositories for most of the family’s wealth. Jacob and his cousin Marcus, today’s generation, wield enormous influence, but their prosperity is largely of their own making. In that sense they are founders or employees, not just descendants. In line with family tradition, most of their assets will probably go into foundations too, leaving the next generation to start afresh and avoiding the infighting that can arise in business dynasties.
The influence of the professionally run charitable foundations may also be a deciding factor in making Investor unique, for the foundations are ultimately the biggest winners or losers from the decisions of Investor’s managers. As such they exercise closer oversight of the company than they might if it were either widely held or simply run by family members for their own benefit. Moreover, the charitable foundations, like university endowments, plan to be around for ever, and take a long-term view that gives managers more leeway. The danger is that more leeway may mean more rope. After all, it was not long ago that even the house of Wallenberg came perilously close to losing its bank.