Elizabeth Thiessen, Bank of America
Elizabeth Thiessen, head of private-bank family-office solutions at Bank of America and based in Charlotte, North Carolina, has worked at the bank for 29 years. Most of her career was spent on the corporate side, ranging from treasury to transaction services and investment banking.
When you started working with family offices five years ago, what did you notice about them?
Like the middle-market companies I was working with before, they have the same types of needs for controls and efficiency. The complexity of a multigenerational family’s accounts and payments creates a similar need for global payment channels combined with robust entitlement capabilities. That means different permissions for different people to pay for different things, and different permissions regarding who can see or be notified about activity on those accounts or make changes to them.
How does that play out, practically?
All of the families we deal with own multiple properties. I can think of one family that has an apartment in New York, a home in Boston, a house on the Cape and two homes in Florida. The staff at all of those locations are making purchases every day, and so that family’s payment activity needs to be managed in a way that a business would.
That’s an example of where we’ve taken a commercial card program that our businesses use and applied that to family offices. There are all kinds of purchasing controls that you can put in place, such as alerts when reaching a certain limit, or when an individual uses a card to attempt a purchase in a category that’s prohibited for them. And those categories might align differently for different families or locations or staff. If I were to use my own corporate card to buy a Gucci scarf, that would generate an alert because that’s not related to my work. But one family that we work with uses a commercial card where they do buy a Gucci scarf regularly, when they provision their home in Hawaii for guests.
What other tools do family offices use that relate more to the business side of their operations?
There are strategic credit needs that we see clients have, where we recommend they structure a line of credit. Thinking of it ahead of time and having it there will mean they have the ability to act quickly when they want to.
For one family in Texas, the patriarch was approached by his granddaughter to purchase a local coffee franchise. She had a pitch book and was ready to invest in buying and building that business. We talked to that family about financing that through a traditional loan, but that would’ve been expensive and would have taken long enough that she might have lost the deal. That family had established a private client line with the private bank years ago, which enabled that grandfather to provide credit directly to the grandchild’s business. When they do this in advance and get that credit line established ahead of time, it provides flexibility to the family.
When families first come in for your services, what are some key ways they can upgrade how they operate?
We see family offices come in, and they’re operating in a way that I would describe as “white-gloving it.” They’re highly service-centric, with a lot of work being done by staff that could be outsourced to others or just replaced by technology and automation. What they’re doing is very manual, more paper-based. It’s not broken; it’s just incredibly inefficient.
Interview conducted by Steven I. Weiss