Steven Hirth, Hirth Family Office
Steven Hirth of the Hirth Family Office pursued a career as a European private banker and then returned to the US to earn his MBA from Columbia University in 1993 and pursued a career as a private banker before building a family office with his parents in the late 1990s. His father, Mike Hirth, and his mother, Ann Hirth, immigrated to the United States as Holocaust survivors and built a career in agriculture as well as investments in real estate and other fields. Steven describes his approach to running a family office as “a traditional, European-style merchant bank,” investing heavily in private companies while engaging other investors to partner in those ventures.
How do you define success?
If I haven’t messed my family up too much, I’ll consider that a success. I measure my success that after I’ve died, which I hope won’t be for a long time, people who my family don’t know will say, “Your husband, your father had a positive impact on me.” Then I’ll look down and say I consider I left the world as a very wealthy person and positively impacted my family and others.
I have a quote from Dr. Seuss that I put on my website: “To the world, you may be one person; but to one person, you may be the world.” I apply these words to my personal and professional lives.
What are some things you would have done differently, given what you know now?
When I look back at my investment history, I see that early on I should’ve been less trusting of several people, I should’ve been more trusting of myself. At the same time, I should have learned to be less of a micromanager.
These days, I do a lot more due diligence on investments, specifically about the people I’m considering investing in. I will go to other families and I will ask discreetly, “What do you know about this person?” "Marriage is cheaper than divorce!"
If I’m going to invest in a company or do a deal, before I write a big check, I really will now go and visit and meet with them, and those who know them. I have analysts who will run the numbers and do competitive analysis, but I’m now investing my time.
What’s the latest purposeful investment you made, and why did you do it?
Every investment that I’ve made that’s not real-estate-related has a purpose. We aligned with a photovoltaic company which has the most transparent windows in the world and reduces the need to purchase electricity by 50%. I have also aligned with an SaaS [software as a service] tech company in Israel that will globally enable farmers to be better farmers, feed people around the world and help the supply chain.
One of the nice things about the family-office space is that once one builds a positive reputation, there are plenty of investments to choose from, and I get to choose ones that have purpose. I have more deals than I know what to do with. Building these relationships and getting out there really makes a big difference. As much as I learn about others, I also learn about myself.
What lessons can you share with other family offices?
To understand their purposes and their goals.
Within the last 20 years, family offices have really become a cottage industry. There are conferences that are no longer run by the banks but groups of family offices and organizations they create or to which they belong, all thinking about questions like, “How do we do these things that we want to do?” and “How do we involve the next generations?” What I’m finding now is people are questioning, “What is our legacy?” There are different possibilities when we ask “What are we leaving our kids?” that’s more than just money. Is it a building with our name on it, or is it more accountability,or something else?
What is one area of focus that other family offices are missing?
If you’re going to invest, go first yourself and explore.
I’m an internationalist. I travel over 200 days a year; most family-office principals don’t. By doing that, I know more about my potential investments and about whom to invest alongside and what’s going on in the places where I would invest. I think it is important to know that a lot of the family offices that are growing here are from immigrant families; they are Hispanic or immigrant families who are Brazilian, Chinese or from Southeast Asia, and they are overlooked by so many people.
Where does building family values intersect with running a family office?
Work is not a negative four-letter word. You have a kid and they’re 16, send them out to another family to work. Let them learn what it’s really like to work, because if they don’t really learn, there’s nothing to build on as a foundation.
Get the family involved early in philanthropy. I’m not saying write a check, I’m saying get involved. For your children, if you want them to be involved at a young age, you can ask them what is important to them and where they’d like to write a check, and start teaching them how to evaluate the charity. But also then get involved and serve on a board or contribute in other ways. Money is finite and being present and involved is infinite. And how about choosing something locally as well as the larger nonprofit. Think global, act local. That’s absolutely critical.
I know one family where they get involved as a family, one family, combining charitable acts with a wonderful vacation. They go on these gorgeous vacations twice a year — the first week is doing work, either building something in a community, helping teach children and the second week is enjoying themselves and feeling good about the previous week and themselves. They have family stories not only about skiing or swimming but also of helping others and making a positive difference.
Interview by Steven I. Weiss, a multiple-award-winning investigative journalist who has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The Washington Post and many other publications. He is also a data scientist and entrepreneur; his latest company is Candidates.ai.