Profile: The Flemings

“The family that gave the world James Bond is no slouch when it comes to finance,” says Robert Cole in The Times. The original Robert Fleming made his pile selling sandbags to both sides in the American Civil War and, 140 years later, his descendants are still displaying the Goldfinger touch. Having sold one family business to the Americans at the very top of the stockmarket in 2000, they have hit the jackpot for the second time. Last week’s deal to sell 20% of Fleming Family & Partners (FF&P) to Standard Chartered for £45m represents a 49-fold return in five years: “not all dynasties go from clogs to clogs in three generations”.

Starting in America

The Flemings have been in London since 1900. But they have always worn their Scottishness on their sleeves, says The Independent. The firm owes its origins to the canniness of a 28-year-old jute factory clerk from the slums of Dundee. Robert Fleming began by selling sack-cloth to the Americans; by 1873 he had set up an investment trust to profit from the US railroad boom, regularly crossing the Atlantic by fast liner to oversee his investments. The business prospered and Fleming cast his sights wider, investing across the globe and majoring on the kind of exotic investments that remained the firm’s hallmark. By the turn of the century, the Flemings had arrived, says The Glasgow Herald.

A classic British amateur

For the best part of a century, Robert Fleming & Co remained in the investment trust business, says the FT. Although it later moved into merchant banking, “it differed radically from other merchant banks”, where banking was the core business. Privately held throughout its existence, Flemings was always “something of an enigma”. The group published little information about itself and questions about strategy “met with the quizzical look of the classic British amateur”. But although it remained old-school in style, it was the “boldest and most far-sighted of any institution in the Square Mile”. Connections helped: the 1970 Jardine Fleming Hong Kong venture, which established the group in the Far East long before competitors got there, was prompted by the long-standing family links between the Flemings and the Keswicks, who run Jardine Matheson.

Selling their birthright

It was said that Roddie Fleming, the fourth-generation family member – expected to take over as chairman in 2000 – “would rather have died than see his birthright sold”, says The Independent. But the writing for independents had been on the wall ever since London’s ‘annus horribilis’ in 1995, “when Warburg sold itself to the Swiss, Kleinwort went to the Germans and Barings went bust”. The 1998 Asian crisis was the coup de grace. Nonetheless, “with impeccable timing” the family hung on till the spring of 2000 before selling out to Chase Manhattan, says The Times. “The £4.4bn price tag seemed full at the time. It seems even more generous now”. About 130 family members, scattered across the globe from Africa to the Hebrides, pocketed more than £1.3bn for their 30% stake. But the Flemings are nothing if not a cohesive clan: almost all the cash was ploughed into the family trustee firm, which became the fledgling Fleming Family & Partners (see below). “The image of gentlemen amateurs with a Midas touch surrounded the old business and pervades the new one… Yet five generations on, the money-making flair appears to remain intact.”

How the Fleming clan has retained its influence

One thing the Flemings have never lost is their ambition, says the Financial Times. The main aim of Fleming Family & Partners (FF&P), now based in an elegant Mayfair townhouse, is to become the “leading wealth manager of the world’s richest families”. It has got off to a flying start: Fleming money now represents just a third of the assets managed by the family office. The rest is spread among some 100 families, including the Cayzer shipping dynasty. Last week’s deal with Standard Chartered – which was effectively a bid to win more ultra-wealthy Asian clients – marks the second phase of a determined push east. In November, Fleming Family & Partners bought Sagitta, the rival £850m family office set up to manage the assets of the billionaire Syrian entrepreneur Wafic Said.

Although only one member of the Fleming family (Sandy Loder) works full-time for FF&P, the clan’s influence is still strong, says The Times. Roddie Fleming, the biggest shareholder, remains a driving force, managing some of the family’s riskier metal and commodity plays through his private vehicle, Highlands Star. The family patriarch, Robin Fleming, is a main board director; two more Flemings, Valentine and Philip, are non-executives; and Adam Fleming, a former chairman of Harmony Gold, is a senior adviser. As for Ian Fleming, the clan’s most celebrated son: he spent only a short time at the original family firm before finding his metier as a writer. But since 1997, when the family bought back the controlling share of his estate, the Fleming coffers have been swollen by 007 and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang royalties. “The original Robert Fleming would thoroughly approve.”