Scott Peppet - Building a Family-Focused Office for Sam Zell


20 June 2022

1 hr 7 mins 57 secs

Season 2

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About this Episode

Scott Peppet serves as the President of Chai Trust Company LLC, the private trust company that serves as the family office for Sam Zell and his family. Equity Group Investments, a division of Chai trust, provides investment management services on its behalf.

From 2000 to 2018, Scott was a professor of Law at the University of Chicago where he focused on Bargaining, Dispute Resolution, Translational Law, and the complexities of multigenerational family enterprises. Scott speaks regularly on Family Offices, Private Trust companies as well as Intergenerational Leadership while also maintaining an active website.

Scott is a G2 family member. He is Sam Zell's son-in-law, having married Sam's eldest daughter.

Standout Quotes:

  • "Business works on short wavelengths and family works on very long wavelengths" - [Peter Evans, Scott]
  • "What does it mean to try and help family members really develop and really take ownership, so they can figure out how to deploy what they have?" - [Scott]
  • "There are many different kinds of wealth… you probably aren't put on the earth to grow the financial capital, there's lots of professionals who can help you do that" - [Scott]
  • "Too often, the implicit message sent to family members is 'this system is really here to steward the money" - [Scott]
  • “Families rarely fail for taking too much risk, they fail for taking too little risk” - [Scott]
  • "My goal is to create a family-focused office, not a family office, and a trusted company, not a Trust company" - [Scott]
  • "If you want to succeed you have to have a family that understands what you're doing" - [Scott]

Key Takeaways:

  • Scott is the President of Chai Trust Company, LLC, the private trust company that serves as the family office for Sam Zell and his family. Equity Group Investments, a division of Chai trust, provides investment management services on its behalf. From 2000 to 2018, Scott was a professor of Law at the University of Chicago where he focused on Bargaining, Dispute Resolution, Translational Law, and the complexities of multigenerational family enterprises. He speaks on Family Offices, Private Trust companies as well as Intergenerational Leadership while also maintaining his active website. Scott is a G2 family member, as he is Sam Zell's son-in-law.
  • Scott got married to Sam's older daughter 20 years ago while he was already teaching as a Law professor. Since then he got increasingly curious about family enterprises till he fully transitioned into working in the family enterprise. After a few months of knowing each other, they started dating but Scott had no idea about her family wealth till she opened up about it.
  • About Sam Zell: Sam is a serial entrepreneur, who first built a business in Real Estate, following which he turned to distressed Corporate Investing in the 80s, and then in the 90s, he created some of the largest REITs in the US today. He has continued to work on REITs and corporate investing since then. He has done several businesses over the years. Sam is also known for his straight talk, always making his stand clear in any discussion. He is also very astute and broad in his thinking.
  • As a Law professor, Scott worked on conflict intervention with corporations all over the world. When he started having kids, he got curious about how the family wealth could be managed productively for the family, especially for the kids. Sam encouraged him to work on it. Some authors that stood out in Scott's study were Jay Hughes and John Davis.
  • Scott describes the family structure; at the time Scott joined the family, Sam was 59 years, his 3 children were in their 30s, and as of now, there are 9 grandchildren. There was a form of governance structure, a board with his 3 children which wasn't functional as Sam made most decisions. However, now there has been a need to rebuild the structure as the company has evolved and this has been a huge part of Scott's focus since he moved full-time into the family enterprise. He has had to put in a lot of work to fully understand how the family enterprise functions; to make things change in a family system that often moves very slowly, you have to know where you're going. It involves a combination of urgency and patience, while thinking long-term, steps need to be taken early and consistently. Most of the family members are not employees, some of them are on the board. There is one board with both independent and family directors.
  • The business continues to be eclectic, investing across all kinds of sectors, especially with the benefit of permanent long-term capital. At the same time, complex actions and decisions can be taken quickly. Also, family learning and development are being built as the kids grow to become adults.
  • In the inflationary period currently, the business finds smaller companies that need capital and expertise to grow to the next level; companies that would rather grow their equity than sell to a PE company. These companies are great partners for the business since their interests are already aligned to grow the equity.
  • While most families would rather have more joy over more money, the reality is that many family members Scott has met around the world don't have that much joy or self-possessed ability to do things in the world. They often feel enmeshed in a family structure they have little control over. This is not good for the family or the external world that could be benefitting from the good such families could accomplish.
  • Laying the foundation for the next generation practically, Scott uses some rules. The first is based on the 5 Capitals; Not everyone is supposed to grow financial capital but they can add to the overall well-being of the family by building on the other forms of capital. Unfortunately, the experience in most families is that stewarding the money is the main goal, which is an implicit frame that must be dissolved. The second one is that each family member should participate meaningfully in every learning experience. Doing this means creating activities or agendas that are not solely about financial capital or the enterprise, although as the kids get older they get interested in the business itself.
  • To assess how well you're building human capital, score how often you were talking about money over the last few years in your family meeting. Most times it forms a huge percentage of those meetings, but in a setting where money isn't the focus, there is a push to find other topics that can help people open up. Scott's family has started experimenting with these kinds of meetings interspersed with other activities.
  • These kinds of meetings expose several overlapping purposes, help family members connect, offer a chance for content transfer, and contribute to self-development and self-growth. Different topics are often discussed and it becomes obvious how they are related. Listeners are encouraged to check Scott's curriculum diagram on his website.
  • There is often a dichotomy between responsible stewards and lazy inheritors, however, managing inherited wealth can be complicated. The general goal is to cultivate engaged owners and integrate financial capital into their lives productively, but there is no concrete formula on how to do it.
  • Most family offices should just be Money offices because all their time is focused on financial capital and legal risk such that the family itself is secondary. On the other hand, a family-focused office is there to grow the family's human capital as much as the financial capital.
  • Trust companies around the world have become ubiquitous in wealthy families although they often don't have much life in them. However, a trusted company is a part of the family ecosystem which goes beyond managing money to a level of trust-building with the family. That forms the basis of how Scott decides on whether or not progress is being made; 'what is the level of trust in the system?'. Not to downplay the role of financial investment, but there has to be synergy within the system.
  • Over the long term, families rarely fail for taking too much risk, they fail for taking too little risk. They focus so much on preservation because they are afraid of taking risks, and they wither in the end. Sam Zell still takes as much risk as he used to, not as a gamble but with a critical assessment of each situation. It is important to preserve the investment company with its risk-taking culture, and at the same time grow a family that can continue such activity over time.
  • The family enterprise avoids governing by committee, especially on the investment side, so as to move quickly. Having family members behind an entity is not a bad idea but there's no point in having many family members making every investment decision. In Scott's family enterprise, this bureaucracy is avoided by ensuring decisions are narrowed down to the exact professionals. Other bigger family questions can be discussed by the family as a whole. Mike's family employs Adhocracy which encourages a culture to challenge the slow slide into bureaucracy.
  • The team behind the family enterprises consists of about 85 people and functions as one entity that is the trust company, the family office, and the investment management company. There are investment professionals, lawyers, a family office and operations group, and accountants. All of these are interdependent. The company is mostly focused in the US but there are also real estate investments in other countries.
  • As an outsider joining the family, it is easy to simply be a critic which will result in pushback from the family. From the onset, Scott acted from a place of love for the family and was concerned with how to continue to build productivity within the family. He intentionally took time to study the family business all the while continuing his profession as a Law professor. He advises inlaws to keep their jobs for as long as possible till they are sure they can add value to the family enterprise. He also understands that being an inlaw comes with restrictions from certain roles, but rather than get overly perturbed about it, he focuses on the ways to be helpful in the family.
  • Scott has a background in communication, mediation, and negotiation which has been pivotal in building consensus in the family business. Ultimately, there is no playbook to navigate the complexities in a family enterprise.
  • A typical day in Scott's life involves some time spent on investments, working with boards or committees, family learning and development, as well as time spent on management. He has come to understand that his job is to get a grasp of the system as a whole; Sam explained to him that it will change from obligation to opportunity.
  • There are a few family heirlooms and the family has also documented some of its history like the story of Sam's family leaving Poland for the US. They do this mostly by putting together short films. It also serves as a way to communicate family values; Sam has always used art to communicate.
  • Scott's letter to his kids: We have the capacity as humans to grow into something greater, more awake, and more alive than we are now, into a different kind of existence. This is the uniqueness of being human; the constant evolution makes life wonderful.

Episode Timeline:
[00:50] Meet today's guest, Scott Peppet.
[02:00] Scott's relationship with Sam Zell.
[04:54] How would you describe Sam Zell?
[09:18] Did you develop an interest in how family enterprises function before or after meeting the Zell family?
[12:35] How complex was the family when you joined?
[16:44] Did you have to contend with people with multiple hats in the family business?
[19:04] What does the office look like today?
[21:40] Is there any particular industry that has growing potential now as regards investment?
[24:40] How do you plan to raise the next generation in the family enterprise?
[35:17] Going beyond stewards' first inheritors.
[37:35] Creating a family-focused office and a trusted Company.
[42:10] How do you manage risk in the family ecosystem?
[44:37] How do you fight bureaucracy as the office gets bigger?
[49:05] How big is the family enterprise team?
[51:50] What was it like joining the family and navigating the complexities of a family enterprise?
[55:20] How helpful was your career in Law and conflict resolution in the family business?
[56:55] A day in the life of the President of Chai Trust.
[01:00:50] Is the family intentional about keeping things for historical sake?
[01:05:02] Scott's letter to his kids

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