The Game of the Name

Ariane de Rothschild was already in high finance when she met her future husband, Baron Benjamin de Rothschild. She steers the family's philanthropic activities, believes business should be fun and when asked about her decision not to convert to Judaism she says, 'To be a Jew is what you do, not what you pretend to be.'

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It's not easy to be a member of the aristocracy, especially if your last name is Rothschild. In recent years, Baron Benjamin de Rothschild - the great-grandson of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, "the Benefactor," who funded early Jewish settlement in Palestine - and his wife, Baroness Ariane de Rothschild, have been immersed in deep debate over education. He maintains that children who are born into wealth should not be disconnected from the way of life to which they have become accustomed just because they have reached a certain age; she says that each of their four daughters will one day have to leave home, find a job and live off their salaries. Not that any of them will end up sleeping on a park bench, heaven forbid. The extreme method advocated by tycoon Warren Buffett (with the exception of having their academic studies paid for, the family's youngsters must make their own way in the world ) does not suit the Rothschilds. Still, the mother believes, the young aristocrats will fully appreciate their life of abundance only if they experience the ordeals of everyday life firsthand.

Ariane de Rothschild.Credit: Tali Meye

For now, the debate is purely theoretical, as the girls are still young. But the day will come when the Rothschilds will have to make a decision. Which of the two approaches will triumph? Hers, probably. A meeting with the baroness reveals an opinionated woman who is quick on the trigger and who doesn't apologize. She is articulate, with an intellectual backbone and a reasoned worldview. Unlike previous generation of female nobility, whose lives were intensive whirls of banquets and racetracks, Baroness Ariane de Rothschild epitomizes a new approach, that of the working woman.

With a flourishing, independent career in finance, the baroness has no feelings of inferiority. She has an opinion about everything, and expresses it bluntly. For example, she has no problem recounting that when she met her future husband for the first time - it was a professional meeting, a business dinner, in her capacity as a banker - there was nothing about him that she liked. The baron whose family name has been synonymous with wealth for more than a century and who was the heir-apparent to a business empire, was not part of the life plan of the woman who grew up in Africa, developed an international career and says she is incapable of staying anywhere for very long.

Eighteen years later, she is delighted with a life that is deeply interesting, enables her to combine work and family and offers the possibility of affecting people's lives. "It's not the money, it is the purposes to which it is put," she says. The baron recently announced he was entrusting her with the family's business interests - no easy task when 4 billion euro are at stake. "It's not really surprising," says someone who is close to the family. "Of the two, Ariane is the responsible adult."

The interview with the baroness was held in the lobby of a prominent hotel in Herzliya, up the coast from Tel Aviv. No one there could have imagined that the woman in the simple brown dress, with no jewelry and very little makeup, is among the wealthiest in the world. It's a privilege that comes with old money; the status is inherent in the name, there's no need to shout it.

She is aware of her status. She knows that every place she visits shifts immediately into white-glove inspection mode. "I was once told that the staff at a winery of ours in Bordeaux made an especially big effort before my visits," she relates. "So one day I decided to pay a surprise visit. The workers almost had heart attacks. Since then the place has been clean all the time."

She enjoys talking about her childhood, in which neither wealth nor titles played a part. Her father was a senior executive in international pharmaceuticals firms. She was born in El Salvador 45 years ago, and by the time she was 18 she had lived in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo ), Colombia and Bangladesh. Spending her formative years outside of Europe left a deep imprint.

"Life in very poor countries, in which most of the people are waging a daily struggle to survive and in which there is often nothing to eat, creates a different set of values, even if you yourself are white and live relatively well. You learn to appreciate what you have. There is a story I like to tell my girls. There was a time when chocolate was scarce in Africa. My father would bring us chocolate from his visits to Europe. One time he came back with the magical box of chocolates. We were allowed to eat one chocolate a day. One day we had guests and my father told me to bring the box of chocolates for them to taste. I didn't want to share them but I had no choice. To my last day I will never forget the looks we gave the visiting African children as they gleefully devoured the whole treasure. The chocolate was very precious to us, because once it was gone there was no more to be had. When you come to Europe from countries like that it is hard to connect with all the abundance. You no longer take anything for granted."

Africa taught the young Ariane Langner more than relativity. Our impression from our conversation with her was that even though she can avail herself of everything the world has to offer, she tends to yearn for simplicity. "There is nothing there but you laugh a lot more," she says about Africa. "There is a great deal of joy in the basic life." Her favorite place in the world is still the family's vacation home in Mozambique, deep in the bush. There she feels "a lot better than in Paris or at some board meeting. Like the animals around us, we go to sleep at 8 and wake up at 5," she says. There, she says, she is in harmony with the slow pace of life there and is able to rest. Her husband also apparently enjoys himself: The baron likes to hunt.

The baroness is not Jewish. She declares frankly that she does not believe in God, and makes no apologies for never considering conversion despite having joined the most famous Jewish family in the world.

"If every conversion were fully accepted by all streams of Judaism, I might consider it, but as long as that is not the case I find it sheer hypocrisy. Many people convert because it is more convenient for them to be Jewish, not because they believe in it. Whenever the question of Jewishness comes up I say that to be a Jew is what you do, not what you pretend to be."

Her African childhood apparently made her a tolerant person, but also one who shuns belonging: "I encountered many religions in the countries I lived in, including idol worshipers. As far as I am concerned, ridding the house of evil spirits or practicing voodoo is not something ridiculous. I have no problem with any religion but I do not belong to any of them."

Your husband is a very famous Jew. What Jewish rituals do you keep at home?

"We are a home in which there are many possibilities, from celebrating Christmas to observing Shabbat. I constantly tell Benjamin that the girls will be able to choose their religion as they wish, because they are familiar with the possibilities - even though when you are born into the Rothschild family the commitment to Judaism is deep and full. Our eldest daughter, for example, decided on her own initiative that she wants to learn Hebrew. She is also learning Chinese and Spanish."

To what extent can a non-Jew like yourself be committed to Israel?

"Israel is very precious to me. It is totally ingrained in the family, part of the legacy, part of the DNA. We are all particularly committed to Israel."

That commitment takes the form of contributions, of course, given annually for various projects. The official sum allocated for philanthropy worldwide is $20 million, distributed through 12 family-owned funds. In Israel most of the money is disbursed through the Caesarea Edmond Benjamin de Rothschild Foundation, which was established in a rather odd agreement with the State of Israel and made headlines over claims of significant surplus capital in its account.

The official sum is frequently augmented by funds drawn from the family's private account, the baroness notes. The Rothschilds have always given mainly to institutions, though recently this has changed and there is now a clear preference for private individuals. There has also been a change in the manner of disbursement. "We are restructuring the foundation," the baroness says. In the past, benefactors cut fat checks and received the public's adulation in return. Her approach is far more considered. She applies business tools to the donation process, such as due diligence, setting long-term goals and monitoring the results carefully.

"We have quite a few arguments with government institutions in Israel. They want us to diversify the donations more but we prefer to be focused," she says, giving as an example the awarding of scholarships to female doctoral candidates at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. For the second successive year, four women have been awarded scholarships worth tens of thousands of shekels so that they can complete their Ph.D.s without money worries.

"It doesn't sound like a lot, four. Here is where our new philanthropy concept enters. Obviously, instead of giving NIS 40,000 to each woman we could give a small amount to 100 women. But our research showed that a true scholarship will make a true difference. Last year I met one of the women, a 26-year-old from a very religious background. She is tiny, thin and frail but already has five children and is a mathematical genius. It was very exciting. That is how one makes a difference in people's lives."

The new philanthropic concept turns out to cost the donor quite a bit. The overhead for all the funds has increased, she says, because the selection, decision and follow-up processes require more staff and closer attention, but they feel the improved outcome justifies the additional expense. "The Rothschild family," she tells critics, "thinks long-term. We know that it is far easier to give many millions and disappear. It is harder to give $10 million each time and do so for 100 years."

The baroness makes three or four working visits of a few days each to Israel every year. Sometimes she is accompanied by her husband and daughters. Sometimes she comes alone and stays in the family's large house in Caesarea, although occasionally she prefers Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. She describes herself as chronically restless. "My home is in Geneva, but I wouldn't be able to stay there three months without moving, I would go crazy. I need to see people, I need change. I need to go from rich to poor, from white to yellow, otherwise I fade away and disappear."

The family's widely scattered business interests are perfectly suited to her need for constant motion. In addition to its philanthropy and its private banks the Rothschilds own wineries and real estate and are engaged in building infrastructure (mainly railroads and highways ). The baron and baroness are actively involved in the businesses and hold the controlling interest in the various companies in the group. The day-to-day work, the baroness notes, is entrusted to "our teams" - a staff of 2,800 scattered around the world. The key to managing an empire worth billions, she says, is to hire excellent people, "and when I say excellent I mean fantastic, brilliant people who understand right away what I want without having to be told 50 times. What I like is for people to be independent, so I can brief them at the beginning and afterward they will do the work. When you work with people who understand you, everything goes right."

How deeply involved are you in the businesses themselves?

"As the holder of the controlling interest I have a clear business vision of what I want and what I am trying to accomplish. As a member of the board of directors I feel I have the right to get into subjects that are close to my heart and sometimes I lay down clear demands and do micromanaging."

In what areas, for example?

"The environment and social impact are key areas which every business model must incorporate today. In an ideal world businesses will combine profit-making with true social impact. Even traditional business must change its approach from linear to multidimensional and holistic. People say their business is 'global' but it is not truly global because it does not take into account social and environmental aspects that exercise global influence."

How does this find expression in the group?

"We are working very hard on sustainable development, and it's not always easy. Transforming 19th-century office buildings into 'green' structures entails enormous costs and also has opponents. We try to play up other angles: ongoing education to preserve environmental values, a diverse human mix and ensuring workers' rights. We have the ability to integrate business with community activity, such as connecting between the bank and social entrepreneurship which is supported by our various funds. We leverage activity of capital and the third sector. That is the multidimensional model I mentioned earlier: Nothing exists completely independently; everything is inseparably integrated with its surroundings."

Baroness de Rothschild has the privilege of deciding whether to embark on large-scale projects. Sometimes her choices are questioned.

"When we become involved in an infrastructure project, such as railroads or highways in Africa, it is possible that the investment will not reap a profit and people will say, 'Ariane, you're wasting time and resources.' But I don't care. If I bring an expressway to Dakar and I feel that I am contributing, that is enough. Maybe in the end we will also make a certain profit from it."

But some say the baroness thinks not only in terms of social impact but is well aware of the business potential latent in the world's emerging markets. De Rothschild, they will argue, cannot allow herself to scatter the family's assets aimlessly only in order to develop Africa.

What is the secret of successful businesses?

"Business should be fun. I look at these serious people in their suits and I don't understand why they do not treat business as a process that should be fun and exciting. If you're not enthusiastic, you don't have fun; and if you don't laugh, your team dies. If you don't want people dying on you, you need an environment that is both fun and challenging. When I tell traditional bankers about the railroads they think it's nonsense. And that's what makes my day."

Though railroads in Africa are a turn-on for the baroness, there are a number of areas in which the family will not invest. The Rothschild approach is very cautious and above all not speculative.

"Before the crisis things were booming and there was so much money to be made in new trends. Many people, including my father, said I was becoming a boring Swiss banker who does not take risks. And I said, 'Dad, there are many things I cannot and will not do even for money.' For example, I am not going to buy thousands of hectares in Indonesia to produce palm oil. That could be a very dangerous investment and also immoral in terms of the attitude toward the employees. "There is a great deal of money that we cannot accept at the bank under the strict terms of Swiss regulation, and we will not accept it, even if we could earn a larger profit. I am part of a family of people which for generations has been involved in safeguarding their good name. We will not take any risk that is liable to harm that reputation."

Let's talk about feminism.

"I do not define myself as a feminist, because the term has a negative connotation. I too have encountered the glass ceiling. I know very well that without my husband, who informed certain companies that I was the one who would be sitting on the board of directors, it would not have happened. There is now an effort under way in France to enact a law stipulating that 50 percent of the members of boards of directors of public corporations must be women. My first instinct was to object, because I think that fundamentally a person should be taken on for his qualifications and not by an appointment. When I thought about it again, I understood that we have no choice. Until women hold key positions they will not be promoted by a natural process, so laws like this are important. Such laws, along with personal example, will pave the way to a more egalitarian world for my daughters' generation."

Even without titles, you, a woman who was not born into the Rothschild family, will manage most of its business interests.

"My husband is the feminist in the family. He is a big feminist. It's no trivial thing to live with someone who trusts you like this. He simply said, 'Go for it, I know that whatever you do you will do well.'"