Perspectives from ISB

Whether true or not, blue bloods in America and aristocrats in Europe have a reputation of blowing fortunes. When you’ve got everything the material world offers entrepreneurship isn’t a priority and fortunes can disappear fast. But no so for the scion of one of America’s grandest families, William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil, who died this week at 89.

Bill Cecil, as he was better known, came from one of the world’s grandest and richest families, the Vanderbilts. His great-great-grandfather, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, and his great-grandfather, William Henry Vanderbilt, were the richest Americans of their time. In their day, few family names invoked wealth and status as much as the Vanderbilt name did. And even today the Vanderbilt brand is still pretty stellar.

When Bill was born in 1928, the family fortune might not have been quite as big as it was back in William Henry’s days, but the Vanderbilts still owned Biltmore in North Carolina, America’s biggest and arguably grandest private house.

After graduating from Harvard and then pursuing a career as a successful Wall Street banker, Cecil returned to the family estate after his mother died in 1960. Although it was opened to the public by his parents back in the 1930s, by the time Cecil returned Biltmore was losing money. But through his efforts and vision, Cecil turned it into one of the most successful tourist attractions in the US, attracting today more than 1.4 million visitors annually.

As one of his employees told Forbes in an interview about the Biltmore estate back in 1998: “He has a new idea every morning while he shaves. He’s always looking for a product we can be proud of and make money with — like our wine business. He saw visitors pulling grapes off an arbor and said, ‘Hey, why should I let them eat my grapes for free?’”

Cecil also was a great example of stewardship. He passed the running of Biltmore over to his son, Bill Cecil, Jr., when he was in his late 60s and when Cecil, Jr. was in his late 30s. As he told Forbes in the 1998 interview: “I worked on my retirement for ten years. I wanted the successor generation to be 35 to 45 when he took over, at the beginning of the most productive time of life.”

Source: Family Capital, November 1, 2017,