Darragh O’Sullivan founder and Director of, DOS & Co., a London-based firm providing outsourced family office services to a wide range of clients, from young high-earners to established family offices. Here he tells us his success story and offers his thoughts on how the luxury market demands are evolving.
Please tell us about yourself and DOS & Co.
My first business was a spa and beauty business, purveying the finest fragrances, creams, potions, tonics and urban spa treatments to Dublin’s upper crust. I commuted back and forth from Dublin to Nottingham, where I was studying, to attend tutorials, sit exams and, occasionally, take a few days off. Our clients were brilliant. They were glamorous, wealthy, successful and incredibly demanding.
Following a number of years studying law at both Nottingham University and Bordeaux-IV university, interspersed with setting up pop-up spas on the beach at the Cannes Film Festivals, the Oscars and in LA and the BRIT Awards in London, I started my working life as a barrister. When the recession hit in 2009, there was very little work to be had in London; chambers weren’t hiring, and legal activity of most sorts had really subsided. People were tightening their belts as the economic turndown continued to generate huge uncertainty.
It was a tough time, too, for the €600-face-cream market. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as Ireland was crippled by the recession and some of the more extravagant actors in the Celtic Tiger felt the pinch, demand for our particular line of indulgences waned, and we shut our doors in December 2009. Liberated from my legal life and my commitments in Dublin, I returned to the Alps (where I had spent a good portion of my leisure time) to spend a couple of years running über-luxe chalets in Méribel and a hotel in Courchevel 1850.
Luxury retail and luxury hospitality share so many synergies, yet with a number of marked differences (I think of them as improvements); chief amongst which is that hospitality is a 24/7 activity, where one really gets to know one’s clients. The language is different, too. In hospitality, those ‘demanding’ clients are known as ‘exacting’ ones.
It was during my time running these chalets and the hotel that I met DOS & Co’s first client. A wealthy and successful divorcé, with a multitude of business interests, this lady had been let down by firm after firm of professional advisers. It was in the bar of my hotel one evening that she asked me if I would help her out with a situation which required deft and delicate treatment.
Nine years later, I work with a crack team of some of the most professional people I have encountered, and we have melded the worlds of luxury hospitality, law firms, wealth managers and management consultancies to run what we term an outsourced, or ‘virtual’ family office.
A virtual family office is not to be confused with a virtual office. We don’t, as far as I am aware, receive post or forward calls for any of our clients. Instead, we sit in the clients’ inner circles (and, often, their homes or jets), as trusted advisers, managing their family offices, wealth managers, their private bankers, their law firms, their homes and their businesses. We act, to all intents and purposes, as each client’s fiduciary factotum.
Describe a typical day for you – if such a thing exists!
What makes our business so special is that no two days are alike. There is an oft-cited phrase in the family office market that once one has seen one family office, once has seen one family office. Like the individuals that own them, they are all so different.
Juggling clients’ requirements, calendars and whereabouts is perhaps the greatest single achievement I can hope for in a day – by its very nature, our work is often time-sensitive, so managing our resources carefully and building in some space in any day’s diary is an absolute must.
The hospitality element of what we do is really important to me; for us, client care is paramount – often the work we are involved in is a source of stress, worry, anxiety, or simply significant financial risk to the client – I’m a firm believer in making sure that we add value by making the experience as ‘un-painful’ as we possibly can. Like visitors to a luxury hotel, our clients have come to expect the white-glove treatment from us. “Un excellent choix, monsieur.”
This can be very time-consuming, of course, so I tend to rise early, visit my incredibly patient and long-suffering personal trainer, and get my own exercise, laundry, nutrition and ‘life administration’ done before 8am. Thereafter (or sooner if the clients so require), the real day begins, and that one doesn’t finish until the last fire is fought, the last contract sent out and the last client request acceded to. Sometimes that can be very late indeed!
What do you love most about your role within the business?
The people. Our clients didn’t find themselves in positions requiring our services without being incredibly diligent and successful. Even those whose wealth is more generational than self-made work incredibly hard to preserve it – they are a truly inspiring group of people and their energy, enthusiasm and commercial acumen know no bounds.
It’s not just the clients, however. Their teams, their suppliers and those who work at the sharp end of the luxury/HNW markets, be they hoteliers or chefs, house managers or accountants, lawyers or builders and sub-contractors are, almost without exception, incredibly talented and well-honed professionals.
It goes without saying, of course, that such clients rarely have ‘simple’ problems to fix. Fortune favours the brave, and ‘brave’ many of them are. It is this problem-solving, fixing, scenario-planning and, dare I say it, watching on proudly when it all comes together which I find the single most satisfying part of my job.
What can a DOS & Co client expect from your service?
We get things done; project managers for the challenges that wealthy individuals face. For our clients, we are the starting point or ‘go-to’ when they have a new idea, a new project, want to buy or sell a significant asset (be it a home, an exotic vehicle, a boat, a helicopter or a plane), or perhaps they have a problem in their personal, professional or public life that requires managing, monitoring or solving.
We cover the base of being a law firm and management consultancy that gives advice, and then, with the client’s blessing, we put that advice into practice and manage the outcomes, too, all the while seeking to give a level of service that one might expect from a seasoned concierge at a leading hotel.
In this way, the client can be assured of the end-result. If (and, fortunately, this hasn’t happened to date), our advice is flawed, then we are on the hook to fix it. Like a ‘design and build’ construction contract, by acting as a one-stop-shop, we can give the client ultimate peace of mind, with no ‘battle of the consultants’ if things start to go off the rails. In this way, our clients view us as they would the team in an internal single family office.
By acting as the client’s trusted advisers, we sit on the ‘inside’ – clients speak freely with us and, like the finest butlers, we hear everything but say nothing. ‘Loose lips sink ships’ is the phrase which gets drummed into each new recruit or sub-contractor we work with. It is only by sitting in this inner circle that we are able to act effectively to manage projects, launches, staff, assets or problems to their desired end result.
We’re also the people you go to for the ‘impossible’. Believe it or not, while all of our clients’ requirements are different, they tend to share common attributes – we generally have the contacts, expertise and ability to achieve the end result, and if we don’t, we’ll jolly-well find them.
Finally, for clients with more sophisticated tax or inheritance planning structures, we act as trustees to family trusts and structures to ensure that they are properly administered and in an approachable, professional fashion. While the design and creative structuring is something best left to teams of specialists who do little else, we are on-hand to implement and run those structures once their authors have signed off on them.
Who is your typical client and with the changing employment landscape and rise of super successful entrepreneurs has your client profile changed over the last 5 years (if at all)?
I’m sure everyone says this, but we really don’t have a ‘typical’ client. Our clients do tend to have a number of things in common (substantial wealth, hectic lives with high levels of travel, and boundless drive), but that is pretty-much where it ends.
Some clients use us just for special, ‘big’ projects and some rely on our services almost every single day as a sounding-board, or using our new lifestyle concierge service for travel arrangements, suggestions, personal shopping and organising special family holidays requiring yacht and/or jet charter and the associated paperwork.
We have served successful entrepreneurs, country peers, oligarchs, sheikhs, musicians, sportspeople, members of royal families, reality TV stars, YouTube influencers and everyone in-between.
In terms of trends in our client-base, sitting in 2018, I see it getting both more international, and younger.
We have many international clients who are setting up bases or outposts in London and for whom we are on-hand to assist in the search for, acquisition/renovation, furnishing and staffing of prime properties in the capital. In projects like these, we act as a single point-of-contact for the whole “London project”, finding schools, clubs, private bankers, cars, offices and more, and managing client visits to the city from the doorstep of their current residence, right back to the doorstep of their current residence.
For our successful younger clients, I think the real attraction lies in helping them to ensure that with their new-found wealth, they are sensible – enjoying enough of it, but setting enough aside for the future. Certainly, the childhood millionaires of my time didn’t have the guiding hand of a firm like ours and we have worked with a number of rising stars to help them avoid committing to bad deals or over-burdensome obligations so that they will be able to enjoy the fruits of their success for many decades to come. For those who have enjoyed significant success as musicians, reality TV stars, influencers or even lottery winners, the value of this cannot be understated.
Where is your favourite place in the whole world and why?
I am a real Francophile. Part of this, I suspect, is down to Marie-Christine, my very first French teacher, who inspired me to learn the language. In many ways, it’s where DOS & Co. was born. For me, France has everything one could wish for, and it is just an hour’s flight or train-ride away from where I live in London.
In wintertime, in my opinion, one cannot beat the charm and pulse of Courchevel 1850 – it moves with a steady rhythm and the hoteliers and restaurateurs there really know how to put on a good show. A more satisfying mix of glamour and sport, I cannot imagine.
In summer, I love the sleepy pace of St. Tropez by day, by the pool on the roof of one of the central hotels, or soaking up the sun (and a fine glass of the local rosé) to the sounds of lively music from the beach clubs of Pampelonne. As the sun sets and the ensigns are lowered on the yachts in the port, the whole village comes alive – I do enjoy getting dressed up and heading out for dinner in the back-streets of the old part of town.
Where is still on your travel to do list and what appeals so much about this place?
I have never been to Venice, and it is definitely on my list. I would love to arrive at a little boutique hotel, by boat, to be met on the pontoon by a liveried doorman, and spend a few days getting lost in the city.
For me, it is the riparian glamour, the seemingly-impossible architecture and the unwavering romanticism of the place which holds the attraction. A friend of mine once attended a masked ball in an old palazzo; that sounds wonderfully entertaining too!
I am very fortunate to visit some of the most beautiful parts of the world to meet clients or carry out their wishes, but to date, Venice has eluded me.
What does luxury mean to you?
Luxury, to me, is all about the amount of effort and the underlying sentiment behind the good/service in question. Like ‘love’, it is hard to define, but one knows when one has found it.
There are brands in fashion, travel, food and drink which are expensive, glamorous and perceived to be very desirable, but are, perhaps, more ‘style’ than ‘substance’. I don’t see that as luxury.
Indeed, in my mind, luxury doesn’t even have to be about brands. There are certainly artisanal brands or brands with a long heritage, whose stories tell of apprenticeship and craftsmanship, which I would consider to be luxurious brands. Those who select only the finest materials or ingredients and who obsess about details and the end result – they will get my endorsement.
True luxury, however, is about time and about sentiment. For our clients, luxury means the whole family coming together in one place at the same time, even if only for a fleeting meal; it means wonderful meals prepared by talented chefs, taking their dietary requirements to heart; it means time with loved-ones with one’s emails turned off. In this way, true luxury is hard to find, but we can certainly help with the search.
How do you see the luxury market / (U) HNWI sector evolving over the next 5 – 10 years?
I’ve seen the sector transform hugely in just the last five years. With the cost of traditional family offices soaring, many wealthy clients are scaling back their internal operations to concentrate on wealth management and identifiable returns on the family office salaries and rents.
Similarly, the average age of the world’s most wealthy is declining rapidly. As these younger entrepreneurs, musicians and sportspeople come through, their needs are very different – clients of ours have explained that they don’t want advice from ‘grey-haired, suited old men’, but from people who can package that advice and put it into action on their behalf in a manner that they find amenable and on their level.
Younger clients, in particular, see the world very differently – many don’t eat meat, they value integrity above all, they don’t want to be associated with certain things, and they do want to be associated with others. The class system is changing – nowadays, the wealthiest people in the world are not necessarily from the highest social classes. This has made the luxury market a very tricky strait to navigate; fur, exotic leathers, rare woods and precious metals which have dominated luxury offerings are becoming increasingly difficult to sell to the new wave of conscientious consumers.
Already, sports car brands show happy women behind the wheel; yacht charter companies show much younger families enjoying their facilities; pay-as-you-fly and private jet membership clubs are springing up and some fashion houses are beginning to take a more ethical position on their use of rare pelts, skins and leathers. The luxury sector is taking note, and I think we can expect to see more and more of this as luxury businesses compete to attract bigger shares of the market. As resources dwindle and the target consumers become more conscientious, they will need to continue to adapt to remain relevant.
What is the single best piece of advice you have ever been given and why?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given my job, I find advice easier to give than to receive. That said, I have been given several really helpful pieces of advice in life which I always share – can I cheat and give two here?
The first piece of really helpful advice I was given came from my parents, and that was to follow my heart and, from time to time, to take risks. No-one is going to bring success to one on a plate, so if there are things in one’s life that one wants to achieve, one sometimes has to take a risk to make those things possible. I left a ‘safe’ and stable career as a lawyer at a big city firm to set up DOS & Co. and I have never looked back.
The second really helpful piece of advice I was given came from a long-term mentor of mine who told me that a huge part of what shapes one is the people that one chooses to spend time with. Find really great friends, spend time with them and be there for them, and life can be a really fulfilling experience.
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