Over a lingering lunch with a friend in the City of London some years ago, Baron David de Rothschild, the French head of the global Rothschild banking dynasty, was asked if he saw his thrusting young British cousin, Nat Rothschild, as sie sucht ihn 50 his possible successor.
The baron, a stylish figure of the old school, thought for a moment as he sipped a good vintage from the family vineyard, then replied intriguingly: ‘Well, he’s the person of this [Rothschild] generation who seems to be most comfortable in the world of high finance.’
Today, for Nat Rothschild, that glittering prize of one day becoming the family patriarch has surely disappeared for ever.
Family Feud: Nat Rothschild was once hailed as the next head of the dynasty by his cousin David
His high-flying reputation has taken a humiliating nosedive as major City players who banked on his golden-boy reputation and his illustrious family name have turned against him. He also has to face the damning prospect that cousin David, the same man who had once talked so highly of him, may have had a hand in his downfall.
Rothschild vs Rothschild? Impossible, surely, in the closely-knit international family who all trace their gilded roots back to the Jewish Mayer Amschel Rothschild setting up a bank in Frankfurt in the 1760s.
There may have been the odd business split among the Rothschilds, but as the previous head of the dynasty, Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, now in retirement at 81, declared only in 1996: ‘The first important strength of the family is unity.’
Head of the family: It is rumoured that David de Rothschild had a hand in the downfall of his cousin Nathanial
Certainly, there was some Rothschild unity on display yesterday. But it was directed with dismay and bemusement against lone operator Nat, 41, for the way he had allowed the family’s most precious asset — its name — to be dragged through the full glare of a public row involving mass boardroom resignations, accusations of mismanagement and allegations of missing millions.
For Nat, a close friend of Peter [Lord] Mandelson and a man accustomed to getting his own way while pursuing a lifestyle of private jets and business deals with Russian oligarchs, it is not only unedifying but a devastating setback.
In a bruising struggle, Nat Rothschild had taken on the board of a mining company, Bumi plc, that he co-founded and helped bring to listing on the Stock Exchange in 2011, with the Rothschild name helping him to personally raise £700million from investors.
Initially, shares in the firm — which he created with the influential Bakrie family, part of Indonesia’s ruling elite — soared. But then Rothschild accused the Bakries of weak control and money going missing, and demanded wholesale board changes — and the company’s value plummeted amid bitter acrimony.
The poisonous feud culminated this week in Nat’s attempt, with his mother Lady [Serena] Rothschild at his side at a shareholder meeting, to wrest back control of the company from the Bakries. He failed.
Crucially, the Bumi board had called in a merchant bank to help them and to act as their independent advisers, sort out the mess and write a report on what went wrong.
The bank? NM Rothschild, the family bank run by the French arm of the Rothschild dynasty whose chairman is Baron David. Its report, which is not published, is understood to be critical over the way the company was launched.
‘I believe it could only have been David’s decision for NM Rothschild to accept this particular job,’ says a senior City figure. ‘He could have turned it down, of course, but, in fact, the bank is seen to have taken it on with relish.
Downfall: Rothschild has become embroiled in financial scandal and is down £50million on an £80million investment
‘David is intent on keeping the Rothschild name intact and protecting the brand as one that can be relied on in any crisis, even one involving another family member.’
This tenacious protection of the Rothschild brand over the years has created an extraordinary banking and financial empire with arms stretching right around the world.
From Europe to America, Australia to Singapore and Hong Kong, its network of banks and corporate finance companies operate with varying degrees of autonomy, but ultimately they all have to report back to headquarters.
This is its operating company, Rothschilds Continuation Holdings, and is to be found in the low-tax, Swiss town of Zug. Its executive chairman: Baron David de Rothschild.
To the Rothschilds, the question of leadership succession is treated almost like that of an accession to the throne in a monarchy. It is an obsession that has enabled them to keep their name above the door of the firm while other traditional City families — such as Kleinworts and Warburgs — have long since lost control to brash newcomers.
Ex-wife: Nat and Annabel Neilson divorced. the family have not approved of Nat's excessive lifestyle in the past
No one should underestimate how much the Rothschilds care for the reputation of their family name — and how they will preserve it through a line of succession which does not necessarily favour the eldest son.
It has always been a matter of immense family pride that the lst Baron Rothschild was created by Queen Victoria in 1885 when Jews were not universally accepted socially.
During World War II, the 3rd Baron Rothschild, Victor, a man far more interested in science than banking, served his country by working for MI5. Yet he also fulfilled his role as head of the family bank.
When Baron Victor relinquished his chairmanship on his 70th birthday in 1980, it didn’t pass to his eldest son Jacob — now Lord Rothschild and Nat’s father — as had been expected. Instead, it moved sideways to his cousin, Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, who made it plain that his successor would be David, then his deputy who comes from the French side of the family.
Sir Evelyn told the French newspaper Le Monde: ‘If something happens to me, there is David. If something happens to him, there is Amschel.’ David took over in 2003, but the throne will never go to Amschel, Nat’s tragic uncle.
Amschel, who worked in the Rothschild bank in Paris, is said to have feared the awesome responsibility and didn’t want it. In 1996, just hours after being involved in a complicated meeting over mergers, he hanged himself in the Hotel Bristol in Paris, aged 41.
Amschel was the younger half-brother of Nat’s father, Lord (Jacob) Rothschild who was by now clearly out of the picture.
Jacob, a spirited and confident banker (some say he was passed over for the top job because he was too spirited), having lost what many saw as his birthright, cut his business links with the family.
He started his own investment trust, RIT, with spectacular success. These days, he runs a fund valued at £4billion, and is personally worth around £500million.
Family seat: A view of the south front of Rothschild's Waddesdon Manor,near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire
But the family split was uncharacteristic, and regretted on all sides. Union, after all, was strength.
What is more, senior family members were exasperated to find that, with Jacob’s departure, the global Rothschild empire had lost the prestige of the family peerage bestowed all those years ago.
This makes the tragedy of Nat Rothschild all the more significant. For had his career taken a different path, that family schism could have been mended. As the heir to the 128-year-old peerage, he could have brought the Rothschild title back into the family fold by becoming leader of the banking dynasty.
Now this will surely not happen. Indeed, the future leadership of the Rothschilds has already been marked out. The mann sucht frau rtl heir in-waiting is Baron David’s only son, Alexandre, 32, who was still at college when his father talked of cousin Nat as a possible successor.
Alex is a dashing socialite with a beautiful young wife, and has started building a reputation as an astute banker.
Divorced from socialite and model Annabelle Neilson, Nat Rothschild’s life revolves largely around business —‘his mind is always turning over deals and, apart from the odd girlfriend, his closest companion seems to be his St Bernard dog’, says one friend.
Scandal: The Corfu home where Nat Rothschild entertained George Osborne and Peter Mandleson
Getaway: The Rothschild family estate in Agios Stefanos on the Greek island of Corfu
But Alex and wife Olivia are accomplished equestrians, popular with the show-jumping fraternity. He has competed at major events from Paris to Dubai. He took jobs in other financial firms before joining Rothschild’s in 2008, working in the private equity unit.
His closest friends are younger members of the Grimaldi Royal Family of Monaco and the offspring of France’s business and political elite. Another close confidant is John Elkann, 36, heir to Italy’s Agnelli family which own Fiat.
The plan is for Alexandre to succeed within five years, when his father will be 75. No wonder Nat’s father Lord Rothschild, 76, to whom Prince Diana often turned to for advice, has remained so gloomily silent through the entire saga.
A holder of the Order of Merit, who continues to live in London while his son has been a tax exile in Switzerland for six years, he is said to be a bitterly disappointed man at the turn of events and his son’s dwindling reputation.
Even so, by way of showing family union, Nat’s mother Lady Rothschild made sure she was there with him at the Bumi shareholders meeting on Thursday. It didn’t help. He still lost the control he’d fought so hard to win back. Shareholders would not even let him come back on the board.
Contacts: Peter Mandleson has a strong relationship with Nat Rothschild
As the final acrimonious exchanges of the Bumi episode ended, so did Lord Rothschild’s dream that his son and heir might one day lead the world’s most enduring banking dynasty to new heights.
He had hoped that tensions between himself and his son (he also has three daughters) were a thing of the past.
Those tensions were never about finance, but over personal issues such as Nat’s unfettered hedonism at Oxford, and an escort girl’s story that she was asked to provide strippers and drugs to a party he threw in 1994 at Waddesdon Manor, the magnificent family seat in Buckinghamshire.
More recently, it upset Lord Rothschild that his son had not endeared himself to family members with his flashy entrepreneurial style, so different from their own discreet methods.
The family did not like the way, for example, he celebrated his 40th birthday with a near £1million three-day bash at Porto Montenegro, a development on the Adriatic coast in which he has an investment, with invitations offering helpful details of where guests could park private jets.
Nor were they keen on his highly publicised friendships with controversial people such as Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska whose £80million yacht was the scene of that infamous gathering in Corfu with George Osborne and Peter Mandelson which led to Nat’s dramatic and widely reported fall-out with Osborne, an old chum.
Above all, though, they felt deeply uncomfortable at Nat’s use of the most revered name in global finance to attract investment into speculative activities. In the case of Bumi, investors are so far down by £1.4billion.
Nat himself, once the soaring freelance star of the family — doing it his way and even talked about as potentially the richest of all the Rothschilds — is down £50million on his £80 million investment.
Perhaps he has lost his touch. Who knows? Perhaps the anger of the Rothschild dynasty will force the irascible Nat to change his approach to money-making. But don’t hold your breath.