America’s top 10 families crack $US500bn in wealth

These are the richest families in the US, some well-known and others not. And one very wealthy descendant lives right here in Australia.

Collectively, the 10 richest families in the US have more wealth than most African nations, and even some European ones.

Controlling a massive $US530 billion in wealth, these families are an eclectic mix of self-made entrepreneurs, or billionaires by birthright or marriage who have inherited riches almost beyond comprehension.

And you won’t find the richest individuals among them, such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates ($US81bn), Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett ($US67bn), or Oracle’s Larry Ellison ($US50bn). They’re families, where the spoils of their labour, or the labour of earlier generations, have been carved up in mindboggling proportions.

Some families preside over large listed companies, and others over businesses that remain private -- but their common denominator is that, in one way or another, they are still home-grown families in every sense of the word. Below, based on data from the latest Forbes 400 rich list published this week, are America’s richest families.

1. The Walton family ($US152bn)

Overseeing the massive Wal-Mart retail empire, the Waltons as a family top the list. Individually, four members of the family rank in the top 10 richest people, taking out the sixth, seventh, ninth and tenth positions, with fortunes ranging from $US34.8bn to $US38bn. Together, the Waltons own 51 per cent of Wal-Mart shares, a business started by Sam Walton and his brother James in the 1960s and which is now the world’s largest retailer with $US476bn in revenue.


Graph for America’s top 10 families crack $US500bn in wealth

2. The Koch family ($US89bn)

Headed by Charles and David Koch, Koch Industries is the second-largest private company in the US with $US115bn in sales, with operations spanning resources, fertilisers, chemicals, pulp and paper, agribusiness and finance. Founded in 1940 as a mid-western refining business by their father Fred, the company now has more than 70,000 employees.

3. The Mars family ($US60bn)

Confectionery business Mars was created in 1911 by Frank Mars, and most Australians at some point in their lives would have tasted its products including the Mars bar, Milky Way and Snickers. Now run by Jacqueline, John and Forrest Mars Jr, the company had $US33bn in sales last year. Its other products include M&Ms, Uncle Ben's, and pet food brands Pedigree and Whiskas.

4. The Cargill-MacMillan family ($US43bn)

Agribusiness concern Cargill is the largest private company in America, and six members of the Cargill and MacMillan families collectively own an estimated 88 per cent of its stock. Started by W.W. Cargill as a grain-storage business in 1865, the Cargill empire now turns over $US137bn a year selling food, processing crops, trading commodities, sourcing ingredients and even providing financial risk management. But despite the huge size of their company, including extensive operations in Australia, members of the Cargill-Macmillan family are extremely private. No family member is involved in the day-to-day business activities. The last family member to run the company was Whitney MacMillan, who retired as CEO in 1995.

5. The Johnson family ($US39bn)

Fidelity is a name synonymous with the world of finance, with the company now the second-largest mutual fund operator in the US. Started in 1946 by Edward C. Johnson II, Fidelity is 49 per cent owned by his son, Edward (Ned) Johnson III  and his grandchildren. Fidelity has $US1.7 trillion in assets under management, and operates well-known funds including Magellan and Contrafund. Ned is chairman and CEO, daughter Abigail is president, and his son Edward Johnson IV runs a family-owned real estate company.

6. The Hearst family ($US35bn)

The Hearst empire started with the discovery of rich silver deposits during the 1900s in California, and continues today as the media conglomerate created by William Randolph Hearst and expanded by his son, William Randolph Hearst Jr. in the 20th century. The Hearst media group still includes 49 newspapers, nearly 340 magazines, and stakes in cable TV channels ESPN, Lifetime and A&E. Chairman of the board is now William R. Hearst III. The Hearst family is very private, but millions of tourists annually continue to flock to Hearst Castle, south of San Francisco, a huge estate set on more than 16,000 hectares that was built by William Randolph Hearst Jr, and which is now run by the California State Park System.

Graph for America’s top 10 families crack $US500bn in wealth

7. The Cox family ($US32bn)

Another family in the media business is the Cox family, which owns a string of companies including Cox Communications (cable TV, broadband), Cox Media Group (newspapers, TV, radio stations), Manheim (car auctions) and AutoTrader Group (online car sales, Kelley Blue Book). Started by James M. Cox in 1898 with the purchase of the Dayton Evening News, his daughter Anne Beau Cox Chambers (born 1919) is the majority owner, with a 50 per cent stake, and still sits on the company’s board of directors. Grandson James Kennedy was CEO from 1988 to 2008 and now serves as chairman. Granddaughter Blair Parry-Okeden lives in Australia, but has no role in the Cox conglomerate. But both grandchildren each have 25 per cent stakes, worth $US8bn.

8. The Pritzker family ($US29bn)

A.N. Pritzker and his sons made their fortune by creating the Hyatt hotels chain, and through a key investment in the industrial products conglomerate the Marmon Group, which they later sold to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. There are now 11 members of the Pritzker family, each of them billionaires. Penny Pritzker, with a $US2.5bn stake in the Hyatt Group, went into politics and is now the US Commerce Secretary. Her cousin Thomas chairs Hyatt Hotels, and other Prizker descendants are entrepreneurs and investors in their own rights.
Graph for America’s top 10 families crack $US500bn in wealth

9. The Johnson family ($US25.5bn)

With products including Ziploc bags, Windex, Drano, Raid, Baygon and Mr Muscle, the Johnson family still retains full ownership of the cleaning products company S.C. Johnson started by their great-great grandfather in 1886. S.C. Johnson’s son Herbert Fisk Johnson inherited the company and ran it until his death in 1928, and it was then taken over by his children Herbert Fisk Jr. and Henrietta Johnson Louis. S.C. Johnson today employs more than 12,000 people in nearly 70 countries, and has been operating in Australia since 1917.

10. The Duncan family ($US25.4bn)

The oil business has been good for the descendants of Dan Duncan, who founded Duncan Oil in the 1950s and later Enterprise Products Partners, one of the largest pipeline operators in the US. The empire was taken over by his four children (Randa Duncan Williams, Milane Frantz, Dannine Duncan Avara and Scott Duncan) on his death in 2010, which at that stage was worth nearly $US10bn. The family fortune has since risen by approximately $US15bn, thanks to dividend payouts and a rise in the company’s stock price. Randa was made non-executive chairman of the Enterprise Products’ board last year.