Regardless of your particular financial status, keeping tabs on the ultra-rich—whether with admiration, envy, or resentment—is perhaps more pleasurable and less demanding than researching a mortgage, or shopping for online brokers, or getting schooled on complex topics in finance and economics like how exchange-traded funds work and the pros and cons of GDP.
To be sure, the appeal of wealthy families reflects a culture that fetishizes wealth and lionizes the rich. The upper echelon of business leaders is a kind of celebrity, as scrutinized for their ability to perform as athletes, actors, and politicians. Perhaps these individuals help humanize impersonal businesses. Perhaps it’s comforting to know that behind every monolithic corporation lurks a creature of flesh and blood. Amazon: Bezos. Facebook: Zuckerberg. Walmart: The Waltons.
Unlike rich men, successful family businesses may offer a universal appeal. Few of us will ever become billionaires, but everyone has a family. What's more, family businesses imply values of authenticity, tradition, heritage, lineage, and quality. And wealthy families suggest royalty, especially if the wealth is intergenerational.
While aristocracy runs counter to the U.S.'s democratic, capitalist, free-market worldview, it retains a firm grasp on the public imagination. And inherited royal wealth is not exactly an extinct phenomenon.
For the sake of simplicity, we have limited our list of richest families to those groups who originally made their fortunes through business, even if some heirs who still enjoy the money haven't been employed in the business. The fortunes given are in a range because fortunes fluctuate daily with the markets, and it matters how you count it up. The most recent updates to these figures occurred between late 2018 and early 2019.
1. Walton Family - Walmart
Estimated Wealth: $151.5 to $174.5 billion
The Waltons are the richest family in America and by some measures the wealthiest clan in the world. At the top of the value chain, in 2019, Jim and Alice Walton are each worth about $46.4 billion and ranked #16 and #17, respectively, on Forbes annual list of billionaires. Walmart is a retail behemoth.
Founded by Sam Walton in Arkansas in 1962, Walmart is now the world’s largest company, by 2019 revenues, with $514.4 billion, and over 1.5 million U.S. associates, according to its corporate website. If those people constituted their own city, it would be the fourth most populous American city, after New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The company operates nearly 12,000 retail stores worldwide and 5,355 stores in the U.S., as of January 2019.
Best known for big box stores in rural and suburban America celebrated for its low priced products, and excoriated for its labor practices, the company failed to bring its big-box consumer lifestyle to New York City, unlike its competitor Target.
2. Koch Brothers - Koch Industries
Estimated Wealth: $99 billion to $120 billion
Charles and David Koch owe their staggering fortune to an oil business founded by their father, but today are perhaps better known to the general public for their politics, digging into their deep pockets to place their stamp on politics: financing candidates and libertarian think tanks, funding university professorships, and lobbying for policy positions, all aimed at furthering a conservative agenda. The brothers are worth an estimated $60 billion each, tied for the #11 spot on Forbes billionaire list.
3. Mars Family - Mars
Estimated Wealth: $87 billion to $90 billion
Mars is the Walmart of candy: a multigenerational family business that is ubiquitous, cheap, and popular. Today the company is better known for making M&Ms than for its eponymous Mars bar. In 2017, the world’s largest candy company diversified with the purchase of VAC, a pet care company, for $7.7 billion.
Siblings Jacqueline and John Mars, whose grandfather Frank Mars founded the company, each has a net worth of $23.6 billion, tied for #33 in 2019 on the Forbes annual list of billionaires. The company is now being run by some of their children, the fourth generation of Mars family members. Sweet!
4. Bernard Arnault - LVMH
Estimated Wealth: $72.2 billion to $83.1 billion
The king of bling rules as Chairman and CEO of LVMH, a massive French conglomerate of 70 luxury brands. In addition to its namesake companies Louis Vuitton, Moët, and Hennessey, the portfolio includes fashion labels Christian Dior and Fendi, Dom Perignon champagne, Hennessey liquor, Hublot and TAG Heuer watches, and cosmetics shop Sephora.
As a young man, Bernard Arnault joined his father’s lucrative construction business and later parlayed family money into his own ventures. In the '80s, he founded LVMH and acquired French textiles company Boussac. Arnault has been wealthy for decades, but his net worth ballooned last year by $30.5 billion after record results at LVMH and a buyout of Christian Dior. Now four of his five children work for the company avec papa.
5. Carlos Slim Helu - American Movil
Estimated Wealth: $64 to $67 billion
The richest man in Mexico and his family control America Movil, the largest mobile telecom firm in Latin America, as well as Telmex, Mexico’s sole phone company. The son of a store owner and real estate investor, Slim amassed much of his wealth in 1982 when the Mexican economy tanked and he bought companies on the cheap. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Slim became a target of Donald Trump who accused him of being responsible for negative coverage of in the New York Times of which Slim owns a stake.
6. Karl & Theo Albrecht Jr. & Beate Heister - Aldi
Estimated Net Worth: $36.1 billion to $38.8 billion
Aldi is the Walmart of Germany. After World War II, Brothers Karl and Theo Albrecht transformed their parents’ grocery store into a national discount chain that now includes an estimated 10,000 stores around the world (the exact figure has not been disclosed by the company) with nearly 2,000 locations across the United States, according to its U.S.-based website.
In 1961, the brothers split the company by geography: Karl took southern Germany and brands rights in the U.K., U.S., and Australia; Theo took northern Germany and Europe, and later bought American grocery Trader Joe’s in 1971.
When Karl died in 2014 he was the richest person in Germany. His children, Beate Heister & Karl Albrecht Jr. are the heirs to his retail fortune and as of 2019, #23 on the Forbes billionaires list., with a net worth of $36.1 billion. Theo Jr. & his family are #61 valued at $17.4 billion, as of 2019.
7. Dumas Family - Hermès
Estimated Wealth: $36.7 billion to $49.2 billion
French fashion house and luxury purveyor Hermès has dazzled the world with its signature scarves, neckties, and perfumes as well as its iconic Kelly and Birkin handbags. Back in the 19th century, Thierry Hermès fashioned riding apparel for the aristocracy. Today, the company adorns basketball royalty, LeBron James. Fusing old school and new technology, a line of Hermès Apple Watches sells for $1,300 to $2,000 and up apiece. Axel Dumas currently serves as the company's CEO and chairman, and Pierre-Alexis Dumas is the artistic director.
8. Kamprad Family - IKEA
Estimated Net Worth: $48.9 billion
The late IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad was born into a poor rural Swedish family and died in 2018 as one of the world’s richest men. He opened his first home furnishings store in Sweden in the 1950s, then over the next half-century expanded worldwide. Today, IKEA is synonymous with unobtrusively stylish, minimalist design, and inexpensive furniture that customers buy in kits and assemble at home. Ikea products have furnished countless dorm rooms, apartments, and houses throughout the world. Kamprad left behind three sons and an adopted daughter.
9. Wertheimer Family - Chanel
Estimated Net Worth: $42 billion
French high fashion house Chanel is legendary for the timeless “little black dress,” the No. 5 perfume, and the deceased, high-profile designer Karl Lagerfeld, who died on February 19, 2019. Brothers Alan and Gerhard Wertheimer now co-own the company that their grandfather staked with founder Gabrielle Coco Chanel.
10. Mukesh and Anil Ambani - Reliance Industries
Estimated Net Worth: $50 to $60 billion
Indian industrial conglomerate Reliance Industries, the only Asian company on our list, may be the least well known to average readers. Nevertheless, CEO Mukesh Ambani, whose late father founded the company in 1957, is #13 on Forbes 2019 list, overseeing the company’s refining, petrochemicals, oil, gas, and textiles; his brother Anil manages telecommunications, asset management, entertainment, and power generation. Anil’s elder son, Anmol, is the executive director of Reliance Capital.
The Bottom Line
While wealthy dynasties have been embedded in politics for centuries, it doesn’t seem coincidental that the allure of wealthy family lists coincides with the presidency and digital omnipresence of Donald Trump, whose wealth originated in his father’s New York real estate business, and whose daughter married the real estate scion Jared Kushner, both now in the White House inner circle.
Admittedly, this list may read as a naked celebration of wealth at a time of rising global inequality and the vanishing middle class; a belated pop-culture rehash of Thomas Piketty; or an implicit condoning of heedless consumption at a time when the future of wealth itself is in question due to technological disruption and climate change.
Moreover, our focus on families means we don’t include the world’s three richest individuals. Bezos, Gates, and Buffett do not appear on our list, though technically they all have families. So be it.
Whatever the limitations of this list, we feel that reading about wealthy families has merit, not merely as voyeurism, but a method of studying ourselves in the mirror. We may not be billionaires or heirs, but we do collectively want affordable food, clothes, and furniture, and our modern lives are literally and figuratively fueled by oil, gas, and mobile phones. If few of us have the bodies or the bank accounts to wear haute couture, we still recognize their aesthetics as symbols of quality, if not the actual life to which we aspire.