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.
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.
For the sake of simplicity, we have limited our list of richest families to those groups who originally made their fortunes through business, even if some heirs who still enjoy the money haven't been employed in the business.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 most recent updates are from 2020.
1. Walton Family - Walmart
Estimated Wealth: $215 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 2020, Jim and Alice Walton are each worth $54 billion and ranked #8 and #9, respectively, on Forbes's 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 2020 revenues, with $524 billion, and over 2.2 million U.S. associates. 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 11,510 retail stores worldwide and 5,347 stores in the U.S., as of Oct. 31, 2020.
Best known for big box stores in rural and suburban America, Walmart is celebrated for its low priced products and criticized for its labor practices. The company failed to bring its big-box consumer lifestyle to New York City, unlike its competitor Target.
2. Mars Family - Mars
Estimated Wealth: $120 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 $9.1 billion.
Siblings Jacqueline and John Mars, whose grandfather, Frank Mars, founded the company, each have a net worth of $24.7 billion, tied for #29 in 2020 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.
3. Koch Family - Koch Industries
Estimated Wealth: $109.7 billion
Charles Koch owes his staggering fortune to an oil business founded by his father, but today is perhaps better known to the general public for his politics, digging into his deep pockets to place his stamp on politics: financing candidates and libertarian think tanks, funding university professorships, and lobbying for policy positions, all aimed at furthering a conservative agenda.
Charles partnered with his brother David until the latter's death in 2019. Charles is worth an estimated $38.2 billion, tied for the 18th spot with Julia Koch and family on the Forbes billionaire list.
4. Al Saud - Saudi Royal Family
Estimated Wealth: $95 billion
The House of Saud, the Saudi royal family, has a monarchical history extending back nearly a century. The family's massive fortune, estimated at $95 billion, has grown thanks to decades of payments from the Royal Diwan, the king's executive office. Ties with Saudi Aramco, the world's most profitable company and a behemoth of the oil industry, ensure that the Saudi royal family continues to accumulate wealth. It's difficult to accurately assess the wealth of the House of Saud, in part because the family contains as many as 15,000 extended members, many of whom have founded businesses, received government contracts, and more.
5. Ambani Family - Reliance Industries
Estimated Wealth: $81.3 billion
Indian industrial conglomerate Reliance Industries, the only Asian company on our list, can be the least well known to average readers. Nevertheless, CEO Mukesh Ambani, whose late father founded the company in 1957, is 21st on Forbes's billionaire list, overseeing the company’s refining, petrochemicals, oil, gas, and textiles; his brother, Anil, manages telecommunications, asset management, entertainment, and power generation.
6. Dumas Family - Hermès
Estimated Wealth: $63.9 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.
7. Wertheimer Family - Chanel
Estimated Wealth: $54.4 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 Feb. 19, 2019. Brothers Alan and Gerhard Wertheimer now co-own the company that their grandfather staked with founder Gabrielle Coco Chanel. The brothers are both ranked at #48 on the Forbes billionaire list with a net worth of $17 billion each.
8. Johnson Family - Fidelity Investments
Estimated Wealth: $46.3 billion
Fidelity Investments was founded by Edward C. Johnson II in 1946 and is one of the largest financial services firms in the world, providing investment services to millions of people. The firm is now run by Johnson's granddaughter, Abigail Johnson, who ranks at 124 on the Forbes billionaire list at a net worth of $10.8 billion.
9. Boehringer, Von Baumbach Families - Boehringer Ingelheim
Estimated Wealth: $45.7 billion
Boehringer Ingelheim is a German pharmaceuticals company with more than 130 years of history. The Boehringer family, along with the Von Baumbachs, remain in control of the company several generations later.
10. Albrecht Family - Aldi
Estimated Wealth: $41 billion
Aldi is an international chain of grocery stores that grew when brothers Brothers Theo and Karl Albrecht began to manage their parent's grocery store after World War II. Aldi also owns the popular American chain of grocery stores, Trader Joe's. Theo Albrecht and family have a net worth of $17 billion and rank at number 51 on the Forbes Billionaire List.
The Bottom Line
Admittedly, this list may read as a naked celebration of wealth at a time of rising global inequality and the vanishing middle class; 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, the focus on families means the list doesn't include the world’s three richest individuals: Musk, Bezos, and Gates, though technically they all have families.