Words Matter: Why “Trusted Company” Instead of Trust Company and “Family-Centered Office” Instead of Family Office

What is the focus of a "trust company"? The trust. What is the focus of a "trusted company"? The quality of the relationship between the trustee and the beneficiary.

I recently began saying that I do not aspire to head up a trust company; I aspire to be a “trusted company.” This may seem like word smithing, but I think it’s important. There is a subtle but powerful difference between a trust company and a trusted company. The former implies that the object of the company’s attention is—trusts. A “trust company” administers trusts. That’s what it does. That’s the focus of its efforts. In many ways, the phrase “trust company” suggests that the entity’s clients are the trusts that it oversees.

If a PTC aspires to be a “trusted company,” however, everything changes. The phrase focuses attention on the people who are truly a PTC’s clients, because it immediately reorients towards their perception of the company in question. Do they trust this company? This elevates these human clients—the beneficiaries—and brings them to the foreground, while the trusts under administration recede somewhat into the background. This is, in my view, a very positive thing.

In addition, “trusted company” reorients not only towards the relationship between the beneficiaries and the trustee, but to the quality of that relationship. It immediately reminds that the relationship between beneficiary and trustee can be fraught, and sometimes distrustful. The phrase forces one to prioritize the quality of the relationship, and in particular to prioritize creating a trusting relationship of confidence and mutual understanding. How many private trust companies today are regularly auditing their relationships with each beneficiary, and asking if those are trusting relationships, just as they are auditing their books and investments?

The mission of a trust company should be to focus on each individual human being that it serves, hopefully helping each person to flourish. Of course it must administer and oversee the trusts over which it is trustee. But re-wording to describe these entities as trusted companies can serve as a reminder of the true purpose for which they exist: to serve and be trusted by individual human beings, not to serve the trusts that support those human beings.

I similarly suggest that the term “family-centered office” has advantages over “family office.” There are many family offices that are not particularly family-centered. Often they are instead money- or investing-centered. A family-centered office suggests immediately that its focus is, again, on the human capital in the family as much as or more than on the family’s financial capital.

Another Option

Another option–rather than “trusted office”–is to simply articulate than when we say “trust company” we mean the word “trust” as a verb, not as a noun. In other words, we’re not talking about a company that just administers trusts (n.); we’re talking about a company that trusts and is trusted (v.) (or, well, adverb). In this usage, you are re-orienting from “trust” as a static object to be cared for to “trust” as an active behavior or activity to be engaged in. A Trust Company, not a Trust Company.

Regardless of which approach you use, I do think that words matter. I hope that others may begin to use these terms in describing their own organizations…