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8 Lessons You and Your Clients Learn by Watching Downton Abbey

Mar 10th 2015
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This isn't a joke. The viewers of this high-end PBS costume drama, which takes place about a century ago, could very likely be your clients' demographic. Look at who's a top corporate sponsor: Viking River Cruises, which told The New York Times that “our demographic is affluent Baby Boomers 55+.” It's a big group: more than 10.1 million viewers watched the first episode of the fifth season in early January. Are your clients in this group? Or would you like to reach them? Look closely, and see if Downton can impart valuable financial lessons to your clients.

Who’s Who?

Downton Abbey follows the lives of the fictitious Crawley family who live in a grand English country house. The five series have brought us from 1912 into the mid 1920s. Downton has 64+ characters, yet the newcomer only needs to know six to teach some valuable financial lessons.

  • Robert Crawley—The Earl of Grantham, lord of the manor.
  • Cora Crawley—Lady Grantham, his American-born wife.
  • Violet Crawley—Robert’s mother, the Dowager countess.
  • Mary Crawley—Earl and Lady Grantham’s eldest daughter.
  • Matthew Crawley—Third cousin, heir to the title, later Mary’s husband.
  • Tom Branson—Surviving husband of Sybil (daughter #3) and estate manager

Eight Lessons Your Clients Can Learn From Downton Abbey

The Crawley family are stewards of the estate, 1000+ acres of agricultural land complete with village, tenant farmers, fire department, and so on. Their role in life is to keep the estate intact and pass it on to the next generation. This leads to their immediate concern, finding a suitable husband for Mary Crawley, so the estate remains in the family.

Lesson One:Being Rich Doesn’t Make You Smart. The Granthams might know the Astors in New York and the aristocracy in England, but they are very bad financial managers. The decline of the agricultural economy doomed many of England’s country estates. Doing things the way we always have isn’t a business plan. Message: Clients own businesses. The environment changes. Are they paying attention and adjusting accordingly?

Lesson Two:It's Never Too Early For Estate Planning. In season three Matthew Crawley rescues the estate by injecting a large amount of cash he received as an inheritance from his deceased fiancée's family. The estate was afloat again. Robert made Matthew a joint owner. In season three’s final episode Matthew is killed in a car crash. Message: Clients with over $5.43 million in assets need to be seriously concerned about estate taxes. Well managed assets tend to grow. Ignoring the problem only makes it more severe.

Lesson Three:It’s All About Taxes. When death duties came due after Matthew’s death, Lord Grantham struggled between the alternatives of selling off land or carrying debt and paying off the obligation over time. Tom Branson argued running the estate efficiently should provide the necessary cash flow for debt repayment. In 1920s England, you might stretch out the time period but couldn’t negotiate down the bill. Message: Understand the difference between good debt and bad debt.

Lesson Four:Being Slow to Change Can Be Disastrous. While still alive and a joint owner of the estate, Matthew, trained as a solicitor, studies the accounts and realizes the estate is losing money. He wants to introduce large-scale farming and raise sheep. This means buying out tenant farmers whose families have farmed the land for generations. Robert balks for a few episodes and eventually agrees. The estate is saved while other estates aren’t. Message: When running a large business, survival of the firm is foremost. At the same time many individuals depend on the business for their employment. Owners must think long term and do the best they can in the short term for people affected by the changes.

Lesson Five:Respect the Value of Advice. How did Lord Grantham get into a financial jam anyway? He decided investing in a Canadian railway was a good idea and established a concentrated position. The founder died and the railroad was threatened with bankruptcy. He either didn’t ask his broker’s advice or chose to ignore it. Message: If you are paying an expert for advice it’s a good idea to follow it.

Lesson Six:Keep Spouses in the Picture. Cora Crawley, originally an American heiress, brought money into the family when she married Robert. Upon hearing of their financial jam she sees an immediate solution: “What about my money?” Robert mentions that’s gone too. Message: Earlier generations assumed roles: Someone earned and handled the money; someone else ran the house and raised the children. Today that second someone needs to either be kept in the picture or insert themselves.

Lesson Seven:You Own Your Own Retirement. When Robert had financial problems, sale of the estate becomes an undesirable option. The family might move to a smaller property, Downton Hall, whose smaller scale would require a smaller household staff. Traditionally the household staff worked in service for most of their lives, and then retired to cottages on the estate. If the estate were sold however, many might lose their jobs. Message: Today many people still ignore retirement planning, assuming the government or their firm will provide for them. These revenue sources might play a part, yet ultimately we are each responsible for planning our own retirement.

Lesson Eight:Loyalty Has a Value. True to British tradition, the Crawley family didn’t change service providers very often. They stuck with professional relationships from generation to generation. As a consequence they got spectacular service and lots of attention. When they have a legal question, their solicitor, George Murray, comes to their house. Message: Long-term relationships involve trust and other intangibles that make changing providers out of the question.

These concepts won’t take a lot of explaining. Your clients “get it” as they turn on their TVs on Sunday night for the next installment of Downton Abbey.

About the author:
Bryce Sanders is president of Perceptive Business Solutions Inc. in New Hope, Pennsylvania. He provides HNW client acquisition training for the financial services industry. His book "Captivating the Wealthy Investor" can be found on


Replies (2)

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By m
Jun 25th 2015 20:12 EDT

well, what are the 8 lessons, or are you just another baiter?

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By bryce sanders
Jun 25th 2015 20:12 EDT

Dear M:
Thanks for posting a comment to my article. The concept was to consider the eight headings for each lesson as spelled out above as a message you might communicate to clients in conversation, particularly if you were making social conversation about Downton Abbey.
You can get to people through their passions. People with lots of money sometimes don't pay attention to suggestions from their professional advisors yet they will follow their passion intently. Wine fans read "The Wine Spectator" cover to cover. PBS Masterpiece fans talk about Downton Abbey.
Downton Abbey is filled with practical advice (often through horrific examples) about the importance of addressing estate planning early, the danger of investing in concentrated positions, adapting to changes in the economy, etc. These are points you want to make with them too.
Of course, if your client isn't a Downton Abbey fan, this isn't useful. Although the viewership numbers for the Series 5 finale aren't out yet, 10.1 million viewers started the new year watching the series. The demographic is affluent baby Boomers. Some of your clients might be fans.
M, perhaps you can explain, "what's a baiter?"

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