Inside the Billionaire Service Industry

Need designer lighting for your jet? Fancy a dressage horse for your daughter? Have staffing issues in your 50,000-square-foot house? A growing army of experts stands ready to bear any burden for the ultrarich

The job isn’t all champagne and roses. “You have to be selective,” says Mark Hancock, a managing director at Tiedemann Trust Company who handles finances for eight ultrarich families. “I’m not just taking any multibillionaire off the street. These people are typically control freaks—extremely focused, sometimes extremely difficult. You don’t become a billionaire by just sitting passively by.”

The wealthier the client is, the more options there are for insourcing advice on how to spend creatively. Pearl touts her company, Aston Pearl, as “The Private Bank for Everything Except Money,” and she comes armed with a Rolodex that would make a village yenta proud: 3,800 names in 267 subcategories, including “designers of lighting for Gulfstream aircraft” and “specialists in seventeenth-century hand colored maps.” Once all those advisers are hired, they need to be managed, transforming the wealthy person into a corporation in miniature.

Her sense that the ultrarich are sometimes almost helpless when confronted with the challenges of everyday life infuses Pearl with compassion; she sees her job as a combination of sales and public service. Around the next corner, for example, an opportunistic decorator might be lurking, hoping to bilk an unsuspecting billionaire on overpriced housewares. (Recall the former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlow­ski’s explanation of the wildly extravagant shower curtain found in his apartment after he was indicted: “I understand why a $6,000 shower curtain seems indefensible,” he told The New York Times. “But I didn’t even know about it. I just wasn’t even aware of it.”) “The wealthiest people are very vulnerable to being taken advantage of,” Pearl says, her voice taking on an urgent tone. “New money doesn’t know what things cost, because they’ve never bought a Mercedes Maybach or a $10 million home. And old money also has difficulties, because they’re shielded from these things. They don’t shop, generally. They have people shopping for them.”

Even vacationing is no simple matter. For the ultrarich, time-shares have morphed into “destination clubs.” At the travel firm Tanner & Haley, for example, $1.5 million up front—an “investment” that may be resold at market value when the client leaves—and an annual fee of $75,000 buys a membership to the company’s “Legendary Retreats": thirty-four homes around the world, each worth $7 million to $10 million. “Some people really care about doing it as well as it can possibly be done,” says Rob McGrath, Tanner & Haley’s CEO. “If you end up in a house in Telluride that has a bowling alley in it, a game room, a staff of nine, twenty-seven TVs, and a private chef, and you’re right on the slopes, and you fly in on your Lear 60, that’s pretty damn good.”

A comparable level of exclusivity is available to the well-heeled patient wanting insulation from the American health-care system. For initiation fees of $1,000 to $15,000 and annual dues of between $2,500 and $50,000 (six levels of membership are available), a company called PinnacleCare assigns “advocates” who will manage a client’s health care—investigating specialists and medical research, securing access to top doctors, and juggling appointments. (The cost of the treatment itself is separate.) Nearly all of the advocates are women, and they exude a motherly efficiency, cooing to their clients and sweet-talking the surgeons. But one suspects that their claws come out when necessary. Having an advocate present during a hospital stay, one client said, is like having an extremely knowledgeable relative on hand for hours a day, exerting relentless pressure to get whatever the patient needs.

The ultrarich often have a “fix me, get me surgery right away” attitude, and will pay handsomely to have it accommodated, says John Hutchins, who cofounded Pinnacle in 2002. (He was the director of international services at Johns Hopkins Hospital from 1994 to 2001, and held a similar post at the Cleveland Clinic before that; both were treatment centers of choice for sheikhs, Latin American moguls, and other well-connected foreigners.) I heard of one family that kept a group of doctors on retainer for years, paying some of them more than $100,000 annually to be available at a moment’s notice. But the arrangement became difficult to maintain: the best doctors resisted being tied to a small group of patients, and some questioned whether the practice was ethical. So the family joined Pinnacle instead.

And of course there are the children to think of. The ultrarich mirror other Americans in their anxious devotion to their progeny, and they have taken to hiring specialized psychologists to address the various issues—aimlessness, a sense of entitlement, and so on—that may afflict them. One financial adviser was reportedly asked to find someone to teach a client’s children about wealth and the responsibilities that come with it. He got quotes from four “wealth counselors”: the cheapest was $1,600 a day, the most expensive, $16,000.

As this story illustrates, finding the market price is one of the trickier aspects of serving the ultrarich. “There’s no transparency about what the fees should be,” Pearl says. “How much do you charge someone to curate their wine collection? You can’t comparison shop for that.” She does offer one rule of thumb: “If you’re not the type of person who’s planning an anniversary party in the south of France for fifty friends, where you’re going to fly them over, we’re probably not going to be able to help you. It’s not that we can’t help you; but you’ll find that our fees are prohibitive for what you want done.”

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Sheelah Kolhatkar is a reporter for The New York Observer.

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