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
Becoming Super-Jeeves

There are now entire schools devoted to training professionals to serve the ultrarich. One of the most prominent is the Starkey International Institute for Household Management, in Denver. On the first day of a four-week course on running a household (programs last four or eight weeks), there was much talk about a recent star graduate, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who had just landed a $125,000-a-year job as an estate manager near Washington, D.C. His boss, a businessman worth about $1.2 billion, had a grand vision for integrating architecture, landscaping, and a vast modern-art collection on his nearly 200-acre estate. The former lieutenant colonel would be designing a model for running it and two other properties, setting up security for all three, maintaining a private jet, and generally trying to ensure his boss’s perfect quality of life.

An estate manager’s role goes far beyond that of the classic butler or personal assistant—picture Jeeves crossed with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. It usually involves overseeing multiple residences (a “household manager,” by contrast, is typically in charge of just one). This job has become a hot second career for former members of the military, who may retire as young as forty and are seen as trustworthy and able to take orders without flinching. Along with others who have already had substantial careers or who hold advanced degrees—people who would normally never consider a position as a “domestic”—they are signing up at the institute in droves.

The Starkey International Institute was founded by Mary Louise Starkey in 1990. A hard-nosed fiftysomething entrepreneur with watery hazel eyes and a voice that could cut through lead, Starkey is fond of grand pronouncements like “The age of service is upon us.” When that age arrived, she was more than ready for it.

Perched on a chair in her bright, cluttered office, Starkey told me that her business—which includes several ventures in addition to the school—is “exploding.” The day we spoke, she was a little bleary, having just returned from Vanuatu, a cluster of islands in the South Pacific. An American investor had bought one of the islands and hired Starkey to create a vacation spot worth renting for, say, $250,000 a week. There will be just one villa, offering absolute privacy. Being on the island is “like being the only person on the planet,” Starkey said. The name of the island is a secret, and rentals will be by invitation only, to protect against paparazzi. Two of Starkey’s graduates were already there, preparing to train locals in six-figure pampering.

Starkey’s bread and butter, however, is placing graduates of the institute inside mega-mansions in the United States. The school is housed in a 13,000-square-foot Georgian mansion. Gilt mirrors, potted orchids, and glittering crystal abound. The students attend lectures in the basement and rotate through all the jobs they might either hold or have to supervise, from household manager to assistant chef. They spring like panthers at the sight of a fleck of lint. As a result, the place is brilliantly, terrifyingly clean.

The crop of new students I met consisted of four men and two women, all age forty or so. Two—one man and one woman—were enlisted aides in the armed forces (a position that entails keeping quarters and preparing meals for top-ranking officers); the military was paying their tuition. One man had just retired after thirty years in the Air Force. The remaining two men were strikingly cherubic: one had been an interior designer and a private chef in Texas; the other had managed households for six families in Florida (he was looking to brush up on his skills). The sixth student, a mother of three young children, owns a property-management firm in Chicago. The instructor, meanwhile, had been a White House chef to George H. W. Bush and served on the private staff of Al and Tipper Gore.

On the first morning, Starkey delivered a pep talk clearly aimed at convincing the students that they do not face a future of indentured servitude. “Service is a well-recognized expertise and a highly paid career path,” she declared. Dressed in black, with a turquoise wrap flung over her shoulders, she worked the room with evangelical zeal; after each statement, she narrowed her eyes and stared at the students with blazing intensity, as if the Almighty Himself were speaking through her. It was important to learn “to be on someone else’s agenda,” she said, adding, “It’s much easier serving someone who knows what they want.” She showed slides of alumni: a young man with a passion for cars who had been placed with an auto collector; a grinning woman who had become the head stewardess on one of the biggest yachts in the world. “This is one of my Chinese graduates,” Starkey said, showing a picture of a man in a servant’s jacket reminiscent of the ones worn on The Love Boat. “Isn’t he beautiful? I fall in love with all my students.”

It must be tough love: Starkey has stringent expectations. She admonishes students to begin a placement by studying their employers as if they were laboratory specimens, in order to thoroughly understand their lifestyles and needs. (To illustrate her point, she cited clients in Denver, “Pakistani royalty” who take their main meal each day at 2 a.m. and fly cooked dinners to their grown children in California daily.) Suggested “talking points” in the institute’s textbook include the following: “What are your overall goals and dreams of your lifestyle?” “Could you please use descriptive words and experiences to list three everyday priorities that speak to quality of life for you?” “At the end of your life, what accomplishments will you be most proud of?” Students are urged to make lists of their employers’ tastes and sort them into the ten categories in the textbook’s “Service Matrix.” Under “Culinary Standards” the choices include “prefers clean, fresh style foods,” “comfort food,” “popcorn and chocolate,” “loves all cookies.” There are spaces on the grid for “prefers foreign autos,” “never travels commercially,” “wants all light bulbs changed weekly,” “prefers household manager to know smart-home technology.” It’s all geared toward creating the ultimate luxury product: a remote brain calibrated to an employer’s every whim and desire, one that can anticipate all needs and eliminate most decisions from daily life.

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Sheelah Kolhatkar is a reporter for The New York Observer.

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