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

On Day Two, the students were given laminated floor plans for a “fairly large house” (6,000 square feet) under construction near Fort Worth. Working in pairs, they had to determine how many employees would be needed to maintain the house, which will include a library, a music room, and a “Moroccan room”; then they had to “zone” each floor for the cleaning staff. The students huddled and strategized, using Sharpie markers to create intricate diagrams studded with colorful arrows. The Moroccan room wouldn’t know what hit it.

Most of the people who contact Starkey seeking household help are retired CEOs, current business owners, or entrepreneurs who have sold their companies. She also gets calls from resorts and from private hospitals that want to emulate four-star hotels. In 2002 she initiated a process with the Department of Labor to design a national apprenticeship program for household managers. The first apprentice began training in June.

The institute doesn’t advertise, but revenues from tuition and placement fees were up 35 percent last year compared with the year before. About a hundred students go through the school annually. And yet there is more demand for household and estate managers than there are trained candidates to meet it.

“People who have money will tell you the first thing they do is buy their dream car. It’s usually red or black, and it’s usually a convertible,” Starkey told me. “And then they discover that they don’t like standing out and having everyone in the world knowing who they are and what they’re doing. So they get rid of the car and get something more low-profile. Same thing happens with homes. When they realize they have money, they buy a huge acreage and build a 35,000- or 55,000-square-foot home. Then they realize that they have to staff it.”

Most families first try a local solution. But that almost inevitably falls short of what they need—they decide they don’t want someone who’s earning $30,000 a year looking after $40 million worth of stuff. Usually it’s the woman of the house who has to deal with the situation, and she’s driven to despair. (“The weariness of our clients is their common denominator,” Starkey’s assistant, Heili Lehr, told me.) “Then they come to me,” Starkey says.

Starkey conducts a “site visit” to look for “patterns and priorities of what’s important” to the family and develop a service-management plan. She starts by getting the lady and gentleman of the house in one place to talk about it, usually over dinner (they pay). During the meal she peppers them with questions: “What is your vision of service?” “What is your lifestyle and quality of life?” “Outline the family tree.” The next day she inspects the property. She probes every room (“I open the drawers and look inside and underneath”), occasionally finding an “outrageous surprise”—a three-year-old child with a hundred pairs of shoes, perhaps, or a woman with scores of Judith Leiber purses in a closet “bigger than most people’s houses.” She asks more questions: “Do you have an entourage?” “Do you wear Armani or St. John” (or workout clothes)? “Do you eat ice cream late at night?” She also poses questions to herself: “Is she a micromanager?” (it usually is the woman), or “Who’s got the power in the house?” (sometimes it’s the dog). At the end of the visit, Starkey produces a document—it might run to forty-five pages—outlining what she thinks the family needs. If appropriate, she tries to make a match with one of her graduates. The positions she fills are strictly executive; the cleaners and cooks don’t come through her. This is reflected in the tuition for her courses—about $13,000 for eight weeks, including room and board—and in graduates’ salaries, which range from about $60,000 to $150,000 a year (Starkey takes a 25 to 35 percent commission).

The motivation to hire someone at a hefty wage to look after the details of an estate has to do in part with what one financial adviser calls “asymmetric risk”: for some, a bad experience hosting a dinner party is more painful than losing money on the stock market. Starkey believes that as wealthy people become wealthier and more sophisticated in their expectations, demand for her graduates will continue to grow. She predicts that in twenty years there will be a service school in every major U.S. city.

One characteristic Starkey shares with others in the field is relentless positivity in the face of constant, almost pornographic displays of wealth. “I hope you’re writing about how wonderful it all is,” she said to me more than once. And it is wonderful—in the way that unapologetic evidence of the fruits of one’s success can be both awe-inspiring and unseemly, not to say quintessentially American. (In the ultimate aspirational society, we love hard work, but we love flaunting it even more.)

Then, out of the blue during one of our later conversations, Natasha Pearl said something surprising: “If the income inequality persists, we could end up with real armed camps, like in South Africa.” She said she was increasingly aware of the tension between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” and she described a surge in demand among the ultrarich for real estate in out-of-the-way places such as New Zealand and rural Argentina—expensive insurance policies in case things go haywire for some reason at home. “The wise ones are thinking about it now,” Pearl said. Indeed, it might be worth planning ahead; I wonder what the going salary will be for a spot in an oligarch’s private army.

Photograph by Mark Peterson/Corbis

Sheelah Kolhatkar is a reporter for The New York Observer.
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Sheelah Kolhatkar is the features editor at Bloomberg Businessweek.

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