- Stanley (not his real name) is a house manager and butler for wealthy families in New York City.
- His job involves everything from organizing bills and tracking charitable donations to taking wine cellar inventory and making sure everything inch of his employer’s home is spotless and dust-free.
- Over the years, he’s had both good and bad employers, including one who would constantly fire and rehire him and another who would yell across the house and snap his fingers to get Stanley’s attention.
- Despite the long hours and repetitive tasks, Stanley says he enjoys his work and has learned to set healthy boundaries with his employers.
- Here’s what his job is like, as told to freelance writer Rose Maura Lorre.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Like many people who work in hospitality or the private services industry, I started out as an actor. And like many actors, I made a choice to stop acting because it was driving me nuts.
My wife was reading Tina Fey’s “Bossypants“ at the time and in the book, Tina Fey talks about “fake it ’til you make it.” That’s what I did: I acted the part of a house manager until I figured out how to be one. It just takes a little bit of observational skills and people skills and a good memory.
After I left acting, I first went into events and catering and worked my way up. While managing a big charity event in 2009, I met a project manager who introduced me to an ultra-high net worth (UHNW) family. The husband was in finance, the wife was an ex-bartender, and they had twin 4-year-olds, a dog, a pot belly pig, and a 20,000-square-foot townhouse. They hired me as a house manager and personal assistant, my first job in the industry. Those clients were a wild ride, real tabloid-gossip stuff.
When the wife had an issue with how I handled something, she would just fire me.
Then as I was walking to the subway or during my cab ride home, she would call me, apologize, and say she’d see me tomorrow. That happened four times in less than six months.
The last time she fired me, I made sure everything was in order, put her folder with her schedule for the following day on her desk as usual, quietly grabbed my coat, and left. Like she’d done in the past, I quickly got the apology call. When she said, “See you on Monday,” I said, “Why don’t we let this one stick?” That Monday, I still got a few calls and texts from her, but I didn’t pick up.
I’ve worked for six different families over 10 years.
Two of them, including that first family I worked for, were roller coaster rides — and short contracts because of that. Two were trial periods, after which I passed on their employment offers, and two have been better, long-term experiences.
The other “roller coaster” employer I worked for was similarly demanding, with an extremely busy and packed schedule. He was also a yeller; he would always holler my name. When he’d snap his fingers or yell, it was like somebody had shot a gun off in the house, and everyone would jump to attention.
Once, I walked into his coat closet after he’d pulled all of his coats off the racks. He’d made separate piles of coats, and I assumed he wanted me to do a seasonal switch-out for him. I dashed into the room with a smile on my face and said, “How can I help, Mr. So-and-So?” He looked at me and said, “What the f–k are you smiling at?”
But besides those particular clients, many of my employers have been great to work with. I’ve also kept in touch with former fellow staff members, and some of them have interviewed me for other jobs.
I currently work for an older couple, and it’s the best version of this job I’ve ever had.
I joined their household in January 2020. I work Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Before the pandemic, my hours were longer if my employers were entertaining guests. I wear business casual, and add a sport coat or blazer over my outfit for guests.
Since March, my employers have been in the Hamptons while I continue to care for their Manhattan townhouse and ship over any packages they receive there. When they’re out of town, I usually just wear jeans and a sweater or collared shirt.
Currently, the staff at my employers’ Manhattan townhouse consists of me, three housekeepers, and a driver. I contract outside vendors for IT, audio, gardening, and a wide array of specific maintenance for furnishings and antiques in the house. We also have a maintenance contract with a company who takes care of the house, but I troubleshoot little things like loose door handles, dead lightbulbs, and updating iPads and printer firmware.
My position has been called everything from house manager to property manager to butler.
When I described myself as a property manager, I’d hear, “Oh, you cut lawns?” If instead I say “butler,” people tend to romanticize what I do, like it’s “Downton Abbey” or “Remains of the Day.” I did once work in a household where I was their formal butler, and received guests in a black dinner jacket or a tuxedo. But I’ve also cleaned toilets, which is not romantic at all.
For the most part in this industry, people refer to their employers as “principals.” Meaning, that person is your principal focus. There may be other people you cater to as well, like guests who stay at the house, but the principal is your main focus.
One family I worked for had a house staff of 38 people. In my job as personal butler, I worked most closely with the head of house, the principal client, assisting with wardrobe, packing, communications, setting up and serving meals, and running in-house events.
In my current job as a house manager, it’s my responsibility to manage my employers’ expectations about what goes on in their home.
My job is to think proactively about what they’ll need and to avoid leaving anything open to complaints. If they’re talking to me — other than, for example, to tell me what they want for dinner — then I’m not doing my job. If their iPad isn’t connecting to the WiFi or the TV isn’t working in the gym, I haven’t done my job.
I do a lot of walk-throughs to make sure everything is in working condition. I turn TVs on and off at least once and sometimes twice a day. I also check all the lights, music, technology, and appliances. I sit down on the couch and look around, and think: Does everything look the way it’s supposed to look? Does it feel the way it’s supposed to feel? Is this TV working the way it’s supposed to work? Are there fingerprints on the table? Has the housekeeping staff dusted and moved the remote too far from the couch?
I’m not getting into my boss’ bed or trying out the sheets, but I do try to put myself in my employers’ experience. It’s the same thing I did in catering; I put myself in the guests’ shoes.
The gentleman I currently work for loves wine and keeps a modest stash at the house (about 300 bottles) with more in a wine storage warehouse, so I track arrivals and consumption and inventory what goes between their Manhattan and Hamptons homes.
I use spreadsheets to pay bills, file invoices and documents, and track everything from orders and shipments to various house inventories to gifts given and received, which can get quite complicated during the holidays with gifts and charitable donations.
I go over the house with a fine-toothed comb on an almost daily basis.
I check all areas for wear and tear, potential repairs, and moisture and leaks to catch any issues before they grow serious.
For cleanliness checks, I do walk-throughs in the dark with a flashlight to pick up on hidden moisture and dust. I also have an LED light that also picks up on dust you can’t see with the naked eye, like fingerprints or dog hair on the landing.
I take pictures of what I find to send to the housekeeper. I’ve also given them LED flashlights, so I can write “hello” in the dust I find and text them, “Go look for my ‘hello’ on the table.” The housekeepers I work with are great. If I show them a picture of something, they know exactly where it is to clean it.
The woman I work for also has an entirely separate townhouse around the corner that serves as her office. I go there to pick up things for her, check on the building, and sometimes assist with art hanging or putting together furniture. I also pick up flowers for the house, run to stationery stores and to the bank for house petty cash, and trek to FedEx and UPS on the regular to ship and pick up packages.
This all may sound intense, but it’s not my employers; I’m the over-the-top one. I’ve relaxed over the years in my own home, especially after having two children of my own. Still, I would follow my kids around with a Dustbuster if I could — that’s just how I am.
I typically make six figures annually with a bonus and benefits.
Since my first position in 2009, my salary hasn’t increased that much over the years, but the hours have decreased. I started at 60 to 70 hours per week on average, I’m doing more like 45 to 50 now, which is a huge positive difference to my quality of life.
When I first started at $100,000 in 2009, my hourly rate was sometimes $9, especially during the holidays. Back then, I only saw my wife at night. Now, I spend more time with my kids than ever before.
I learned early on that in this line of work, you have to be good at setting boundaries.
My current employers are very friendly and very considerate of the staff, but still, I maintain a professional boundary. I don’t want to be too involved in my employers’ lives. There are some situations where I have to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t get that involved.”
Certain things I’m very willing to do and other things I’m not. For example, I’ve never stayed the night at an employer’s house. I was asked to do it once, a couple of households ago. Their live-in housekeeper was going away on vacation and I think just for security and peace of mind, my employers wanted me there in her place. I said, “I don’t think my wife would really appreciate that.”
At my job, sometimes the most satisfying day can also be the most aggravating.
This job presents daily challenges, such as one time when a bird swooped into my employer’s glass atrium as we were setting it up for a business lunch, and it took us five attempts with ladders to catch down and release it. Those experiences are all in a day’s work.
The way I think about my job is, it’s like any other job, only I’m standing in my boss’ private living room while I’m doing it. Or I’m literally standing in their kitchen watching them eat. Most of these people are used to having someone stand there, though, so it’s not weird for them, and by now, it’s also not weird for me.
Managing wealthy homes is a great job, but it isn’t for everyone.
My advice for anyone thinking about getting into this line of work is to hop on LinkedIn and see if you can talk to house managers. Ask questions about the schedule they keep, pros and cons about the job, and find out if this lifestyle is for you.
There hotel and butler schools for training and certification programs, and estatejobs.com is also a good place to start. Still, be careful of programs that only feed into a pool for a domestic agency that charges steep commissions for job placement fees; some can be 40% of your annual salary.
For this line of work, you need the ability to manage expectations and communicate well and sometimes delicately with your employers, staff, and anyone else working inside the house. It’s a great career, just know that once you’re hired, you’re somewhat tethered to your employer like no other industry, since you become part of their private life. Know the stakes, and be empowered to create the boundaries that you need.
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