Again, this story originally ran in Newsweek International, and then I supplemented a Chinese angle for a March 2008 run. You’ll notice how this is definitely for the Chinese reader now — I’m even explaining common English phrases. I also took the portrait to illustrate this story, which I’ll link to later.
You Called For Me, Sir?
Demand for butlers is booming. Anybody can drive a Rolls. But today’s tycoon needs a household COO.
By Mac Margolis, Megan Shank
In English, the phrase, “to give someone a shirt from one’s own back,” describes a person’s munificence. Recently, at the Shanghai St. Regis Hotel, a similar metaphor was demonstrated with shoelaces. A project manager for an American software firm who often travels to Shanghai for work and lived 10 months of the past year in the hotel discovered his shoelaces had worn thin during one stay. When he notified his personal butler about the problem, the butler immediately removed the shoelaces from his own shoes and gave them to the guest. “They were too short, so I still had him go out to the mall to get me some new ones,” the project manager recalls, “But it was extraordinarily touching.”
Quaint as it sounds, the butler is back. Thanks to unprecedented sums of money sloshing around the international economy, the run on high-end household help has grown frantic. “The demand is huge, and we just can’t keep up,” says Charles MacPherson, whose eponymous firm trains top-tier domestic help. Insiders reckon there are some 2 million butlers padding down the world’s finest corridors, a quarter of them serving in England alone. Yet increasingly, butling knows no boundaries. Recent postings on GreycoatPlacements.co.uk ask for help in the Alps and the United Arab Emirates, where the required talents include fluency in Russian, mastery of haute Japanese cuisine and tending an “Italian Scented Garden.” “There are more millionaires and billionaires than ever, and they’ve reached the stage in their lives that they want to live like millionaires and billionaires,” says MacPherson. “They are acquiring planes, ski chalets, summer homes. But who’s going to manage them?”
In China, home-based greycoats may be slightly more rare, but many five-star hotels offer butler service. At St. Regis, all guests–not just those on executive floors–may enjoy butler services. “We focus on a personalized experience,” says Even Lu, the hotel’s assistant marketing communications manager. “For example, some of our guests are art appreciators. Our butlers help them contact artists, art studios and galleries. Then they arrange trips to bring the guest to meet the artist and provide translation service.” The Westin’s butlers also take guests on trips to the local fabric market or to shop for luxury goods. Sometimes there are more peculiar requests, such as the Hong Kong kung fu movie producer who requested a butler assist him find, buy and arrange safe return of fake kung fu weapons.
Indeed, minding the rich has never been more demanding. “The butler no longer carries the pistols at dawn,” says Jane Urquhart, the principal of Greycoat Academy, which grooms butlers. Instead he-and, increasingly, she-is the domestic answer to a chief operating officer who can cook, chauffeur the kids and press a French cuff as well as negotiate with contractors and keep the books balanced, preferably on Microsoft Excel. Greycoats in China have likewise gone high-tech. At the St. Regis, butlers answer to E-mail requests and at the Westin to an electronic any-call service. Net surfing would-be butlers can post their resumes and find training information and a space to share tips on the “Butlers, Chinese Style” website(guanjia360.com).
As the expectations for butlers have soared, so has their pay scale. Forget about those dowdy widowers who toiled like chattel and slept in the basement. Today a starting butler in western countries can earn $50,000 a year, while veterans command up to $120,000-plus perks and a pension. In China, “Butlers, Chinese Style” recommends a monthly salary of over 3,000 RMB ($420). Although the five-star hotels won’t disclose their butlers’ salaries, those butlers Newsweek Select spoke with said they were well provided for. “I’m very lucky to have this job because there are new things to learn every day,” says Mahtilda Liu of St. Regis, which provides weekly trainings for staff butlers. Other hotels and residences, such as the Four Seasons and the Narada Property Management Company in Hangzhou have likewise invested in their butlers with fly-in training programs by prestigious groups such as the International Butler Academy.
In a Chinese market where good employees are hard to find and even harder to keep, making employees happy to serve is a win for clients and greycoats alike.