The Butler Did It

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He's a staple in classic Hollywood films, is often British, and appears to know how to handle just about anything.

Over the years, the butler-valet has become a familiar, austere presence in the wealthy households depicted in books and film. Think Bruce Wayne's trusted Alfred in the old "Batman" shows or Reginald Jeeves from the P.G. Wodehouse series.

But he is hardly a fictional character, nor is he an icon of a bygone, more civilized era.

Butler-valets are very much in demand and are still present in the highest echelons of society, performing their daily duties with discretion and good taste.

The modern butler-valet possesses both traditional and contemporary skills. He can organize a dinner party, select fine wines and properly pack a suitcase, and he's also computer-savvy and can manage sophisticated home electronics.

A good butler-valet will ensure that his boss's home (or homes) runs smoothly and that the staff performs its duties as required. Ideally he will learn to anticipate the needs of his boss without being asked, and thus become an indispensable part of the household.

At Your Service

Rick Fink has served as a butler-valet for 52 years, in some of England's finest residences.

At age 72, he is passionate about his life's work, describing it as a privileged position. "It's a lovely life if you just behave yourself and don't go revealing about your bosses."

Wise words for any profession, particularly one in which the worker is so intimately involved with the day-to-day lives of his employers.

"Indoor staff perform a lot of menial tasks that no one in an office or factory would do, like pick up after the owners, clean [and] wash laundry," Fink explains. "We don't retaliate or give the boss a black eye. The boss can be quite rude sometimes, and we just accept it. It's called discretion -- we are faithful, and he is lucky to have us."

As a young man, Fink served in the Royal Navy, then spent 21 years working as a residential butler, living with his wife and sons on the grounds of his employer's estate. "As long as I worked for them, I had a cottage and use of any of their cars. But the problem was it was never going to be mine, and I wanted some possessions of my own," Fink explains.

Fink decided to freelance and has been successfully doing so for nearly three decades. He now works as needed for four different families. "I knew there were enough people who wanted help in running their homes," he says.

In 2002, prompted by a former employer's suggestion, Fink opened the Butler-Valet School in Oxfordshire.

In a 40-bedroom Georgian mansion, he uses his considerable experience to conduct a six-week training course. Under Fink's tutelage, aspiring butler-valets learn to perform duties such as caring for fine clothes, properly serving food and wine, organizing shooting weekends, announcing meals and introducing guests.

"I'm trying to train people to be more like me. Some of these guys don't know about things like laying out clothes, taking a cup of tea to the boss in the morning or how to clean shoes. This is what makes a man much more elegant, because he's got someone at home looking after him," explains Fink.

Fink has worked as a butler-valet for high-profile clientele including ambassadors and embassy personnel. The benefit of his experience is landing Butler-Valet School alumni into some rather notable households. "One of my students started at Buckingham Palace last week ... the ultimate house to work in," he proudly shares.

Finding Good Help

The title of butler is derived from the old French word bouteillier, which was the name for the servant entrusted with the care of the wine cellar. Over several centuries, the position evolved to become the senior servant in the household.

Today, butler-valets are known by several titles, including major-domo, house manager and estate manager. They are employed in private homes, hotels, yachts and corporate settings, and they often live outside of their workplace.

So how does one find a good butler-valet these days?

For some, the search begins with a classified ad. A recent job listing in The New York Times sought a live-in butler/valet with wine knowledge and fine dining experience to work in Palm Beach, Fla.; a posting on Craigslist seeks butler candidates who are, among other things, "capable at working as a team to organize closets seasonally in multiple locations and maintaining continuity and perfect order therein."

But heads of wealthy households needn't go through the hassle of screening clients themselves. There are agencies to do that work for them.

Robert Wynne Parry is president and CEO of RWP Solutions in Manhattan, an executive search firm specializing in lifestyle management. RWP's client base includes movie industry insiders, the Park Avenue set, financiers and leaders from the luxury and fashion worlds.

"Serving as a butler-valet is like working in a five-star hotel with one resident in a suite. You have all the departments -- the chef, housekeepers, gardeners -- but within a home, the attention to detail is far greater," explains Parry, whose background includes training in hotel management in the U.K. as well as management and ownership of restaurants in Asia and New York.

His company receives resumes from all over the world, many from men with a service background (such as in hotels) who are stepping into the private sector. A polished appearance, good communication skills, experience working in fine homes and longevity in prior positions are all factors that work in candidates' favor.

Good references are required, and applicants must submit to background checks and a review of their credit history.

Wherever he's placed, a butler-valet should be prepared to face just about any situation. "You're not just pressing suits. This role is much more managerial. You deal with vendors and construction workers and liaise with architects and interior designers. You manage security, antiques and art," explains Parry.

Parry's associate, 25-year-old David Youdovin, joined the agency earlier this year. Having worked first on a trading desk, then as the manager of an 87-acre estate, he understands what it takes to serve wealthy clients.

"I went from getting yelled at by a bunch of millionaires to getting yelled at by one billionaire," says Youdovin.

As estate manager, he put in 100-hour weeks, with duties that ranged from arranging dinner for 45 guests to setting up an in-home wireless network. His experience reflects the broad set of expectations commonly held by wealthy employers: He once was asked to repair the cable box when the cable went out, and he was responsible for installing an 800-gigabyte music storage system (it took 3½ weeks to download all of the tunes his employer wanted).

As for comportment, some stereotypes are true. "It's like the adage about children being seen and not heard ... that's what people expect from service staff," Youdovin says. "Everything must be perfect all the time, or at least appear that way."

It is a high-pressure role, but a butler-valet can be well compensated with salary, health benefits and a 401(k). "This is a career. The natural progression is to go from butler to house manager to estate manager, with a salary ranging from $75,000 to start and up to $280,000 a year for a major-domo," says Parry. "But this is a 24/7 job, and you are managing homes that are investment properties. People pay ... whatever it takes to have things taken care of."

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