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
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
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
"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."