Newsletter Steven Ferry

The Modern Butlers’ Journal, February 2020, The Butlers Speak

Steven FerryThe Butlers Speak

by Steven Ferry


75% of those surveyed have had to work with Family Offices. The successful approach, obviously, is collaboration and working to bring them up to speed on the delicate balances existing in private service, where these are missing in the Family Office personnel—and that does appear to be an issue that will result in conflict if not addressed. With the complexities of life today and the greatly expanded list of duties that butlers/household managers have, it would be impossible for them to manage everything as in the old days, so Family Offices and butlers/estates managers are both of great use to each other, and the one cannot do the work of the other. Here are some of the responses from the butlers and household/estate(s) managers surveyed.

“I spend half-an-hour a day, a small percentage of my time, talking to Family Offices—they tend to be very chatty when I need the nuts and bolts of today’s schedule and any changes there might be. Thankfully, there has been a positive shift regarding my workload over the past decade, as more families hire an Executive Personal Assistant to work in the home office, who takes care of lots of administrative duties that I used to perform. Scheduling household maintenance alone is a time-consuming job here, with 17 outbuildings and hundreds of acres.”

“The Family Office provides various services: All tax preparation and filing for family members; access to all bank accounts and relationships with bank representatives; quarterly meetings with principals; paying monthly bills; IT services – includes purchasing/setting up new cell phones, iPads, laptops, copiers, setting up fire walls, VPNs, troubleshooting issues for family members and their support staff – everything to do with IT; making travel arrangements for principals, including airline tickets, hotel reservations, private transportation, reservations at restaurants; security services, and including travel assessments—especially for trips outside of the US; accompanying certain family members on trips; monitoring local police activity around the Family Office, family members’ homes and businesses; processing payroll for family members’ employees and their entities.”

Looking at what duties traditionally assigned to a butler/HM are being delegated to a Family office, we find “Accounting and bill paying, petty cash oversight, scheduling the family itinerary, handling seasonally hired staff, booking vendors for maintenance, and manning the ever-shifting calendar of events. Although I still receive an occasional 2 a.m. emergency call, it is now a shared effort and mostly the office assistant’s responsibility, since the questions are usually directed at schedules.”

“In the estate where I work, we actually took items away from the Family Office as the principals wanted to have control over some areas. I review and pay all bills for the household using QuickBooks, which I access through the Family Office. I balance and reconcile all bank accounts and credit cards. The Family Office reviews the accounts at the end of every month. I handle the cell services for the principals and family members.”

“Our new person is from the corporate world and is still learning the private-service world. I have been forthright in providing verbal information and also, printed about 25 pages of information regarding the titles and chores of the personnel that work here. I like having the Family Office Assistant fielding time consuming tasks, such as, following up on why a vendor hasn’t arrived on time or didn’t show up at all; rescheduling no-shows; booking travel arrangements for the family (ground transportation, airfare, hotels, restaurant reservations, etc.); handling much of the private drama. I have plenty of physical jobs to perform, and make ample time for my principal, but having a person who can make conversation and small talk with the employer is a huge burden off my shoulders, especially when we are under-staffed.”

“I have never had to report to or be managed by a Family Office. I work hand in hand with them. The Family Office has a good understanding of the duties and challenges of the estate managers for family members. I actually came from the corporate world before working at the Estate, so it was easy for me to manage employees, handle financial information, etc., although I needed to learn the actual house management side of the business when I first arrived.”

“Although I do not plan on looking for another job, if I did, I would want personnel in the home office. They take the brunt of paperwork off the estate manager’s shoulders, such as filing; maintaining a family and home-maintenance calendar; multiple-homes calendar of events; travel itineraries; vacation information and family activities; doctor appointments and executive meetings, to name a few things. If there is a change in a menu, I can send them to the grocery store to pick up what I need.

“I decided to teach our office assistant to make the principal’s favorite meal, what to have prepped for snacks, fixing her favorite drink, how to anticipate what might be needed, all of which becomes very useful if I am on vacation. The principal now relies on them to run some of her personal errands, like going to the post office, sorting the snail mail and sifting through e-mails and answering correspondence, and to make small talk or just be a listening ear. It gives the principal someone else to rely on, which I think is great. We do not discuss each other’s private conversations that we have with the principal, as she might not have confided the same information to both of us—we share all household-related information, however.”

“I found the Family Office personnel to be very helpful and patient during my learning-curve years.”

Naturally, there are some good experiences and some not so good. “The family office subject matter is indeed interesting as well as challenging. I have had to deal with the traditional family office as well as a corporate office, both being antagonists. The challenges seem to compound exponentially in either scenario.  Not only are we expected to be watchful of our principal, but we must also walk equally carefully in the presence of the office staff. It seems that everything we say and do is subject to the old saying that one of my principals used to remind me of every time I attempted to step out of my particular comfort zone while trying to assist him: “No good deed ever goes unpunished!” Always remember that in your position as an extra set of eyes and ears for your principal, your back has a rather large bullseye painted on it for a menagerie of issues, both positive and negative and that everything you say and do in the office domain will be used against you whenever possible! Sorry to be so pessimistic but better to be prepared than not.”

Another individual had a similar negative view of Family Offices, but did find office-based Executive Assistants to be good team players. “I am thankful to report that I have not had to endure working with a Family Office. However, working with an office-based Executive Assistant is rather expected, as they coordinate travel details, manage calendars, book theatre tickets and order food for business lunches (amongst other tasks) that generate important information I need to know. For example, if the EA fails to inform me that our employer made a last-minute decision to attend an art exhibit opening instead of playing handball, I would not be able to redirect the chauffeur or save the chef from preparing a meal that would not be eaten. The EA also relies on me to communicate information and details that potentially will impact business needs. For example, if our employer leaves for the office without eating breakfast, the EA will need to have some food ready so a meeting or appointment is not delayed. It has been my experience that when the EA and the butler function well in tandem, sharing information frequently, our employer is rarely inconvenienced and both office and house staff can manage their time more effectively.”

Another person experienced problems with a Family Office employee, but worked to bring her up to speed on private-service skillsets. “Oh my, during my extreme busy season, I was highly agitated with the reading and listening skills of the family office hire. I was always defending them to the principal, mostly about how slow they were to pick up on their job duties, especially the private service nuances that they did not have. Always pointing out what they did well and reminding her that I have 40 years of private service, and that is why I find it easy to anticipate the needs of my clients individual needs. I have been at this position 7 years, plus my degree was in theater, so I have great listening and reading skills and a flare for the drama that can be baffling to some. I try to remind the Office Manager that like any family, there is joy, love, mayhem and maybe an alcoholic, drug addict or philanderer in the mix. Take the ‘good with the bad’ mentality. That is why confidentiality and trust are so important. At the end of the day; which can be mentally exhausting, there are many people on the farm that are physically exhausted. I suppose, I am a bit of both. Every day at my job It is like live theater and I love it!”

This approach was adopted by another Estates Manager: “We hired someone about 20 months ago who was recommended by a family member; while a star in the accounting realm, this person was an extremely slow learner regarding private/personal service. The solution has been to be friendly, patient, helpful, supportive, hospitable, sympathetic to their new position—a beneficial team player.”

The same collaborative approach is successful for another Estates Manager: “Being respectful and responding as soon as possible to any requests has always helped me. They remember that when I call in with an urgent issue and need their help immediately.”

The Institute is dedicated to raising service standards by broadly disseminating the mindset and superior service expertise of that time-honored, quintessential service provider, the British Butler, updated with modern people skills, and adapted to the needs of modern employers and guests in staffed homes, luxury hotels, resorts, spas, retirement communities, jets, yachts & cruise ships around the world.