When Allan Miller started as a butler 25 years ago he had no idea what he was getting into. Now, when he talks to students about his career as a butler or estate manager, they have no idea his job even exists.
Yet thousands of butlers work at private homes, resorts, and in consulting roles that look only a little like those portrayed in the television show Downton Abbey or period movies such asGosford Park. Instead of polishing silver or greeting guests, the butler may oversee installation of a new heating system or pay all the household bills.
Or if a butler works in a hotel, he or she may fetch a favorite brand of beer or a pair of cufflinks, pack suitcases, and hang banners for guests. "Whatever it is, we can get it for them," says Ike Podlesny, a butler at The Lodge at Sea Island in Georgia. "As long as it's not illegal or immoral, we'll get it done."
Podlesny and the nine other butlers at the resort have helped with wedding proposals, on the golf greens and off, and serve room service food so that it seems like it's in a fine restaurant. They greet guests by name, track down lost luggage, and serve as a sort of personal assistant.
Butlers also cater to well-heeled guests at Ritz-Carlton and many other luxury hotels. But, like Mr. Carson on Downton Abbey, they're best known for their work overseeing private households of the very rich. There they may manage a raft of contractors keeping up gardens, pools and all kinds of heating and security systems, and orchestrate parties and events.
Many today favor a broader title -- household manager or estate manager -- that fits into a field called private service, working in mansions and homes that are 10 to 15 times the size of average American abodes.
"People still think of butler as a very stuffy position, even though it's not. We have some people calling it majordomo," a male domestic, says Susan Joy Feigon, a principal with Feigon Hamilton, which places professional household staff in positions. The job can vary quite a bit, depending on the family, how many homes they have, what their lifestyle is like, and whether they employ a chief of staff, family office manager, or director of residences -- all of whom tend to oversee everything, including the butler.
Striving for invisibility?
Alan Miller, 51, started as a butler by accident after owning a small barbecue restaurant. "I got a call from Atlanta, a gentleman named Will," he recalls. His future boss had contracted polio in college and was paralyzed from the neck down, but also very successful in business. "He said, 'you're going to learn from the people you work for, learn about goal setting… time management, money management,' " Miller says.
He quickly learned that the job required the ability to handle many projects simultaneously. "The job is much more intense in terms of multitasking and smart technologies," says Miller, who lives near Seattle and still considers himself an old-school butler.
"In the corporate world you strive for recognition. In the private service world, your goal is invisibility," he says. "When things are going very, very smoothly and they don't notice you, then you're successful."
Successful butlers can earn handsome salaries, plus as much as a month's paid vacation and a 401(k) plan. Top household managers can earn up to $300,000 a year, says Feigon. Several jobs posted recently paid $200,000 to $250,000 in Boston and near San Francisco. At those pay grades the job likely includes managing a sizable staff and dozens of contractors.
The butler is also expected to stay abreast of the latest software and security systems. "Homes are so complex, estates are so large, with wine cellars, smart home technologies, and security screens," not to mention all kinds of commercial equipment in kitchens and laundries, says Miller. Butlers handle all the unpredictable needs of the household, while housekeepers manage the predictable ones such as cleaning rooms.
The new face of today's butler
Though butlers in period dramas are all male and somewhat older, today women are working in the field, as are younger men. What's most important is that the butler "needs to mesh with the family," explains Gail Hamilton, Feigon's business partner. Besides using placement agencies, some wealthy families require butlers and other key household staff to take personality tests, she says.