Illustration: John T. Lewis
Illustration: John T. Lewis

Homeland Security

When looking after your home and the people who work in it gets to be too much, hire a house manager.

When looking after your home and the people who work in it gets to be too much, hire a house manager. When you can no longer keep track of all your house managers, you may need an estate manager.
Families often look for a household manager once they have a home larger than about 10,000 square feet, and they seek estate managers when they own multiple homes of this size, says Keith Greenhouse, chief executive of Pavillion Agency, a New York company that locates staff for high-end residences. That’s because managing domestic staff—sometimes as many as 10 employees per home—can become complicated at this level.

You can expect to pay an estate or household manager anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000 per year. Though some of them began their careers as butlers, many have experience running hotels or yachts, as well as a bachelor’s degree or even an MBA or law degree, Greenhouse says. A chief of staff, whose responsibilities may include managing employees in the family office, can make $500,000 to $800,000. The employee’s contract will almost always include strict confidentiality provisions; they often do not know the name of the family that is interviewing them when they go for an initial visit.

Unless you’re hiring a candidate who comes directly from working for a family you trust, you’ll need to use a recruiting agency. There are hundreds of agencies that place domestic workers, but only a dozen or so specialize in household and estate managers. Check the reputation of the agency you use by asking for references and looking at online comments and reviews on sites like Yelp and Facebook. Many states require that agencies and their principals register and go through background checks; verify the credentials of the agency you use. Ask the agent how recently he last made a house-manager placement.  

If you hire with the help of a recruiting agency, it will charge about 20 percent of the first year’s salary. That fee covers background checks and reference calls; you can also ask for drug or personality testing. Agencies typically guarantee a placement for a year, meaning that if candidates don’t work out, the firm will replace them at no charge. Some agencies also offer services such as handling your staff’s payroll, creating household manuals, and generating staff schedules; others can refer you to companies that can do this for you.

A house manager’s responsibilities include making sure nothing goes wrong. From knowing the sizes of the Christmas trees the client wants in various rooms to ensuring snow is cleared off the roof to keeping elevators serviced, the house manager has to make sure all of the staff members—butler, chef, housekeepers—are doing their jobs without bothering the employer. The manager also deals with vendors like caterers and construction companies.

Brock Gloor, a New York house manager whose employer is often away, is responsible for maintaining the home: making sure the AV system and TVs remain in working order, keeping track of the art collection, and polishing the ­silver. When the executive comes to town, everything has to be organized perfectly, down to the way Gloor serves his breakfast and how his shirt and tie are laid out when he gets dressed.
“It’s like running the world’s most exclusive hotel where your family are the only guests,” says David Youdovin, chief executive of New York domestic-help agency Hire Society.

The manager often has considerable autonomy, either because he has experience in, say, buying an aircraft or overseeing the construction of a pool house, or because the client prefers not to get involved on a daily basis. Most clients want a proactive manager, Youdovin says.

“The estate manager upholds the container of the homeowner’s lifestyle,” notes Mary Louise Starkey, whose Starkey International Institute trains household staff in Denver, with a special course for estate managers.  
Firing an estate manager can trigger $150,000 in turnover costs, mainly because the new hire doesn’t know what’s been promised to vendors and the ex-employee may not have kept careful records. It can take six months to a year to train a new manager on how your family lives, Starkey says. Moral: hire carefully.

Chana R. Schoenberger ([email protected]) has been an editor at Forbes, an online editor for the Wall Street Journal, and a news editor for Bloomberg News.