When you hear the word “butler”, what sort of character comes to mind? For many people it’s an impeccably attired, utterly loyal and discreet presence as portrayed by actors such as Anthony Hopkins as Stevens in The Remains of the Day, Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in The Butler, or more recently, Jim Carter as Carson in the popular Downton Abbey TV series.
That perception, however, does not match today’s reality, according to the principal of the British Butler Institute, Gary Williams. He says that many women now work as butlers and are in particular demand to work on superyachts and private planes. Also, some Middle Eastern families prefer to employ women.
Speaking personally, though, I always think of butlers as men and – reassuringly – Williams embodies the traditional image, manner and style of a butler. Immaculately dressed in waistcoat and tails, he patiently answers my questions during a break in the training programme he conducts at the Taj Hotel in the heart of Westminster, London. He proves easy to talk to, and his ability to appear relaxed while also respectful and attentive is perhaps one of the hallmarks of a successful butler.
Worldwide, the British Butler Institute trains up to 2,000 people per year. It has a partnership with professional butler services company eButler in Hong Kong.
In terms of global demand, Williams says that “Butlering is a growth industry. In fact, demand outstrips supply. More and more people want good service and they want qualified people. Our students range in age from 25 to 55. We also get some older people who contact us and ask, ‘I’m in my 60s’ - is it too late to start?’ We always reply, ‘The older you get, the more you look like a butler’!”
Williams trained at the prestigious Ivor Spencer International School for Butlers in London. His highflying international career includes butlering at The Ritz London where he was responsible for overseeing all the luxury suites, including the royal suite, and attending to the requests and requirements of the VIP guests.
He went on to work at Studley Royal House in North Yorkshire, a traditional household with weekend shoots, formal dining and high teas. He has also worked for the Brazilian Embassy in London, as well as for royal families, prime ministers, Russian and Chinese oligarchs, principals of British and international industry, IT billionaires, famous musicians and artists.
It was on the back of this extensive experience that he was called in to set up Quintessentially Butlers, part of the top flight concierge company Quintessentially, founded by Ben Elliot, the well-heeled nephew of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, wife of Prince Charles. Butlers, Williams emphasises, must above all else be trustworthy and respect the privacy of their employer.
“The biggest taboo for a butler is divulging information. Also, we never comply with any request that is illegal,” he says.
And for employers it is important to understand what the role of the butler entails – or rather what it does not entail.
“A butler should not be asked to undertake childcare or pet care. A butler is not a chef, though he or she can rustle up the odd meal,” he adds.
And what about pay?
“The average salary in the UK is between £30,000 (US$39,300) and £40,000 per year. The higher you go up the salary scale, pay can rise to £120,000 per year, though you may find you have to devote a great deal of your time to the job. The highest paid butler in the world is on US$2.2 million per year – he is based in the US,” Williams explains.
A congenial personality and a willingness to work hard at maintaining the highest standards are key to success. When, for example, preparing something as simple as an orange juice, it should always be served to the exact specifications of the client. It is this attention to detail that the client is paying for and the level of personal service that is expected.
“A person with the right attitude and ability can expect to have a good career as a butler – but at the very top level be prepared to work long hours,” says Williams. “If you are a quick learner with the right approach and personality you can rise to the top level jobs quite quickly. You have to be congenial and professional. You are expected to do an outstanding job and you must enjoy what you do.”
“Within the butler’s domain you have the head butler or major-domo, butlers and junior butlers. The major-domo oversees the household and works very closely with the heads of housekeeping, the chef and the estate manager. Essentially, the major-domo is closest to the principal.”