- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Mary Louise Starkey, founder of the Denver-based Starkey International Institute for Household Management, has a different definition than most people of how to take care of a house — especially one more than 5,000 square feet in size.

Larger than that, she says, it is mandatory to have at least one full-time manager and optimally a part-time employee as well. “Ten thousand is two full-time; 15,000 requires three full-time,” she adds. It’s in her interest, of course, since she is founder of a business that trains domestic managers.

The term “butler” no longer is used, since half of the Starkey course trainees are women. And the word “servant” definitely is out of favor in a politically correct age, however much a modern manager can seem a throwback to England’s Victorian era.

In today’s rarefied world of service professionals, the very largest houses have the services of someone like Michael Cope, a former Army general’s aide and executive chef whose title is “estate manager.” He is in charge of a corporate chieftain’s 4-acre property in McLean that includes two homes totaling considerably more than 15,000 square feet. In short, he is a manager’s manager.

Little escapes Mr. Cope’s notice concerning the physical property and its denizens, who include two young children watched over by a full-time English-trained nanny. The nanny reports more often to the couple themselves, he says.

He has more than enough to do, including plying his chef skills when the couple entertains for dinner, as they will on Valentine’s Day. Exclusive of conjuring up a top-notch menu, the list of preparatory duties for that one occasion runs to 34 items.

The manual provided to Starkey trainees to cover all elements of a manager’s job is a 600-page tome. In addition, Starkey clients — the property owners — are given a hardback book titled “Setting Household Standards” that outlines in full the duties of and expectations for all household employees. Learning the terminology is an important part of the monthlong training in the Starkey system Mr. Cope initially received during his time in the Army.

“You not only learn how things are done, but why,” he says.

The term “Daily Graces,” for instance, refers to routine maintenance functions performed by the household support staff. The chores are outlined down to the estimated time for doing one load of family wash — an average of one hour and 30 minutes.

Mr. Cope, 41, most definitely is a hands-on man, sitting ramrod straight in an office in the secondary so-called guesthouse surrounded by the accouterments of his trade: personal messaging machine, cellular phone, land-line phone, fax machine and computer. His “uniform” is conventional business dress: dark blue suit, white shirt and red tie, with a tiny American flag pin on his lapel. He is calm, confident, personable and obliging — to a limit. The father of a 6-year-old, he keeps his own family life separate, commuting daily from a home in Falls Church.

He makes a point never to live on the property where he works. “I will not have my son look up at the house and say, ‘Daddy, why can’t I have that?’ He is spoiled enough as it is,” he says, only half-jokingly.

“I’m part of the house, but not of the family,” he says of the job he has held for three years, working 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. or more most days.

“It’s a great profession,” he says. “It’s fun and exciting, but it has to go both ways. If you respect your job, the family will respect you. They have to be comfortable with you.”

He calls his boss “the principal” and talks to the couple several times a day, using the honorific “Mrs.” or “Madame” for the woman of the house.

With most jobs, Mr. Cope says, “You do not get any immediate feedback. Here you know every day when you do something. Every day you know whether you are successful or not. And it is always something different every day.”

For being the man in charge, he gets a salary in the six figures, but the downside is having to be on call for his employer at all hours and, for the most part, structuring his vacation time around theirs.

The employer, who asked to remain anonymous, also hires a couple to live on the property. Mr. Cope would not reveal the total number of people who more or less work under his direction, again citing his employer’s request for confidentiality. The property owners have relied on Starkey graduates in the past, saying that they consider the business, now some 25 years old, to offer “the best professional training of all the household staff firms in the U.S.A.”

Making the transition from the military to civilian world was a natural one, Mr. Cope says, although operating in the civilian sphere he considers “a different environment. In the military you are part of a chain of command” — meaning there always is someone to fall back on. In his current post, he is the commander, adjusting to the preferences of an individual employer.

The Starkey system provides a certain continuity between employer and employee, but its application requires flexibility, he acknowledges, since “each house has different standards. You have to find out what is important to the family. Not everyone wants to have someone around their home. As an employer, you give up your privacy to a certain extent.”

These days he has an extra chore to attend to or oversee: Transferring the myriad details of running this complex household onto a special software program created by the Starkey organization to replace more cumbersome paper records. Sold for $385 through the company’s Web site (www.starkeyintl.com), the program is said by Mrs. Starkey to be the first of its kind, although she suspects a similar computerized plan is in use in places such as the White House. The Starkey program’s flow chart has 15 categories to cover all exigencies named under two basic headings: People and Environment.

Technology has entered the personal service world in other ways as well. A California firm called Genesis Creations recently began promoting “Concierge This!,” which is said to be the first Internet-based service providing personal assistance for a minimal monthly fee. The fee covers requests for shopping and party planning, among other tasks.

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