personal finance

What It’s Like to Staff the Home of a Billionaire

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

If you’ve ever wondered how billionaires actually spend their money in private, few people know better than George Ralph Dunn, the director of a London-based recruiting agency that staffs the homes of the super-rich. Within the industry, these ultra-high-net-worth clients (or UHNWs) are known as “principals,” and Dunn headhunts the people who “make their lives as easy as possible,” he says.

In addition to filling roles you might expect — caregiver, chauffeur, personal assistant — Dunn has hired a chef just for Dobermans and staffed enormous parties on private islands. It sounds outrageous (if not downright gross), but Dunn takes it in stride. “Sometimes, if I take a step back, I’m like, whoa, that was pretty crazy,” he says. Here, he talks about navigating a notoriously secretive industry, how he manages clients who mistreat their staff, and what it’s like to recruit a dog nanny.

How did you get into this business?
After university, I worked in a couple of Michelin restaurants in London. From there, I became a private chef. The hours and compensation were far better than working in restaurants. It’s a massive step up from your basic hospitality job. For me, it was also more interesting. I was packing up at a moment’s notice, going to the British Virgin Islands and then Gstaad on a private jet. When I was younger and up for the adventure, it was very exciting. But it can also be quite turbulent. As I got older, I wanted something a little bit more stable with a slightly better work-life balance. At that point, I had worked with lots of different clients, and that gave me the contacts and understanding of the industry to set up the agency.

Describe exactly what your company does.
We recruit staff for ultra-high-net-worth individuals, or billionaires, for two elements of their lives. One is the family office, which operates their estate. That could include a chief of staff, accountants, people managing their art portfolio or other assets across their various homes around the world. The other element is staffing their private household — everything from dog nannies and housekeepers to chauffeurs and whoever they need in order for their lives to function as smoothly as possible.

Do you have a particular niche, or something that you’re known for, that sets you apart from your competition?
Typically, the previous agencies were set up by ex-butlers from Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, very formal and stuffy backgrounds. In this day and age, most principals don’t want that as much — they’re not looking for butlers in a coat and tails. So we try not to be unnecessarily formal. We’re dealing with people at the end of the day. We’re fairly new, but your reputation in this industry is absolutely everything — it’s almost entirely referral based. So for us, it’s about retaining core clients and keeping our relationship with them.

It seems that this industry is also very secretive. How do you manage that, when people can’t talk about who they’ve worked for?
The old school of thought has been very hush-hush, but it’s starting to become more open. To some extent, that secrecy was detrimental — it meant certain workers weren’t receiving basic rights. I’m very much an advocate for talking more about the industry. Having said that, it is littered with nondisclosure agreements. Obviously, you want to be very discreet. You don’t want to give away aspects of anyone’s personal life. But some things are up for debate. For example, if you work for all of these people who ask you to sign NDAs, what do you write on your CV?

What do you write?
You have to gauge it on a case-by-case basis. I know principals who have sued their former staff just for putting their name on a CV. Other people are cool about it. They understand it’s a stepping stone in someone’s career. In other cases, it’s more of a gray area. You might just say “Hollywood couple” or “ultra-high-net-worth individual” or whatever. It’s delicate. You’re probably not going to go up to your boss and say, “Hey, can I write your name on my CV?” Instead, you speak to their personal assistant or chief of staff. Sometimes, you can essentially describe exactly who it is without saying their name.

How do you steer clear of bad employers — people who treat their staff poorly? There’s a power imbalance, to say the least.
The sort of people employing private household staff are in the .001 percent, so it’s a very small group — we’ve probably worked with somewhere between 100 and 120 families. It’s not too difficult to get an idea of which families treat their staff better than others. Some have particularly bad reputations, and we know to steer clear. Also, before we work with anyone, we’ll always visit them in person. We’ll go to their property and scope it out. Typically, if someone on staff is leaving, we’re working to replace them and help them find their next role as well. So we’re trying to cover it from all angles. That’s just sort of common sense from a business perspective. Then, of course, we speak to many candidates, and they’re usually very forthcoming if a previous boss was horrible to them. Within a few minutes of talking to them, it becomes very clear. I’ve got no interest in dealing with that. I don’t want to put anyone in a bad house. If it’s going to mean they’re leaving in a month, then the client’s not happy, the candidate’s not happy, and there’s no point in wasting our time with that.

Have you ever had to fire a client?
We’ve had clients who tried to renegotiate rates just as a candidate was about to start. We’d have the terms signed, and then they’d go, “Actually, can you shave off 5 percent?” You’re talking about a couple of grand here, when your net worth is billions. Otherwise, if we’re in the discovery phase of working with someone and it starts to seem like they’re not treating their staff in the best way, or they have these outsize expectations, or they’re not happy to offer fair compensation, then we’ll say, “Look, this isn’t the right fit for us. There are other agencies that might be able to help you.” We’re a candidate-focused agency. If our candidates — the staff — aren’t happy, then they’ll go elsewhere, and then we have no business.

A lot of us see celebrities and rich people living these perfect lives, but we don’t get to see everything it takes behind the scenes to make things look that way. What do they do to make their lives so put-together that the average person wouldn’t know about?
Everything from wardrobe managers to sometimes up to three or four housekeepers. I have a Saudi client who was renting a property in London, I think it was £100,000 a week. They booked it out for three months. They brought 60 of their staff from Saudi Arabia all the way over to the property. It was a family of three, and they only went for three days. That’s an extreme, for sure, but yeah, it happens. You’ve got chauffeurs, you’ve got security, you’ve got dog handlers, you’ve got dog nannies. Recently, I was asked to fill a role for a chef, literally just for Dobermans. My job is to make the principal’s life as easy as possible. They’re very well supported, but they pay for that support quite handsomely, which is good for everyone involved.

What is your own background and upbringing? Did you grow up with exposure to this type of lifestyle?
I don’t come from a really wealthy background, but I went to private school. Some of the other people in the school might’ve had some elements of what I see now. But the type of people who employ this level of staff aren’t even British upper class — it’s more like oil magnates, hedge-fund managers, that kind of thing.

Is it ever disconcerting to straddle the world of this incredible wealth and the reality that you — and especially the staff — live with?
Yeah, completely. I mean, when you see the principal renting a chalet and spending over £1 million on a week’s holiday, and then you look at the full spectrum of the household, it can be jarring. You’ve got the housekeepers who might’ve come from a less developed country, or anyone else dealing with the financial pressures that normal people face, compared with their employer’s vast wealth. It is a lot, if you think too much about it, but equally, it’s providing a really good income to the people who work in these households.

Do you ever have trouble keeping perspective, financially, because you’re affected by the clients you’re working with?
Yeah, my girlfriend will testify to that. I’ve worked on multimillion-pound private islands where everything’s just beautiful, so it’s hard to lower your standards. Now, when we go on holiday, I want the best of the best. Also, when I was a private chef, I wouldn’t think twice about spending a lot of money on groceries because I had an unlimited budget. I wouldn’t look at prices at all. It’s not the best habit to pick up. Ultimately, I just have to look at my bank balance to ground myself.

What’s your placement process?
We normally take three to four references and speak to every one, which gives us a good idea of who the candidate is. We do background checks. Typically, if someone’s been working in private households for a certain period of time, they know the score and will get the job done. The touchy part is matching the candidate’s personality to the principal’s personality. These are people in the principal’s most intimate space, seeing them get dressed, arguing with close family members. If you can’t get that personality match right, then it’s not going to work, no matter how qualified the candidate is. An amazing candidate for one principal would be a bad fit for another.

Can you give me an example?
For the role of a chauffeur or a driver, some principals want someone who’s chatty, getting on with the kids, whatever. I have one candidate who was like that and then took a new role with another client who would not say a word, not “thank you,” not “hello,” nothing. He would text him where they were going and that was it — no other communication whatsoever. So everyone has their own preference for how much interaction they want with their staff.

What do you do when staff is being expected to do more than what they’re being compensated for?
I do think employers are starting to realize that having staff burn out isn’t the way to go. But it can be tough, because we don’t manage our candidates after they take on the role. We help place them, and then we’ll stay in contact for a few months, but if their employer starts changing the role after that, it’s usually handled within the household. We do maintain relationships with the household personal assistants and chiefs of staff and try to provide advice, but there’s only so much we can do. It is very tricky arguing with a billionaire about how they should use their staff. At the end of the day, they’re the boss.

Has any role shocked you?
Our first dog-nanny role was offering £100,000 a year to look after two Chow Chows, I think, or maybe three — feeding them, taking them for walks, vet appointments. We got a lot of people going, “Shit, I want to be a dog nanny!” with no qualifications. But for that salary, the principal wanted someone with a bit of veterinary background, knowledge of dog behavior, that kind of thing. But really, it was just looking after dogs, which is quite nice.

Another time, we had a family who had just bought an apartment. They then realized that their two dogs weren’t allowed in the apartment, so they purchased a £10 million property opposite the apartment called the dog house, purely for the dogs.

How do you make money off of what you’re doing?
There’s two elements. No. 1 is the recruitment side of things. The other part is concierge support, which is an added service over the recruitment. Typically, we’ll take a percentage of the candidate’s annual salary, and that’s how we make our money.

What did you not expect when you started working in this industry?
Having worked as a private chef, I’d get placed into these different roles, and it just seemed like the recruiter was throwing my CV at a personal assistant and going, “Here, take him and give me my cut.” I was like, “How hard can it be?” But I soon learned that it can be quite tricky. This industry is very closed off. Properties are held through various funds and tax havens. It’s hard to understand which households are looking for people. There might only be one or two roles open in a household every five years. It is very nuanced and very, very different from your typical recruitment model. It’s all about our network.

Can you give me an example of a crisis that you’ve had to deal with?
We had a party that we were organizing in the Alps. It was for about 200 people, and we had loads of short-term staff fly out there. Everything from butlers to waiters, chefs, the full shebang — I think it was a staff of about 40. We put them up in three or four chalets, and then they all got sick with a stomach bug literally one day before the event. We were scrambling for staff throughout the Alps, literally using every last ounce of our network to pull off this party by the skin of our teeth. We just about did it, but that was really terrifying. Luckily, everyone recovered and was fine, but it was stressful.

How do you blow off steam when you work in such a secretive environment?
Basically, you have to talk to someone else who works within the industry. Otherwise it can be quite isolating. Lots of house managers are like, “How do I decompress? I can’t talk about my day to anyone because I have to be discreet.” Your boss could be in a really bad mood and say, “I hate you. This is rubbish,” but you just put up with it. It’s not the same as a corporate role where you’ve got an HR department. But there has to be more scope to allow your boss to be in a bad mood because you are in their intimate space. It is not them at work.

Right, it’s their personal life, but it’s your professional life. How do you manage that?
A few years into my private-chef career, I became more aware that there’s a line, and it’s best for everyone if that line isn’t crossed. But it gets blurry for sure. Say you’re on a yacht with your principal and they had a few tequilas, and then they’re like, “Oh, come on. Join us.” Ultimately, you have to remember that you are there because they’re paying you. It’s a job. They’re not your friend. Obviously, you need to share compassion and empathy. Sometimes your boss needs you to be a shoulder to cry on. But in the back of your mind, you still need to know that there’s quite a clear boundary. I’ve had housekeepers come to me saying, “What’s going on with my principal? One minute, they’re really open with me. Then, as soon as their friends come over, I’m just the staff.” But I think if you remember from the beginning that you’re there to do a service, you won’t get offended later on.

Of course, no one is a robot. We encourage our staff to get on with the clients. But I don’t want them to be disappointed when guests arrive and suddenly it’s, “Can you get me a glass of Champagne, please?”

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What It’s Like to Staff the Home of a Billionaire