Last updated: December 20, 2010 10:50 am

21st-century butlers

 
Ben Elliot and Aaron Simpson

Ben Elliot and Aaron Simpson, co-founders of Quintessentially

So you’ve bought the penthouse on the Upper East Side in New York; the house in Eaton Square; the large luxury apartment with state-of-the-art electronics in The Peak area of Hong Kong; the Palladian shooting lodge in Gloucestershire and the palace in Venice. Servicing the needs of all that property and a family that requires invitations to the hottest parties around needs a phalanx of discreet, well-connected butlers.

Enter Quintessentially, the wish-fulfilment empire headed up by 35-year-old Ben Elliot, nephew of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, whose address book gets to places where others cannot reach, and his 38-year-old co-founder, Aaron Simpson.

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Their 2,000 thorough-bred Quintessentialists (many of the blonde, swishy-haired variety), spread across the world, are on standby to serve outlandish whims: whether it’s sourcing a diamond-encrusted Hermès Birkin bag or walking a Pekingese and eight Labradors for an owner who comes to London for 10 weeks of the year.

Christmas prompts extra demands. Take the couple – an American designer and Russian banker whose primary residence is New York – who last year asked the firm to prepare their Belgravia home for the festive season. No small thing. Quintessentially had to find and wrap Christmas presents for 20 of the couple’s closest friends and relations, including a Van Cleef & Arpels watch worth £35,000; stock their fridge and larder with Cristal, smoked salmon from Iceland, white truffles from Alba and caviar from Iran. Decorations were taken care of; all the couple had to do was turn up on Christmas Eve.

If you’re really pushed, Quintessentially will buy your house/apartment/palace for you and install a battalion of trained staff. Recent finds include a £7m bachelor pad in Knightsbridge with a secret “Batman’s cave” study behind the library for a client from Qatar; a 20-bedroom palace in St Tropez, worth £85m, for a Hong Kong member; and a 12-bedroom hacienda with stables and polo fields in Argentina sold for £8m to a Russian oligarch. The firm is on the hunt for a private island with a helipad for a man with a £100m budget and, for another client, a castle in Mauritius.

Since forming 10 years ago, Quintessentially has expanded to 56 countries, including bases in São Paulo, Delhi, Shanghai, Beijing and Moscow (its fourth-biggest customer base), looking after local and travelling members.

Catering to a clientele that travels for work and leisure has been one way that Quintessentially has sought to differentiate itself from other niche operators. It hopes to have operations in a total of 65 countries by the first quarter of next year. The Bric countries have taken to concierge services surprisingly easily, particularly the Chinese. Recent demands have included a pair of the red shoes worn by the Pope and backstage passes to a Beyoncé concert. One client asked for three top fashion stores in Shanghai to be closed so that his wife could have a private birthday shopping treat. His wish was granted.

Has the downturn affected them? I ask Ben (6ft 3in, floppy light brown hair, aquamarine eyes, crisp white shirt, navy tie and sharp navy suit by Timothy Everest, who tailors all Elliot’s suits except for the ones that belonged to his late grandfather, Major Bruce Shand). “What happens in times of uncertainty,” he asserts, exuding his characteristic swagger, “is that people choose the best and I believe we are the best.” Described variously as “charming”, a “hustler” and “arrogant”, his accent is a blend of “mockney” and the clear diction of an old Etonian – a perfect reflection of his wide boy-cum-patrician persona.

Simpson agrees: “Our high-net-worth clients haven’t been affected by the recession.” In fact, the number of people subscribing to the invitation-only bracket (£10,000 to £25,000 a year starting price) increased. In some cities the firm offers only dedicated and elite levels of service. Nonetheless, there has been a fall-off in the basic membership due to redundancies among the professional classes. Like other luxury brands, Quintessentially is hoping much of its growth will come from new markets, particularly Asia. “The world has changed since we started. If I’d spoken about China being a growth market 10 years ago you’d have thought I was mad,” Elliot says.

In this business, contacts are all. Friends include Soho House owner Nick Jones; Richard Caring, head of a restaurant empire that includes The Ivy; secretary of state for eduction Michael Gove; and club veteran Piers Adams, owner of Mahiki, a regular haunt of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Elliot is at the nexus of the overlapping worlds of socialites, entertainment and luxury businesses as well as Cameronian politics (he won’t be drawn on his political views, though he once worked for Business for Sterling, the anti-European Union lobbying group). It’s a social milieu that is ascendant and highly marketable, according to Rita Clifton, chairman of Interbrand, the branding company. “Superluxury clients want to deal with someone with style – class sells.” She comments that, while many are feeling poorer than they have in years, the super-rich, are, so far, relatively buoyant. For them, “the posh Brit thing is very big at the moment”.

Elliot is anxious to downplay his image. “It’s not interesting. It’s bullshit,” he snaps when I ask about his party-boy tag (he had a certain fame as a thoroughbred “It Boy” in the late 1990s): “It’s difficult to have a serious business if you’re known for that.”

He later confesses that he is wary of talking about his personal life because of the British press’s “chippy attitude” to his background and connections. After all, when Quintessentially started, it was the butt of snide criticism from cynics who dubbed the concierge service a rich boys’ plaything (Elliot’s cousin Tom Parker-Bowles was on its start-up team), and predicted its imminent collapse. At first, the naysayers looked set to be proved right: the firm launched on the cusp of the dotcom crash, its funding was withdrawn, and by the end of its first year it had made losses of £80,000 and was plagued with rumours that further financial trouble was ahead. Now it turns a profit of about £7m on a turnover of £50m, which seems low, given its high-rolling activities.

While its advisory board contained blue blood, including such people as James Ogilvy, son of Princess Alexandra and cousin of the Queen, and Santa Sebag Montefiore, Prince Charles’ goddaughter, investors have been blue-chip. Simon Robertson, the former European president of US bank Goldman Sachs, and Sir Tom Hunter, the retail entrepreneur and philanthropist, continue to hold stakes. Ten years on, Quintessentially appears to have given its critics something to think about, if not silenced them. As well as global expansion, it has spawned 30 sister groups. These include Quintessentially Wines, Quintessentially Art and Quintessentially Escape.

Quintessentially’s confidence that the firm will thrive even in the “doom and gloom” of the UK is down to what Elliot sees as the country having become a mecca for the wealthy. “In 2000 [when Quintessentially was set up], London was a different city ... The super-rich have made it their home.” And although some, Simpson says, have moved from London because of the increases in the top-rate tax regime earlier this year, “it’s hundreds or thousands, not hundreds of thousands”. This makes no impact on the business, he laughs: “We just look after them in Switzerland instead.”

Nonetheless, says Joanna Kupis, managing director of Quintessentially’s Estates property division, big spenders are trying to be less ostentatious. “We’ve had quite a few requests to organise New Year parties at home.” Is the budget smaller? “God no, they’re still spending the money. They just want to make it look like they’re not.”

Quintessentially Gifts will shortly be helping FT How To Spend It readers source featured products on howtospendit.com

www.quintessentially.com

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Three more lifestyle management companies

Ten Group

Established in 1998, the company now has offices in London, Hong Kong, New York and San Francisco, and 450,000 members in 145 countries. It has arranged everything from helping members move house from one country to another, to hand-delivering tea and toast for a homesick girlfriend in Australia. When the volcanic ash hit in April, Ten Lifestyle Management was on hand to bring members back from Milan and Madrid in luxury coaches.

The Ten “Lifestyle Concierge” service costs from £150 per month, or from £300 per month for a personal lifestyle manager.

www.tengroup.com

Centurion

Launched in 1999, the “black card” is available to American Express cardholders who spend £100,000 a year on their cards, have a perfect credit record and travel extensively. Rappers from Jay-Z to Kanye West have name-checked the Centurion black card, which offers services such as a dedicated concierge and travel agent, complimentary companion tickets on international flights with selected airlines and personal shoppers at luxury retailers.

www.icenturion.americanexpress.com

Cushion the Impact

With clients as far-flung as the US and Cambodia, Cushion the Impact specialises in domestic chores, from wading through unpaid bills, hiring cleaners, wrapping presents and booking babysitters to buying a house.

www.cushiontheimpact.co.uk

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