At your service Home: A new company makes sure all your household staff members - from full-time servants to one-day help - know what they're doing

July 12, 1998|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

In an 18-year career of service in homes, on yachts and on ocean liners, Andrew Lowrey has seen it all - upstairs, downstairs and at the captain's table.

He has served wine to cruise passengers wearing bathrobes in the dining room, set tables for 20 on the deck of a yacht. He can pack a perfect suitcase, properly address people with titles, even fire a machine gun (a skill he picked up when his cruise ship became a troop ship during the Falklands dispute).

He knows how to remove a disorderly guest from a dinner party discreetly (tell them they have a phone call to get them out of the room, then send them home in a taxi), and how to react if the lord of the manor has an illicit overnight guest (don't look at her and don't speak to her unless you need to return a polite greeting - and don't tell).

But most of all, he knows how to make a household run with the grace and efficiency of a fine Swiss watch.

Wealthy people can be very demanding, Lowrey says. "They can be quite specific in their requirements. I don't think unreasonable, but very specific."

People who live in Georgian homes on a 240-acre estate, or who summer aboard a 374-foot yacht, can afford to demand perfection. They want the house cleaning done with precision, the towels hung just so, the pillows on the sofa arranged this way and no other. They want the cupboards regularly stocked and the pets exercised in careful rotation.

"It bugs them when they have an entourage or staff, and things are not being done correctly," Lowrey says. "They ask, 'What am I paying these people for?'"

And that is where Lowrey comes in. He and his partner Scott Etter run Preferred Home Management, a new Baltimore-based business that specializes in organizing households and training staff - whether it's a full-time, live-in troupe or a housecleaner who comes in once a week.

Deciding what should be done when and training employees to do it are often exactly the types of things busy people haven't got time or patience to do, Lowrey said.

"We weigh up their requirements and establish some kind of routine in the household, or on the yacht, and take out all that stress and worry."

Lowry, born in Sydney, Australia, and raised in Cambridge, England, was running a restaurant when a customer wanted to buy it and said, "I have the perfect job for you - why don't you go to butler school?"

There are not many butlers in the world today (Lowrey thinks perhaps a hundred who fit the true, narrow sense of the word - think of Anthony Hopkins in "Remains of the Day") but anyone who aspires to the role would do well to attend the Ivor Spencer International School for Butlers and Administrators, based in London. There the old-fashioned skills of household management (and the more delicate skills of managing people) are instilled.

Lowrey took the six-week course (offered 4 times a year in London and other locales) in Sydney. His first job was working for a Lebanese princess aboard an extremely large yacht based in the Mediterranean. He signed on for the summer and ended up staying about nine months. Then he decided he wanted to come to the United States, and found a job with a family in Baltimore County that lasted for nearly eight years.

Lowrey enjoyed the work, and speaks fondly of his employers, but butlering is never a 40-hour-a-week job - "more like 80" - and he found he wanted more control over his own life.

He met Etter, a native New Englander whose background was in advertising and marketing, when he hired him to do some computer graphics for his fledgling firm. Etter found Lowrey's work far more rewarding than his own - "It's exciting to meet new and interesting people all the time" - and signed on.

Unlike England and Europe, the United States has no long tradition of domestic service. Lowrey and Etter are among the first wave of people trying to address that lack.

Christine Hawthorne, also a transplanted Brit, is a domestic "headhunter" in Boston, who finds and places household help throughout the United States. It's not an easy task.

"I've lost jobs because I couldn't find people" to fill them, she said. "It's a dying art. The old Europeans who did it have died out, and their children are not interested. It's left a huge gap."

For those who are interested, the rewards are not unsubstantial. Salaries run as high as $35,000 a year, plus room and board, often a car and - where Hawthorne can get it for them - medical and dental benefits, even, perhaps, a 401K retirement account.

"There are wonderful perks," Hawthorne said, such as paid vacations at employers' other residences - "and great appreciation from their employers."

Hawthorne met Lowrey though her placement work and notes that "he's awfully good at his job."

"He has a passion for giving service," she said, and yet he is quiet and diplomatic. "I could clone him 20 times."

Despite the lack of tradition, Lowrey and Etter are finding people eager to learn the business of household management - though they may not be quite sure what is involved.

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