Putting the House in Order: Domestic Estate Managers Association is Headquartered in Detroit

Masters of service and secrecy, estate managers are adept at handling life’s little (and big) details — for others. These service professionals are in demand globally, and their headquarters are right here in Detroit
Illustrations by Pablo Iglesias

Detroit native Matt Haack needed a California guy with connections. That turned out to be Bryan Peele. You’ve never heard of him, but he’s a known commodity among the Hollywood elite. As an “estate manager” within the private-service industry, Peele had built a solid reputation managing the large home of one of the biggest pop stars in music today. That led to his current job as the estate manager for the heirs to a billion-dollar American cosmetics fortune with long ties to the entertainment industry. Like so many other private-service professionals to the super wealthy, Peele is no poser. He’s in, and he knows every intimate detail of how the rich and famous really live.

However they might define themselves, and whatever they might be called — estate managers, house managers, butlers, personal assistants, private chefs — the private-service professional basically provides services to those who lead intensely complex lives and can afford to pay someone to handle all of life’s little details. It can be as simple as paying the electric bill or as complicated as ensuring there’s enough security for the yacht docked halfway around the world. Peele was a 10-year veteran of this kind of work when Haack called him. The perfect guy, Haack thought, to spread the word in California about an association that, even according to Haack, might have found a more welcoming home base in the vortex of Hollywood wealth. But here it was, in Detroit, where Haack and his business partner, Mike Wright, decided to start the Domestic Estate Managers Association (DEMA; domesticmanagers.com) in 2007. The idea came from a simple observation: After years of running a high-end carpet-cleaning business, they had started to notice that they really dealt only with people like Peele who were professionals in their own right. These professionals were getting paid a lot of money to run other people’s estates, and they had the power to make purchasing decisions regarding home maintenance.

Months of research into private service in the United States followed. It’s an age-old profession where, in its modern form, it’s possible to make about $60,000 a year managing one vacation home, or more than $250,000 managing the upkeep of, say, five homes, the yacht, and the private jet. Topping their research off with a road trip in 2010, Haack and Wright visited estate managers in New York, Florida, Tennessee, and Illinois to gauge interest in the idea for DEMA. What they discovered surprised them. Associations are certainly powerful entities in professions such as medicine and law, where they have become resources for establishing networks, facilitators of continuing education, and respected authorities on standards and ethics. Nothing like this, however, had ever existed for private-service professionals, due perhaps to the “private” nature of their jobs. “It was amazing,” Haack says, “to come across so many estate managers who had never met anyone else who had the same job.” By early 2010, when DEMA contacted Peele, the association’s mission was in full swing to do what others over the years had tried to do but failed — connect a fragmented, secretive industry and establish professional standards for those who devote their careers to serving the world’s wealthiest people.

Peele wasn’t exactly sold, but he went to the first DEMA meeting in Los Angeles a few months later. About a dozen others joined him, and the catering consisted of fast-food tacos — not exactly the stuff that champagne and caviar dreams are made of. “I was like, is this a joke?” Peele recalls. “But instantly, I saw the worth of what DEMA was trying to do. It was an opportunity waiting to explode.”

In many respects, it has, going from zero to more than 1,400 members over the course of a couple of years. Those members work across 41 states and 18 countries, and there are 14 chapters that meet regularly in the United States alone. DEMA says that’s still just a fraction of potential membership, estimating that the industry employs at least 1 million private-service professionals working at all levels in this country and is worth billions worldwide. About 100 DEMA members now routinely attend the Los Angeles meetings, which are held at the city’s best restaurants (the catering has clearly graduated to more sophisticated fare). A recent guest speaker was the head butler of the Beverly Hills Hotel, who was there to demonstrate the proper way to pack a suitcase. That’s the perfect example, Peele says, of the kind of education that DEMA can provide for members.

To help publicize DEMA’s efforts as it builds this momentum — they had their first national convention at the end of September in Los Angeles — the association hired a public-relations firm earlier this year, prompting national media outlets to once again dissect a lifestyle that has been easy to mock in the past. The very notion of hiring “help” in the modern world may partly be to blame, the details of which can seem downright archaic. (We all know billionaires don’t live like the rest of us, but they seriously can’t pack their own suitcases?) All of these little aspects of a monied existence, if taken out of context, are even easier to boil down to repeat tales of how the richest people in America — those who have come to be labeled as the “1 percent,” control roughly half the nation’s wealth, and whose lifestyles remained intact during the great recession — still live to excess while others struggle to recover. Peele has a pragmatic and somewhat philosophical retort, even if he can understand most people’s skepticism these days toward overly lavish lifestyles. “Since the beginning of time, there have been the haves and the have-nots,” he says. “But when you think about it, at the most basic level, aren’t we all in the service industry? Don’t we all serve someone else in our jobs, and doesn’t everyone serve us? The “haves” need someone to support them, too. You just have to think about it that way, or you could really be susceptible to building up resentment.” In order to put a more realistic spin on the industry, DEMA members, including Peele, are currently working with an independent production company in Hollywood to develop a reality series that they say would ideally avoid an “over-the-top” display of wealth in favor of a truer-to-life portrayal of the estate manager’s role, daily grind and all.

But make no mistake, private-service professionals still work in an extremely cloistered world that even the easy-going West Coast attitude toward wealth and “new money” will expose only to a degree. “It’s a very secret society,” says Drew Esslinger, an estate manager in Detroit and one of the few here who are willing to talk about the profession. “People just don’t want you to know they have [domestic] staff.” Understandably, they also don’t want their private business broadcast publicly.

Although most of Peele’s colleagues probably know whom he works for, he’s careful to offer limited details of his job, which consists of managing four estates from a home base in the Pacific Palisades of Los Angeles. He is embedded in every personal aspect of the lives of the family members he serves. One day, he’s driving the teen daughter to art class. On any other given day, he’s got control of at least one of the family checkbooks. It’s normal for him to negotiate and oversee projects such as the $100,000 installation of a new security system for the main home. “I’m a facilitator. That’s really, truly all I am,” Peele says. He won’t talk openly at all, however, about his “principal,” an industry term used to describe the estate owners and other wealthy people who employ private service professionals. True, the job can be extremely rewarding — ”like living the life without having to pay for it,” Peele admits. But it can also be a daily marathon in keeping the boss’ confidence. It’s the kind of career, Peele says, where trust is the only prerequisite that counts. “It’s not like you’re sitting around the pool sipping ‘mocktails’ all day,” Peele adds. “It’s very hard work.” (And, as Haack explains it, when you’re managing the homes of prominent billionaires and have been sworn to secrecy through a confidentiality agreement, you’re also not going to knock on the neighbor’s door to gab about work and ask to borrow a cup of sugar.)

This secretive culture is perhaps nowhere more pronounced than on DEMA’s home turf, a microcosm of the challenge the association faces on a global scale in establishing trust with private-service professionals who are unwilling to risk breaking the trust of their employers. Despite Detroit’s reputation for economic woes and a blue-collar middle class that has struggled for years, the Motor City is, in fact, a fortress of old money and wealth that continues to thrive. For this reason, it made sense for Haack and Wright to keep the association in Detroit, as opposed to moving it to Los Angeles or New York, where the concept at first might have made a little more sense. Haack now regards with somewhat smug pleasure the calls DEMA receives from all over the country inquiring about what they do and how they can help, such as the call that recently came in from a “principal” who needed advice on how to hire an estate manager in France. “When we tell people that DEMA is based in Detroit, or when they find out they’re calling to Detroit, they’re all in shock,” Haack says. “People don’t think there can be that much money and wealth here to support private-service professionals.”

There is, with some of Detroit’s approximately 100 DEMA members doing the same job as Peele in California for families who enjoy a similar level of wealth. Consider Eminem and Kid Rock or that long list of family names whose influential ties run deep in Detroit. When asked about all of them, Haack’s answer comes in the form of silence and an uneasy smile. Three notable, wealthy Detroiters contacted for this story declined comment. DEMA knows some of the people who work for them, but they are token members who don’t want to be officially associated. “And if I told you their names, they’d never talk to us again,” Haack says. According to DEMA, other families less known, but equally well-to-do, regularly employ full-time butlers, estate managers, and private chefs to tend to their homes in Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills — and even such Detroit neighborhoods as Boston-Edison. Like tradition within East Coast bastions of old money, flaunting a wealthy lifestyle in the Midwest, let alone talking about it, is considered gauche. So, if the estate managers to the mega-wealthy on the West Coast may be reluctant to reveal details about their jobs, the discussion in most cases isn’t even going to start in Detroit.

An exception is Esslinger, the estate manager of the Charles T. Fisher mansion. With 48 rooms and 18,000 square feet, the home is the largest residence in historic Boston-Edison. It’s the former home of Charles Fisher and his wife, Sarah, of the “Body by Fisher” family. Michael Fisher, a cousin to the family, bought the home a few years ago and hired Esslinger to live at and manage the property and use his restoration expertise to execute the meticulous process of returning the mansion to its original glory. It’s a laborious task that could take another five years, involve countless contractors and vendors, and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s also a prime example, Esslinger suggests, of estate management in its most authentic form. This isn’t a luxury service, Esslinger says, it’s a necessity. And he’s certainly not just a “servant” (although 17 traditional servants lived in the home in its heyday in the early 20th century). That kind of domestic staff in 2012 may not be necessary, but Fisher, who runs other businesses, simply would not be able to accomplish his goals for the mansion without Esslinger’s full-time, watchful eye. “Being in this home is like running a small business. I’m HR. I’m the go-to person. I’m everything. I have to have answers, and that’s how it is,” Esslinger says.

As the president of DEMA’s Detroit chapter, Esslinger believes in the potential for the association to cast his peers in a similarly more modern light here and in the rest of the world. Haack agrees, adding that one of the association’s most important roles might be to establish a new conversation about what it means to serve people in the 21st century. “There are a lot of very wealthy people out there who want to keep this on the down low, because they’re afraid of the public’s view of having staff,” Haack says. “What we’re saying is, look, there’s a reason staff is in place, and the association is here to help. The top 1 percent run businesses and philanthropies and help create entire industries. That’s why estate managers like Drew are so important. They allow the principals to go and do what they’re good at. [The principals] don’t have to worry about the house. It’s covered.”

Detroit was prime training ground in the private-service industry for Graham Lefford 23 years ago. A native of England who moved here when he was 9 and still speaks with an English accent, Lefford ditched the idea of becoming a scientist like his father to become a traditional butler at a home in Bloomfield Hills, instead. Having cut his teeth as a server at The Golden Mushroom restaurant in Detroit during college, Lefford found he was good at serving others, and the home in the suburbs certainly expected it. “It was an extraordinarily formal household that wanted a classic butler. You know, serving lunches, serving dinners every night,” he says. Lefford also managed the contractors — plumbers, electricians, decorators, fabric cleaners — who came and went regularly, paying meticulous attention to every detail of keeping up the house. “In these types of houses, people don’t understand that everything is just more special,” Lefford explains. “I’ve worked in houses where the furniture was worth millions of dollars. The fabric on one couch may be worth $40,000 alone. Mistakes in taking care of it all can be very expensive.” Once estate managers gain this type of experience and skill in managing such households, they can command a premium. Lefford went on to work for three years for a multi-billionaire businessman in New York. “He had more homes than you could count,” Lefford says. “He gave me a place to live, a car, a benefits package. It was just crazy,” he says of his time managing the businessman’s estates in New York and Florida. Recently, an agent to a major Hollywood celebrity offered Lefford a job managing the star’s estates in Los Angeles, Kentucky, London, the south of France, and the Caribbean, a position that would have meant constant travel between the properties. “They told me money was no object, but I was just like, no, I love my wife and family.”

Today, Lefford lives quietly in White Lake Township with his wife and young son, commuting to New York about four days a week as an estate manager for a different family. In the time since his early butler days, he’s come to understand his role of estate manager as more of a problem solver or consultant, or even a trusted “custodian” of wealthy people’s resources. In many instances, Lefford says, he has seen domestic staff and unscrupulous vendors try to take advantage of that extreme wealth, which he says is a constant concern for those who invite people into their homes to work on a professional basis. “You know that saying, when the cat’s away, the mice come out to play,” Lefford says. “Unfortunately, some people look at these rich people, and they think they’ll pay a premium for anything. What do they care? But in most cases, these are really good people who need good help, and I feel like it’s my job to go out of my way to make sure they don’t get ripped off.”

Like his colleague Esslinger, Lefford sees the potential in DEMA for elevating these issues and concerns, and to “truly help the industry in a unique way” that he has never experienced as a veteran of the business. “For now, the subject is how to recruit more members, especially in Detroit. That’s the million-dollar question,” Lefford says, acknowledging that secrecy is still a solid mainstay of the industry. And with it, continued misperceptions, even from Lefford’s elderly father who still wonders, albeit lightheartedly, what all the fuss is about. “We had a family lunch the other day, and [my father] was making mock of me,” Lefford says. “I jabbed back and said, ‘I know you think the details are petty, but they’re not.’ ” People at other times will routinely ask Lefford what it is, exactly, that he does, and he finds it interesting that people tend to insist that having money wouldn’t change them. “My first reaction is, ‘Yes, it would,’ ” Lefford says.

“Think about it — if you could pay someone to do your laundry, cook, wash your car, fill it up with gas, and do it all exactly they way you would do it yourself, wouldn’t you do that?”