Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Downton Abbey Style Modern Day House Manager

Brian Peeles an estate manager directing the landscaping staff

In a bedroom overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Bryan Peele was working up a sweat on a StairMaster. He did not need the exercise, but the equipment did: in his experience, the battery would run down without frequent use. Peele was keeping the machine in shape for its owners, a wealthy family that hired him eight months earlier to manage their estate in Los Angeles, as well as this beach house in Malibu. Every two weeks, far more often than his employers, Peele makes the 45-minute drive to the beachfront home. Once there, he runs every faucet for 15 minutes, flushes every toilet and lights every fireplace, so that the house comes maniacally alive; he checks the coffee maker, toaster, televisions and the laptop, inspects the exterior paint job, eyeballs the pipes, advises the landscapers on how to brighten the floral mix, consults with whatever workman is on the job and finally, shortly before leaving, he hits the StairMaster.

“It’s a lot of work,” said Peele, a tall 42-year-old with a boyishly handsome face. The machine whirred as Peele, in a polo shirt and Jack Purcell sneakers, climbed steadily. “Sometimes I wonder if they see it. I hope they see it. I don’t know.” He was panting just a bit. “You know, you hope that they do.”
Peele is one of perhaps 1,000 or so estate managers who oversee properties and staff for some of the country’s wealthiest individuals, in his case, the manager of an investment firm based in Los Angeles. When his employers give parties, Peele greets guests, butler-style, at the door of the family’s 10,000-square-foot Mediterranean-type villa home in Los Angeles, but he also oversees the installation of their security systems and chooses the vendor who will restore their art should that be needed. Peele thinks of himself as “holding the keys to the kingdom.” He also color-coordinates the keys and labels them. “A label maker is an estate manager’s best friend,” Peele said, showing off an impeccably organized desk drawer.
Money cannot protect even the truly wealthy from sickness, marital strife or ungrateful children, but it can buy other certainties: the certainty, for example, that when the N.F.L. playoffs start, the batteries in the remote will work, because someone like Peele will have checked them that morning, as well as every other morning that week. Money shields their eyes from lawn furniture that is anything less than symmetrically arranged. Being a member of the 1 percent of the 1 percent means never having to say to your spouse, “Did you call the guy about the thing?” The guy has been called; the thing has been arranged, thanks to someone like Bryan Peele.
Part of the fascination of the television series “Downton Abbey” for an American rests in the clarity of the class lines, the acceptance with which everyone plays out his role — servant or master — as dictated by birth. The modern American estate manager, however, has a less clearly defined relationship to a life of service: as the manager of at least one or two properties, encompassing many square feet, he or she is someone who is sophisticated enough to run, say, a luxury boutique hotel but who chooses instead to serve a celebrity or financier or entrepreneur, accepting the deference the job entails.
Few people plan to be estate managers. A young person who likes boating might take a summer job helping out on a yacht, then end up managing the yacht staff and, eventually, the owner’s homes. Many estate managers start out as private chefs: someone who can keep a luxury island home 200 miles from the mainland stocked with crème fraîche and bottles of 1982 Pétrus naturally slides into the role of keeping it supplied with 600-thread-count sheets. Peele started out managing the home of the wealthy brother of a friend and eventually moved into higher-profile roles. He developed his expertise by living in high style himself for close to a decade. Born into a middle-class family in North Carolina, Peele spent most of his 20s involved and working with an older man who ran a high-end interior-design business. The two of them lived lavishly, traveling on the Orient Express, taking balloon rides over the French countryside, horseback riding through Fontainebleau. “I remember being on the QE2, in one of those suites that came with its own 24-hour butler,” Peele said. “And I remember thinking, The bathroom fixtures are so shiny, they’re like mirrors. How do they get them so shiny?” Now he knows: Brasso and elbow grease.
The relationship ended badly, leaving Peele practically broke, but he had developed the high standards that would serve him well in his future line of work. He has standards for everything: packing his boss’s suitcase (with white acid-free tissue paper) and how he refers to his boss (as his principal). But he also has standards for himself, which is why he no longer works for a music professional who asked him on the morning of New Year’s Eve to organize a formal dinner party that evening for 60 guests, one of whom was Lady Gaga. Peele pulled it off but wasn’t sure he could keep up with that pace indefinitely.
Peele has worked for employers who screamed and threw things; his current employer, he said, is unfailingly polite and appreciative. “Every estate manager starts out wanting to work for a celebrity,” Peele explained. “Then they get a little more experience. Then all they want is a good family.”
The day of the visit to Malibu, Peele learned that an elderly person who was close to his employers had died. He seemed pained by the loss and thought for some time about what to do before deciding to send flowers to his employers, along with a card from the rest of the staff: the cook, the nanny, the maids and the houseman who handles odd jobs on the property. When he finally crossed paths with the principal’s wife, a slender woman with a thoughtful manner, he embraced her, with tears in his eyes. She smiled, touched and a little bit taken aback by his emotion.
“When I went in to interview for this job, I thought I was getting a position, but I really got a family in return,” Peele told me several times over the course of the few days we spent together. It is a strange kind of family dynamic, however, one in which the family’s needs and feelings are paramount in his mind, and his, to them, are largely invisible. He is close enough to the elementary-school-age daughter that she begs him to come to her recitals or swim meets, and he does. “But then once I get there, I’m a little uncomfortable,” Peele admitted. He tries to anticipate the family’s every need and leaves his phone on, beside him, every night in his own apartment, just in case something arises. He almost never sits down to a meal with the family — in fact, if the house is full, he has a small card table in the garage where he sometimes dines alone. “It’s a funny thing,” he said. “I’m not even comfortable with them seeing me eat. I don’t know where that comes from.”
And yet those firm boundaries are probably, in part, what makes the household where Peele works run smoothly. “It’s not a job I recommend that a lot of people pursue,” says David Gonzalez, founder of the Domestic Placement Network, which serves a small community of extremely wealthy individuals. “It requires the ability to compartmentalize — it’s your professional duty to sublimate your own needs, to care about someone else’s desires and happiness, and that’s hard for a lot of people.” There is another reason he does not recommend the job: billionaires are not the easiest employers, particularly new, young ones. “We see a lot of people who are resentful,” Gonzalez said, “who see it as an intrusion on their privacy. I kind of have to say to them, ‘Sorry, if you’re going to build yourself a private village, someone has to drive the Zamboni.’ ”
The couple for whom Peele works are not new to money, which eases some of the tensions of having a stranger in their space. They wished to keep their identity private but answered questions about Peele, because he was then active in an association of estate managers, and they wanted to accommodate his desire to bring attention to the profession. But the principal and his wife, generally, seem to manage Peele’s presence by keeping it pleasantly remote. “I like that he goes shopping for me, because that is something I don’t care to do,” the principal said. “I like that I go to the gym, and my gym bag is already in the trunk of the car.” His wife, a mother of three with an advanced degree, interacts more frequently with Peele but knew little of his personal life, including whether he was in a relationship. He had never told her about the high-flying chapter of his life. She seemed fond of him, but the relationship was professional.
“Here’s what I see in Bryan,” she said. “The deal is you can work really hard to be successful — there’s no ceiling on that, that’s not a privilege afforded to just a few.” She tried to clarify her point, which was not, it turned out, a bromide about how anyone could get rich with a little hard work; it was that anyone could find satisfaction in performing at a high level in his chosen field, whatever that was. “It’s like, Bryan might work for us,” she said, “but in his world, he’s a superstar.”
As head of the Los Angeles Domestic Estate Managers Association, a position Peele held for two years, he tried to connect estate managers by holding events like one I attended in June. About 100 D.E.M.A. members, as well as those who stood to benefit from an association with the association, drove to a house in Bel-Air where two young women on stilts juggled and smiled beneath glittering eye masks. The 10,000-square-foot house overlooking the San Fernando Valley was for sale, which is why the real estate agent agreed to let it be used for the event: maybe someone would mention it to an employer who would take it off her hands.
The guests were a collection of people whose jobs cater to an ultrahigh-net-worth clientele. One woman standing by a table showing off her goods tried to explain what she did. “You know how jewelry boxes are seamlessly lined with that soft, velvety material?” she said. “I provide that in people’s closets and shelves.” She had been doing that for one home so large it kept her employed for more than a year.
People exchanged business cards and war stories. Matthew Haack, D.E.M.A.’s president, said he had received calls from estate managers desperate for advice: how could they get their hands on the best hunting dog in a matter of hours? A fully staffed yacht in a matter of days? Some were asked to buy presents for mistresses in between running errands for the wife. Peele sometimes looks back at how he once made demands on service people and shudders. In some ways, this role suits him better. “I am definitely an approval seeker,” he said. “I need that pat on the back.”
Back at the house in Malibu, where he was putting the StairMaster through its paces, Peele certainly seemed to be enjoying his work. He suddenly jumped off and dashed toward the balcony. “There they are!” he cried out. “The dolphins. Now my day is just made.” He marveled at the glint of their fins in the water and looked up to see a pod of pelicans in the air. The view belonged to him as much as it belonged to anybody, the birds moving in their perfect V, pleasingly symmetrical. Peele could not have arranged them better himself. Content, he got back on the StairMaster and continued his climb.

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