At Your Disservice

These student butlers got served.

And one of the people most responsible for this development was an unlikely entrepreneur named Mary Starkey, the Atlantic article noted. In 1990, Starkey, the daughter of a well-off South Dakota family and divorced mother of two, had decided it was time to move beyond the Denver cleaning service she'd built out of a housecleaning job she'd taken years earlier to make ends meet. She'd created the term "household managers," then designed a one-of-a-kind school, Starkey International, to generate them. "We produce butlers, American-style," she announced at the time. "What I am trying to do is set an industry standard." And she did.

Starkey now says she's graduated more than 1,000 certified household managers, and news reports and books cite her business's annual revenues at upwards of $2 million. Starkey International's website mentions Starkey textbooks, Starkey software, Starkey seminars around the world, an annual Starkey-sponsored industry conference and Starkey military training for four-star generals' enlisted aides. Former Starkey staffers say there was even talk of a Starkey reality series. "I don't consider myself anything but a female who for 27 years has gone after creating a profession," says Starkey. "There would not be an industry without me."

To Muller, that industry sounded ideal. The article noted that a recent Starkey International graduate had landed a $125,000-a-year job in the industry, and Muller says that the school admissions counselor he called after returning from vacation confirmed that he could find a similar position if he went through the program. Muller made a comparable amount as a Florida-based software company consultant, but he was ready for a change. As an officer on a naval warship, he'd enjoyed serving the personal needs of the captain — knowing when his superior needed his coffee or how to coordinate an on-board meeting with a visiting VIP. He'd lost that pride of personal service in the corporate world, and this seemed a way to get it back. "When you are working for a corporation, it's hard to put a dollar value on what you are providing for the company," he says. "As a household manager or personal assistant for a person of means, I don't see it as demeaning at all. I think it is more realistic. Your place and impact is very clear."

Skip Muller poses with the puppets that stood in for wealthy clients during butler training.
Skip Muller poses with the puppets that stood in for wealthy clients during butler training.
After an encounter with Mary Starkey, Lisa Kirkpatrick went to the hospital — and called the police.
After an encounter with Mary Starkey, Lisa Kirkpatrick went to the hospital — and called the police.




to hear excerpts of the February 7 school meeting in which Mary Louise Starkey explained some of the finer point of the service industry and shed some light on the alleged incident between her and student Lisa Kirkpatrick that day.

"People like this are service hearts. They want to please. They want to learn, they want to be the best of the best," says Gail Hamilton, a former Starkey employee who now co-owns Feigon Hamilton Partnership, a domestic and corporate staffing firm based in Colorado and Nevada. "A lot of them are following their bliss into private service because they have discovered that their happiest moments have been in their own homes, puttering around, working on their garden, cleaning and caring for their guests. It's almost like taking nesting to another level."

Muller decided to follow his bliss and enrolled at Starkey International for the eight-week session that began at the start of this year.

Service is defined as 'the act of meeting a specific expectation,'" Mary Starkey wrote in an article about luxury hospitality published online last year. "When that special experience of service occurs, everyone knows it. There is an endorphin kind of feeling felt by both the giver and the receiver that is unmistakable and unforgettable."

But there was no endorphin rush when Muller arrived at the Starkey Mansion. The 13,000-square-foot building sat squeezed between parking lots and offices just down the street from a seedy stretch of Colfax Avenue. The double bedrooms on the second floor looked to be furnished with old and mismatched bed linens, the halls were dotted with mousetraps and the heating system seemed nonexistent on that cold January day. For the first meal, staff served microwaved pizza and soda in the grand dining room. Later, when the students had several meals in a row involving nothing but carbohydrates, they remembered that initial dinner fondly. Muller and his eleven classmates wondered about the $13,272 they'd paid for the eight-week course — especially the $1,960 reportedly dedicated to meals.

"The mansion that was described as luxurious was downright scruffy," says Karen Murphy, a student in that class. "I know how much food costs, and we aren't getting anywhere near that. Where was the rest of money going?"

Muller and his fellow students might have overlooked their high-priced yet shabby surroundings if the Starkey Household Management system seemed worth the price — but many soon concluded that it wasn't. While they'd been told that the majority of a household manager's job involved professional administrative tasks, they claim that most of their training seemed little more than basic housekeeping. Short lessons on contract negotiations were eclipsed by endless hours of unsupervised cooking and cleaning, they say. A half-day discussion on estate security was overshadowed by numerous military-style drills on the "Ballet of Service" routine — an old-fashioned formal dining presentation more appropriate for butlers of the first Gilded Age. And while an appointment at a local art-conservation business seemed a relevant use of the $520 ascribed from each tuition check to field trips and specialty classes, many students scratched their heads over a trip to the Cherry Creek Shopping Center to visit Burberry and Louis Vuitton stores. "It was really embarrassing to be paraded around as a group of adults and have people point out stores to you," says student Natasha Madison. "The culinary section of the course could have been valuable, but they just threw us into the kitchen and told us to prepare a recipe list and a grocery list. There were people who had never boiled a pot of water. People were cutting themselves. There were some hygiene issues."

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