The Performer: Charles MacPherson, butler

On the importance of discretion, expecting the unexpected and the real definition of luxury.

(Photo: Matt Barnes)

When Charles P. MacPherson left the catering business to become a butler for a prominent Toronto family, all he knew about the profession was what he’d learned from pop culture. He soon realized that there was more to the job than answering the door. After 10 years as a major-domo (the head of a household staff), MacPherson launched his own concierge business and became an international household-management consultant. He has since opened an academy in Toronto, currently North America’s only registered school for butlers and household managers. He spoke with Canadian Business associate editor Jacqueline Nelson.

Born: 09/08/64
Families served as a major-domo: 1
Household staff under his supervision: 30
Number of countries in which he’s taught butlering: 16
Worldwide male-female ratio among household staff: 50/50
Percentage of butlers worldwide who are male: 90%

How does the role of the modern-day butler differ from the archetype?
Many people think a butler is an elitist thing, because of the cost. But I think that a good butler is a lot like an executive assistant. Thinking someone is “just the secretary” is the biggest mistake anyone could make in business, because the executive assistant not only has the power to get you an appointment, she has her employer’s ear. The butler is the same thing in the household. A professional butler is such a good facilitator, and makes everything happen so seamlessly, that his presence is less noticeable when he’s in the room then when he’s absent.

What’s a butler’s most important trait?
At my school, I teach that it’s the ability to anticipate, but the butler who is curious and who has the thirst for knowledge is the butler who has a great career. You need to know a little about everything, so that when someone turns to you and says, “Charles, where’s Nigeria?” you can tell him. You don’t need to know the specifics, but you need to know basic geography, language and protocol. You need to have an understanding of life.

You didn’t go to a butler school, so why start one?
I felt that I had a method that was very different. Too many of the schools out there today are focused on the glamour of the job. While other schools are housed in old mansions or castles, I built mine in a warehouse that can be set up for a dining table or a place to iron. I wanted to offer a foundation in the basic skills that can be translated into any household. If you don’t know how to vacuum or make a bed at least as well or better than the housekeeper, then no one will respect you as a manager. And how can you supervise a housekeeper if you don’t know what she’s supposed to be doing, or how she’s supposed to be doing it?

There is some glamour to the job, though, right?
I’ve sat and had tea with the prime minister. I’ve seen celebrities, presidents and captains of industry. It’s exciting to participate in that. There is no royal family, no head of government or movie star that can survive without us running their private lives. To be in the White House or Buckingham Palace and to watch history unfold is an incredible privilege. But you must keep your mouth shut, or you won’t be a butler for long.

Are there any jobs you’d refuse to do?
The only thing a butler should say no to is anything illegal. If the housekeeper has a cold and can’t come to work, you must be able to step in. And I respect those people and what they do. A good housekeeper in a professional family may be taking care of artifacts that are of museum quality, and she’s worth her weight in gold. Not everyone can clean.

What’s a common mistake you see new butlers make?
There are three things that must be done every day: the toilets have to be washed, the beds have to be made and dinner must be served on time. Doesn’t matter if you catalogue the library and wash the car, if you can’t get those three things done every day then you don’t have a job. The unprofessional butler forgets the basics.
I see myself as a professional, and I’m proud of what I do. I make a good living, and I employ people, and I know there are people who can’t survive without me. As Oscar de la Renta once taught me, we think of luxury as something with a dollar value, but that isn’t really luxury. Luxury is a feeling. You could be on a beach in a hut with a tiny cup of coffee, but I could make you feel that it was the most luxurious cup of coffee you’d ever had in your life. I try to pass that on to my students. It’s not the thread count of the bed sheets, or whether it’s a Picasso on the wall, it’s about how we make you feel.

What’s the most challenging part of the job?
There are two things. When problems hit the fan, it can be hard to prioritize what’s important. But I think the most challenging part is the solitude. Often, you’re in the house by yourself, or the other staff are all busy working. There aren’t necessarily other colleagues to interact with, so it can be lonely.

How did you stay motivated through that?
You see incredible things. I’ve served afternoon tea to the heads of two corporations and thought, “Hmm, this seems strange”—and then two weeks later there’s a merger between the two companies. You could never ask about it, but you were a part of history. It’s exciting and a great privilege, and I focused on that.

A butler must deal with a lot of stressful situations.
It’s the butler’s job to solve problems before they become problems for the employer, but sometimes that can be stressful. I’m not a wedding planner, but I had one client who asked me to plan her daughter’s wedding. On the big day, the bishop asked what was on the dinner menu. When I told him, he said, “I’ll be there.” I stood on the steps of the cathedral and thought, “My God, what have I done?” We had no space for him. But at the appropriate moment, I approached the mother of the bride and said, “Not to worry, I’ll have him seated to your right, and I’ll make the place setting fit.” She was relieved and went on with the day. By evening, it was as if it has always been planned. It’s important not to pass your stress on to your employer.

Do you ever feel pressured to offer emotional guidance or support?
It happens, but a good butler gets himself out of it by quickly changing the direction of the conversation, while still making the employer feel you were there for them. We’re not trained psychologists. There’s a line, and employers will cross it, and that’s OK—you deal with it—but you can never cross the line the other way. It’s unprofessional. It’s like the United Nations—you need to make everyone feel like they’ve won while keeping the peace.