April 2, 2008
Butlers, those discreet keepers of regal mansions and family secrets, dress impeccably and speak with proper British accents. They have names like Jeeves and Benson, and in movies they're played by actors like Anthony Hopkins and John Gielgud. That's why "Canadian butler" seems-like "Saudi defenceman" or "Moroccan lumberjack"- an oxymoron.
Things are changing. Beginning in April, at the Galiano Inn in the Gulf Islands, a dozen carefully screened aspirants will spend six intensive weeks learning how to butle (if only it were a verb). "They'll be instructed by Olivier Lepetit," says Linda Samis, the spike-haired, 57-year-old Energizer bunny behind Butlers of Canada. "Olivier has worked all over the world, for the emir of Qatar, Sting, the Flick family [heirs to the Mercedes-Benz fortune] in Germany, the Arnault family in France, and British royals. He lives in Paris with his wife and four-year-old son. It says a lot that he's willing to come to Galiano Island to train the candidates we've accepted into the program."
Those trainees are men and women of diverse ages and backgrounds who've paid $20,000 for the course, anticipating a handsome return when they accept their first six-figure-salary posting. A typical placement fee is half a year's earnings, so Samis will not lack for motivation in her efforts to place graduates.
There have never been more billionaires on the planet, and their numbers are expected to keep growing as globalization sorts the world more distinctly into haves and have-nots; apparently there's now a worldwide dearth of qualified people to serve them. "I use the word ‘butler', but we're really talking about the CEO of a household or multiple households," says Samis,a St. Paul's Hospital-born divorced mother of two who's travelled widely and combines cheeky nationalism with global entrepreneurship. "Billionaires are looking for people of character, people who can think on their feet, people who can manage a staff and a budget." Why Canadian butlers? Because English is the language of choice among the ultra-wealthy, she points out, and Canadians are known to speak "properly accented" English.
The super-rich travel frequently, and a Canadian passport is probably the most respected in the world. "When you think about it," says Samis, " ‘Canadian' and ‘butler' actually fit together very nicely."
Samis worked at IBM, for a Calgary property developer, and in ad sales at CKNW before focusing on her own ventures. "I'm an only child, so I've always figured the world should revolve around me, and I had lots of time and imagination to dream up stuff, which I've been doing since I was about two. I love doing things people tell me can't be done." Which is partly why, in 2005, she launched Canaqua, a line of premium, calcium-rich bottled water that she marketed in 15 countries-but not in North America. (A 450-millilitre bottle costs about $15 in Paris.)
"People said, ‘Are you crazy? How can you run a business here if you don't market the product here?' I said, ‘We have lots of water in this part of the world. Doesn't it make sense to market it where they don't?'
"We take for granted what we have," she adds. "Only after you spend time in other parts of the world and absorb other people's perceptions of this country do you realize how lucky we are and what a great brand Canada is. The qualities that people in Singapore or Saudi Arabia want in a butler-competence, honesty, discretion, reliability, diligence-these are all qualities they associate with the word ‘Canadian.' In many parts of the world, of course, corruption is a way of life.
"The perception is that Canadians don't even know how to be corrupt-although lately it seems some of our politicians have been trying to change that."
Samis is in talks with local film companies about a reality show that will follow the butlers-in-training through their paces and into their first posting. The idea is not to show behind-the-scenes catfights and teary breakdowns, but to educate people about exactly what skills and qualities go into this line of work. "The film people think they'll be able to sell the show all over the world. Imagine the exposure it'll give to Galiano Island, and B.C., and Canada in general."
She's also accepting pitches for product placement on the show. "We'll only be featuring the finest Canadian cheese, wine, salmon, maple syrup, and so on. I just got a call from a national jeweller who's interested, and I explained to him that we'd only consider conflict-free Canadian diamonds."
Who aspires to be a butler? "You'd be surprised," says Samis. "The interest comes from people in all walks and stages of life, from kids in their twenties to retirees. We have a South African-born woman in her fifties; a very successful real-estate agent here in town who's looking for a career change; a young woman who's working as a butler right now in Vancouver and wants to upgrade her skills; a young man who's the son of diplomats and has travelled the world-he's currently working as a personal assistant in the film industry; and a Canadian gentleman living in Paris who expects he'll get a better position if he's able to say he's been trained in service by a Canadian company."
Samis's ultimate goal is to make "Canadian butler" as generic and apt a term as "French chef" or "Swiss banker." She says, "I've had people get in touch from Bulgaria, Germany, and Russia, wanting to do the training. But I tell them, ‘If you're not a Canadian citizen, sorry. We're not calling this Butlers of Canada for nothing.' "