Martin Higgins is an incredible person with that British legendary elegance transpiring from his impeccable manners, smile and kindness. It is easy to understand how he built his successful career managing households in different countries, training domestic staff and now running House Martin of London, a company handling all aspects of effective household organisation and has just launched an astounding piece of software for household management.
We met with him in St James's Park near our offices and most of all where he started his prodigious career: Buckingham Palace.
His professional story began at the age of 21 when he became a member of the Royal Household at Buckingham Palace training as a footman and under butler with the best of the best.
“I recall the moment I received the letter from Buckingham Palace requesting that I attend an interview. It all happened very quickly and was quite a surreal moment! The interview consisted of a brief tour through the service areas of the Palace, including the Silver, Glass and China pantries, followed by a rather intimidating interview with the then Master of The Household, Sir Michael Timms. I was led through a myriad of corridors and staircases to reach his office on The Principle Floor and I will never forget walking through the magnificent Ball Supper Room which was at the time, being used by a small army of craftsmen as a workshop to restore the gilding and replace the silk upholstery on a series of magnificent gilded sofas.”
Being part of the first household in Britain is surely an extremely challenging position that forges a personality.
“The Royal Household revolves around trust. So discretion and honesty are 2 of the most important qualities, which will of course carry you through life. During my tenure, I was privileged to work with some of the most incredible pieces of silver, gilt, crystal and porcelain in an environment containing some of the finest antiques and artwork in the World. I was humbled to meet some of the most important people in Society. Consequently, in any position I have held since, I have never been phased by meeting a Head of State or celebrity or felt nervous upon handling a precious object, as the experience I gained prepared me for almost any eventuality. You must remain professional at all times and show loyalty and respect, not only to your Sovereign, but also to all your colleagues to ensure the household always runs smoothly and harmoniously.”
How is it to start working in such a prestigious household?
“Interestingly, when I first started at Buckingham Palace back in 1990, no official training in neither protocol nor the finer elements of service was given. Now, I believe there is a course in place. So upon meeting members of the family or other dignitaries you were somewhat thrown in at the deep end, but of course you learnt quickly and any faux pas were few and far between.
I do recall, on the occasion of a State Banquet, the pressure was on. As a footman, you would be not only serving at the banquet and other events associated with the 5 day visit, but looking after several guests too. This would involve, unpacking their luggage upon arrival and valeting duties several times a day, often when you had a few moments between courses. Consequently, you would often see footmen literally running like crazy through the gilded corridors from the dining room to the bedroom floor in full State Livery to collect several pairs of shoes and clothing to be polished and pressed respectively, to return to the dining room in time to clear and serve the next course! No easy feat, especially as the distances and obstacles to navigate were challenging! However in retrospect, this installed a sense of urgency and the importance of time management, essential in running any household.”
After Buckingham Palace you went to work through Europe for an elite clientele. Could you tell us a bit about this part of your life and about your work?
“I left The Palace after accepting the position of Chief Steward on board a 52 metre private motor yacht for one of the Doge Families of Venice. I was responsible for the Interior along with my 2nd Steward, which involved all housekeeping duties and formal meal service. We were a great team and I stayed in that position for about a year, during which time I installed the highest standards which were exacting. Consequently, we adopted a number of time saving ‘short-cuts’ to achieve them. For example, to avoid leaving footprints on the carpets when guests were on board, we would ‘hop’ from silk rug to silk rug. However, this may have been counterproductive as we then needed to keep a comb in our back pocket to straighten the fringes. Though we did become rather adept at flicking them back to achieve the same result in half the time!
In those days, ‘pre-Internet’, you had to be pretty resourceful too. Trying to find the best local markets and flower stalls in some of the most remote locations to provision early morning to be back on board to organize lunch was just as much a game of nerves, as it was a race against time!
I realized that a life on the ocean wave wasn’t really for me, so I accepted a position as Under Butler for a lovely family based in Henley on Thames. There were a core crew of 4 of us who travelled with the family to their various residences around the World. We would generally travel in advance and help set up and work with the skeleton staff that were based there.
Consequently, we were all very flexible and turned our hand to almost any task required; this not only cemented the team, but allowed us to understand each other’s roles and how vital effective communication is to ensure the smooth running and harmony within the household, especially between different time zones, languages and cultures.
My next position took me to Manhattan, where I was the Butler/Chief of Staff for a New York Philanthropist. We had met in Paris, where I had practically interviewed her to grasp as much information about the position as I could. This was another challenging role, as the principle had previously engaged 11 butlers in the same amount of months! However, as testament to the interview, we were a great pairing, and even though her standards were high, mine were higher!”
So, after almost ten years working as Chief of Staff for this prominent New York Family, where you were in charge of their various residences around The U.S., you returned to London and concentrated your efforts to run and manage the various estates for another UHNW family. Could you tell us a bit more of the challenges you faced during that time running their multiple residences?
“Well, after 10 years in America, it was time to return home. I had always loved London and I wanted to make it my home. A very dear friend had suggested we get together and create the World’s first online recruitment site for domestic staff. This we did, and from it found I found this position.
My new principal's wealth and status was growing, so I not only assisted in setting up many of their significant new estates, alongside the Interior design team, but sourced and trained their key and operational staff too. Organizing a rapidly expanding inventory across multiple residences, of not only art and furniture, but linens, tableware, and of course all manner of toiletries and so forth was not only problematic but very time consuming. For example, 4 or 5 estates with a minimum of 10 bathrooms, equate to 40 – 50 bathrooms to stock every season!
We had all manner of physical and online files for the inventories, purchase orders, supplier accounts, to do lists, staff details and so forth on many different systems and apps that I almost needed my own PA to organize it all! Managing the key personnel in their estates in New York, Beverly Hills and Europe from London took up so much time. There was a constant stream of information to pass on and emails to respond too in a timely fashion in the various time zones, not to mention regular updates to the Principles to keep them continually updated and informed. Looking back, the software program we have built would have solved all these issues and many more, and in so doing, increased staff efficiency tremendously and kept the Principles informed at all times."
And then, you decided to create House Martin of London is that right? and can you tell us a bit more about why you decided to start this company and the services you provide?
“I was ready to start a new chapter in my life and wanted to try and give back. My aim was to offer my advice from years of experience in the Domestic Service Industry, to both Principles and their members of staff, to help them create harmony within their Households. I wanted to do this by preventing and resolving the many common problems that seem to occur in most every home. This could involve anything from training any existing staff in areas that they may perhaps be weak, such as the finer elements of service, correcting their posture, etiquette and so forth, to time management and improving communication and instruction.
Having also worked alongside many top Interior designers, including Mark Hampton, Peter Marino and Michael Smith, all geniuses in their field, I would make their beautiful interiors into workable homes. This may include anything from organising storage areas and laundry rooms and even redesigning other service areas, to fully staffing and equipping a residence down to tea towels and toothpicks, so it’s 100% ready for the Principles’ to simply walk in.”
In your book: ‘From Chaos to Calm” published last year, you explain with great simplicity how to best create and maintain a perfectly run household. Surely this comes all from your own experience, but could you share with us what, in your view, is the most important advice you could give to someone creating or running a luxurious household nowadays?
“I certainly can! To be an effective leader, whether you are the Household Manager, PA or the Principle, the most important factor to remember, is to always respect every member of your staff. Equally, it is so important to ensure you engage the right staff to begin with. In this book I have tried to impart the knowledge I have gained over 30 years in the Industry.”
Have you seen any changes on what’s required from a household ‘manager’ compared with when you started?
“Most definitely. Employers’ standards and expectations have been raised significantly over the years, and are looking for much higher levels of organisation and accountability. Looking back, Principles would have trusted their staff more and valued their opinion more, but with so much information now available on the internet, everyone can be an ‘expert’. As an example, it can literally take seconds to find a suitable wine and best vintage to pair with any dish, whereas only a few years ago, it was solely the domain of a top sommelier. Consequently, with this information available, household managers are expected to be experts in almost every field to get ahead. They need to be able to have all the information literally at their fingertips at any time. Time is the one asset that is most in demand. Employers expect much higher levels of efficiency and productivity than ever before.
Traveling more, more properties, spoiled kids etc. The goal of this question is to show it’s now a bigger challenge and therefore, people need the House Martin App."
Today Martin is about to launch an incredible app for household management: The House Martin App. We had the opportunity to have a peak at this app to see what it can do, and we really love it. The software is designed to be a sort of digital PA for household management; to bring together on a single platform, all the information usually scattered across many notebooks, spreadsheets and post-its. A single app to manage staff, calendars, inventories, wine cellars, trips and much much more.
How did the idea of a household management app start Martin?
“Having managed many multiple Estates, I always found that poor communication was the main reason that problems occurred. Keeping on top of so much important information coming from many different sources as well as all other key details such as gate codes, wi-fi passwords, event details, menus, whereabouts of various acquisitions and so on and so forth was problematic, any of which could be asked for by your Principle at any given moment.
As we all know, if the Principle asks us a question they expect us to know the answer there and then. If we can’t give them that answer or give them the wrong answer it very much undermines their confidence in our performance. However, I thought how great would it be, instead of having to ask, they could access any piece of information they wanted to wherever they are at whatever time on a single platform, and better still, if any member of staff could do the same.
So much time is wasted by stopping the task in hand to answer the phone in order to relay important information – which many times changes over the course of the day, so that you can never properly focus on the task in hand. Consequently, your efficiency is greatly diminished. And for the Principle, they may be on an important business trip in a country with an opposing time zone, so reaching their PA for vital information would never be immediate unless they were up in the early hours.”
Can you tell us more about the app and how it will benefit household managers and of course household owners?
“The app has so many advantages. We have designed it with my 30 years’ experience of knowing where the many pit falls lie, not only in the organization and synchronicity between multiple estates, but also in communication and time management. For the smaller household, it may actually alleviate the need to employ a PA; as the Principle could easily manage all their household information effortlessly - any time, any place and anywhere. If they so desire, we can happily input all their initial data for them, so they can start running with it from the getko.
For larger households, the aim is to prevent critical information falling down the cracks. We have built it, so the entire family and staff can access the app whenever and wherever they may be, and add and update their critical data. Nothing can be deleted so your inventories and all other data are lock tight. Any member of staff who leaves for whatever reason, can have their access removed immediately so no data can be deleted or manipulated.
As you have full access to the very user friendly system, transitioning with new staff will become much smoother as the system of organising your data will not change and it will be very easy for them to flow into, and much less training will be required, especially if they have come from a home using the same system!
I have experienced in most every household, communication between both key and operational staff can be very time consuming. Interpretation can cause just as many issues as keeping abreast of updates, especially travel itineraries and other data which can often change by the hour. If everyone uses the app and relies on it for updates, then as long as those responsible keep the data current, it will elleviate the need for constant SMS messages, emails and phone calls to inform everyone, which can repeatedly disrupt your day and reduce your output. Many times for the sake of urgency, full itineraries are updated and forwarded to all parties, so it becomes almost impossible to know what part of the itinerary has been changed, without reviewing the entire document leading to missing the key element that has changed.”
One of the features of the House Martin App we love, is of course the Travel feature as we well know, how challenging it can be to arrange a trip. Could you tell us a bit more about this feature?
“Arranging trips for our clients or Principles involves many elements, and as we all know, even if an itinerary was arranged at a moment’s notice, any or every aspect of the trip could change a multitude of times before taking place. Keeping track of the most current version of the itinerary and keeping everyone informed can be a full time job in itself.
We have built in the app a travel section, into which you can include any of your contacts, as well as your staff members who will be involved with any part of the trip’s organisation.
All the voyagers’ details will be available at the touch of a button, so you can send their passports to the pilot, or advise the flight crew or hotel of any food intolerances or likes and dislikes.
All the trip information can be included in their itinerary. Details such as tail numbers, flight schedules and contact numbers for the drivers, pilots and contacts at the various hotels they may have booked. The itinerary can be accessed by anyone involved with the trip, and accompanying to do lists for staff members can be added to their diary and reminders scheduled, all on a single platform. We have also included direct links for our prefered partners, those companies that we trust implicitly, such as ‘Ariodante’ that we feel our clients can benefit from greatly.”
As we are always curious, can you tell us a bit about your current and future projects?
“Well, my passion and expertise is in creating harmony within households. I am currently involved with several ongoing projects, ranging from training a couple of clients’ staff in the finer elements of service and etiquette, to putting together a new residence for another client here in London. I often travel to the various estates of my clients and assist in managing their staff and ensuring everything flows smoothly. I am actually quite honoured, as the welcome I receive upon arrival from both family and staff is wonderful, and very reassuring as I am told I give both sides of the proverbial ‘green baize door’ the confidence that when I am there, all will be well!
I am always available should anyone need my advice or assistance to create harmony in their own home; as my book title suggests…. ‘From Chaos to Calm’.”
House of Martin App is already available. To know more about it and if you are interested in trialling it you can visit the official website: www.HouseMartin.App
You can find Martin Higgins’ book: ‘From Chaos to Calm’ in libraries and online on Amazon