Midtown Staffing Firm Finds Elite Assistants for City's Kingmakers
MIDTOWN — It's not every day your boss asks you to hold one of her eggs in a test tube.
But in 2009, an assistant to one of the most powerful women in the world stood there in an examination room, grasping her employer's future son in the palm of her hand — even as the head honcho's own husband made himself scarce.
"My former boss was trying have a child via IVF," the assistant recounted in an email, referring to in vitro fertilization.
"I physically had to hold a human egg in the test tube for five minutes and stay by her side during every injection/shot/doctors visit when her husband wouldn't," the assistant, who asked not to be identified, added.
Scheduler, confidante, even surrogate spouse — executive and personal assistants are called upon to fill all those roles, often around the clock.
And despite an industry-wide downturn for executive assistants — from about 1.4 million positions in 1999, the last year for which U.S. Department of Labor data on executive assistants is available, to just over 800,000 in 2012 — demand for elite executive and personal assistants has shown no sign of abating.
“It's its own little microcosm of the job market,” said Chantal “Taly” Russell, 41, founder of SilverChair Partners, a Midtown boutique firm that matches assistants with the titans of finance, fashion, media, technology and industry.
SilverChair's client list ranges from doctors and mid-level finance gurus to newsmakers whose collective bank account would outstrip parts of the Euro Zone: Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson, George Soros, David Rockwell, Lloyd Blankfein, Bob Pittman, Diddy, Caroline Kennedy, Leon Black, Rex Ryan, Laurence Fink, Bill Ackman, Woody Johnson, Tom Freston, Georgina Chapman, Bob Weinstein, Nancy Peretsman and Bill Bradley.
“Our job market is never correlated — and I mean never — to what we see in the assistant world. A mid-level person at a private equity firm, at a bank, at that level, people will be more grateful for a position and handle a certain level of difficulty. But at the highest levels, things haven’t changed. Even now, there are still not enough great candidates for these jobs.”
And those jobs are lucrative: An assistant with a bachelor's degree and several years of experience can wind up earning anywhere from $90,000 to $180,000, depending whether they are expected to work around the clock and if they live in their bosses' home.
Russell, a former Hollywood casting director and Conde Nast booking editor, spent nine years at a larger firm before striking out on her own with colleagues Erica Ritchie, 38, and Melissa Cannata, 32.
The firm works in a cloistered world, comprised of executives with sensitive egos embarrassed to admit they lost or need an assistant; and assistants, often terrified of their bosses' wrath, discreetly seeking new positions.
"If someone who's quietly looking to leave, and if, say, a Bill Gates found out, he wouldn't be so happy," Russell said. "That's why these assistants can't post their resumes. That's why they can't make it so public."
And there are other reasons for discretion: The same boardroom barons who post billions in profits may also forget their home addresses, berate subordinates, or expose their assistants to intimate secrets — all on top of the intense demands of their daily schedules.
"I was coordinating three different girlfriends and one wife while all of them called on a daily basis," an assistant said in a email. "I didn't think any of them were right for him, and I just wanted them all to go away, but I kept quiet and kept them all in order — all calm and mostly not aware of each other."
Others recalled going three days "without sleep while staying by my boss's side to make sure he ate three meals a day, drank enough water, took his meds, walked his dogs who had taken up residence at the office, all while he was in the middle of closing a huge merger."
One even moved to India for four months.
"My boss didn’t think he could get through the deal without me actually there," the assistant said. "My boyfriend broke up with me and I had to give my cat away, but I didn’t think twice."
Indeed, assistants say they welcome the challenges — even if they mean coring, peeling and precisely slicing apples in equal sizes, filling out kindergarten essays, or making intense personal sacrifices.
"You spend 70 percent of your life with these people, it's much more than you spend with your family. You develop a loyalty," explained John Allen Pierce, 32, an executive assistant who has worked in the industry since graduating college. "I've been lucky enough to support some very powerful people, and having what has developed into friendship with them and the recognition from them is an incredible testament to the work that you're doing."
Patrick Healy, 34, said the job feeds his "Type-A personality," even though his main purpose is to support someone else, often from behind the scenes.
"I like things to be organized and in their place. I like to check the boxes and scratch things off my to-do list, so it gives me a certain satisfaction and sense of well-being when I'm able to finish projects — move the ball down the field every day and get closer to that goal," Healy said.
The job demands meticulous organization and confidence — an ability to navigate triple-booked schedules, Byzantine travel plans and terse, four-word instructions sent by text message, all while remaining utterly unflappable.
“It does take a certain kind of personality to be able to do these jobs,” said Tim Judge, 63, a former assistant of 16 years to Al Pacino. “Your own mental fortitude and physical stamina, those come into play in a big way.”
Most important, assistants say, is knowing not to take executives' tirades to heart.
"One day they can be in love with you, and the next day everything that you do is wrong — you just got to go with the flow," Pierce said. "Taking a walk, getting a coffee for myself, walking away from the scenario after you throw some water on whatever fire's happening, that's how I get my mind off whatever's occurred."
And even members of the Fortune 500 cannot claim complete immutability. Real estate moguls and hedge fund managers tend to be the most challenging, Russell said, and on the rare occasion that an assistant-executive relationship spirals out of control, SilverChair will step in as the assistant's advocate.
"We try to decide which ones are totally doomed and which might work," she described. "We do try to help some of our clients or potential clients on how to make a position more doable, whether it's hiring more than one person or decreasing the hours. And for them it's not a good feeling, I think, when you know search firms won't work for you."
The ultimate key to a successful placement — one that lasts as long as five or six years — is chemistry, Russell, Healy and Pierce agreed.
"Casting an assistant is like casting an actor — what kind of person is going to fit that person's personality?" Russell said. "Who's the best assistant to be three steps ahead of that CEO? And it only works in a very small, niche way. Does this person need a mom assistant? Does he need his address pinned to his lapel? Or is he someone who goes, 'I answer my own emails, I answer my own calls, just do this, this and this?' That's what makes this interesting."