Let’s Get Personal

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It’s hard to tell who’s wealthy and who isn’t these days. With the tab for an entry-level Mercedes-Benz just a few thousand more than a souped-up Nissan, it’s not what they drive that distinguishes the upper crust from the merely upper-middle class anymore. And in this dressed-down decade, it isn’t what they wear, either. As […]


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It’s hard to tell who’s wealthy and who isn’t these days.

With the tab for an entry-level Mercedes-Benz just a few thousand more than a souped-up Nissan, it’s not what they drive that distinguishes the upper crust from the merely upper-middle class anymore. And in this dressed-down decade, it isn’t what they wear, either. As The New York Times pointed out last year in a series on wealth and class in America, what really sets the rich apart are the personal services with which they pamper themselves, from massages and manicures to tutors for their children and captains for their yachts. And revenues for personal services in America, the Times reported, are rising astronomically-up 74 percent just from 1997 to 2002.

If you needed any more proof that Sarasota is becoming a very well-heeled town indeed (see "Stealth Wealth," below), the explosive growth in such services should supply it. From masseurs and skin-care experts to doctors specializing in boutique medicine and bankers who cater to high-net-worth clients, all sorts of service providers are flourishing in the region. A few jet-setting Southwest Florida families even employ old-fashioned governesses, who travel with them to make sure their children keep up with their lessons and languages.

In classic trickle-down fashion, the presence of so much wealth is not only creating prosperity for those they employ, but increasing the variety of businesses and services available to everyone. A private governess, for example, may be out of reach for all but the ultra-wealthy, but the merely well-off can indulge in manicures or massages or hire a caterer for a special event. In Sarasota’s new service economy you can snap your fingers and someone will cook for you, curate your collection of art, do your make-up, plan your next big birthday party, jet you from here to eternity, and ghostwrite your memoirs. One busy Bird Key mom employs a buyer to go to the New York fashion collections and pick her wardrobe. Another has been known to fly her favorite hairdresser in for gala coifs.

LET ME GET THAT FOR YOU

Still searching for your own new car? No need-Fred Krasne of My Perfect Car, which recently opened in Sarasota, will locate the vehicle of choice, advise you on financing options, negotiate the deal and even contact you every time maintenance is due. Better yet, Krasne will drive it in for service and arrange for a rental car until it’s returned.

Did you actually pile your possessions into cardboard boxes the last time you moved? Those in the know call Solutions for Carefree Moving. Trudy Clark will decide what fits in your new digs, then pack you up and send the leftover furniture to a thrift shop or antique dealer. When you walk in the door of your new home-after a relaxing day at the beach, perhaps-everything’s unpacked and put away, dinner’s in the oven, candlelight is twinkling and music is playing.

Still doing your own cooking? How passé. Personal chefs are on the rise-according to that New York Times series, up to 9,000 from about 400 in the last 10 years. For two years, Judi Gallagher, who hosts cooking segments on SNN6 and consults for local culinary pros, was also the private chef for a Sarasota family with two young children. "They like to eat very healthy, so I’d stock them up on anything from chicken and spinach quesadillas to homemade soup," she says. "Last year, when [boxing champ] Evander Holyfield came to town for a private charity event, he stayed in their guesthouse and I got to cook fried chicken, biscuits, mashed potatoes and peach cobbler for him-exactly what he wanted."

For some, the personal touch extends into many more details of daily life-they have personal assistants. Sarah Edwardson has filled that niche for Lee and Bob Peterson for more than six years. The Petersons are board members or major donors of nearly two dozen organizations, including the ballet, Asolo, opera, YMCA, Boys and Girls Club, Ringling Museum and Ringling School of Art and Design. Edwardson keeps their personal calendar, handles their RSVPs, sends invitations for their private dinners and helps with the arrangements, shops for family gifts, and writes Lee’s thank-you notes for the larger events they chair. Edwardson juggles such a variety of personal tasks that, she quips, "John Wilkes [head of the Van Wezel] once said to me, ‘It must be like being with the Flying Wallendas.’"

But it is for the Petersons’ No. 1 project, NARSAD (National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression), that Edwardson expends the most effort. She coordinates the annual Sunshine from Darkness gala and symposium (to be held Jan. 7 and 8 this year), which has raised $2.5 million locally for the mental health organization in eight years. The Petersons are on NARSAD’s national board.

"Lee’s very open to ideas," says Edwardson. "We’re pretty close. I often anticipate what she’s thinking, and vice versa. I love her; she’s a great lady. She and Bob are incredibly generous, and I admire everything they’ve done in Sarasota. They’re trying to make a difference, and I’m proud to be part of that."

Edwardson would not talk about her salary, but says most personal assistants charge hourly fees.

Southwest Florida attracts interesting and accomplished people, and with the rise of self-publishing, some are turning to ghostwriters to pen their personal stories. Free-lance writer Rosanne Knorr was hired by one such retired captain of industry. He supplied her with background materials, diaries, photos and the like; then they sat down together for several interviews, and she talked to key players in his life and did Internet research to put his story in historical perspective. The result was a 20-chapter tome of more than 200 pages.

Knorr wouldn’t divulge her fee, but according to Writer’s Market, ghostwriters can command $40 per hour-as much as $20,000-for book projects with an "as told to" writing credit; and $55 per hour-up to $55,000-for projects where no credit is published. Sometimes the "author" wants to share his story with the world, says Knorr, and sometimes "it’s a matter of people wanting simply to hand down their story to their family."

Do you have a personal jewelry designer? Lots of Sarasotans do. June Simmons designed one couple’s wedding rings 25 years ago, and for every special occasion since, they’ve asked her for commemorative bling. Simmons re-created their company logo in platinum, diamonds and emeralds for the firm’s 30th anniversary. When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl, she designed a tasteful diamond and ruby pin. He loves to gamble; Simmons created platinum cufflinks and studs with the ace of spades in black diamonds. "They have everything, and they want something nobody else has," says Simmons. "They’ll call me up and say, ‘Do you have an idea?’"

Joni Berg is not a personal shopper, but rather a tastemaker who gets paid for her good fashion sense. Berg, a longtime local fashionista who reps a line of clothing out of New York, invites customers into her home for a private trunk show four times a year. It’s a high-quality bridge collection with pieces starting at $250. But Berg says, "It’s not just about selling. I put a lot into head-to-toe dressing with my customer to find the clothing that’s suitable for them. I give them tips on hair, hair color, make-up, things they need to fill in their wardrobe." Berg doesn’t consider herself a personal shopper, but she will take a few special customers to area department stores to pick out clothes. "Why are they coming to me? They trust me, they have fun shopping with me, they know I have their best interests at heart."

Berg’s typical customer, she says, is a sophisticated woman who understands quality and fabrics. "She’s an experienced shopper. If she’s not, I make her one," she says. "I pride myself on always being honest, not selling something I don’t believe in. And I love, love, love making women look beautiful."

PARTY UP

While Dennis Kozlowski still sets the bar for lavish private parties (of course, now he’s behind bars), local private parties are one increasingly elaborate way to make a statement. A thoughtful local husband hired Party Plan-It to conceive a three-hour 50th birthday party for his wife and 200 of their friends at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall last October, at a cost of $138,000. Klieg lights spelling out "Happy Birthday, Jan" greeted partygoers. With the "Fabulous ’50s" theme, waiters dressed as car hops passed mini-potpie hors d’oeuvres while Elvis, Lucy and Desi impersonators wandered around the mac-and-cheese and meat-loaf stations. On the bayfront lawn, near an impressive display of ’50s automobiles, kids partied in a big tent with its own soda fountain. Pyrotechnics placed in each centerpiece erupted as the giant birthday cake was wheeled in, and 20 minutes of fireworks over the bayfront ended the evening. Party coordinator DeNette Adix says it was "every party planner’s dream."

Or consider Janet and Stanley Kane’s annual Oscar-night bash, a private party for several hundred of their nearest and dearest, held in the ballroom of the Hyatt, which they happen to co-own. Do the numbers for this all-out evening of food, drink and film talk, complete with paparazzi photographer and professional comedian emcees, and it’s easy to come up with a cost of close to $100,000.

You don’t have to be wealthy to use a florist, but some clients call on their favorite florist for much more than an occasional arrangement. Mr. Florist Plants N’ Things has standing orders to create big masses of floral arrangements for loyal clients every week, "some of them for many years," says co-owner Ron Carter. "One client has a house on Longboat Key with a very large entrance hall, almost a rotunda, and we fill a large urn with flowers of the season. From the floor, it’s probably seven feet tall, filled with hundreds of blooms. In winter, for example, it will be all whites: Casablanca lilies, because that’s what they like, and orchids. We’ve been doing that every week for eight years."

Every week, too, the same clients order a low centerpiece for their dining-room table, then, depending on the number of houseguests, an arrangement for each guest room. "One container is always pink miniature carnations," says Carter, "the least expensive flowers on the market, but they like them."

Carter is an old hand at big productions: For the Ringling Museum courtyard wedding of Nikki Angelotti to Jeff LaBelle in 1998, attended by 500 guests, he reserved an entire field of champagne-and-red-tipped roses in Ecuador and kept them chilled after they were cut so they wouldn’t open until the party.

WHILE YOU WERE OUT

Some personal services are so practical they become a necessity, not a luxury. Susan Robinson of Key Concierge started her household-management business, both to fill a much-needed niche in the second- and third-home market and "because we needed the service ourselves," says Robinson, who bought a vacation home here in 1999 with her husband, Ferruh Muktar. "We’d worry about it constantly while we were away," she says, "Those nights we’d return, it would be pitch black and my husband would stumble around in the dark looking for the valve to turn on the water. I thought, what I wouldn’t give for fresh-cut flowers and coffee for the morning."

Key Concierge will pay bills, oversee renovations, monitor homes before and after big storms, and open homes for returning owners-everything from grocery shopping to arranging for cleaners to supplying customized "welcome-home" packages. "Our main service is caring for properties weekly or biweekly while the homeowners are away," says Robinson. "We make sure there are no burst pipes, no broken water tanks, no security breach. We collect mail and toss all those throwaway newspapers that accumulate on the driveway; we make sure the lawn guys are coming and not just billing our clients. Last week we went into a home and found there was water running down the hallway; the hot water tank had burst its seams. We had to move very quickly, getting air movers in and coordinating service people. Then we sent digital pictures of the status of the project to our client."

In advance of a hurricane, Robinson and her staff visit each property to secure potential flying objects. They give homeowners daily updates from a resident’s perspective-"what we’re seeing here versus what they’re watching on CNN"-and after the hurricane passes, they check on each property to assess any damage, photograph it and call subcontractors.

People here are also availing themselves of elective medical services in record numbers, seeking out plastic surgery, cosmetic dentistry and even boutique physicians, who for an annual fee of several thousand dollars allow unlimited visits and even house calls.

Such services exemplify the lifestyle of the privileged today, and Sarasota, after all, has always been about lifestyle. For the affluent yet thrifty Midwesterners who retired here decades ago, the Sarasota lifestyle was a rich reward for years of earning and saving, but revolved around such simple pleasures as golf, boating and beachside living in a sunny climate. For a growing number of today’s visitors and residents, those are just the beginning of the luxurious experiences that now define living well in Sarasota.

STEALTH WEALTH

Trust services are a trusty indicator of a community’s wealth, and the wealth they’re managing in Sarasota is growing, says Brett Rees, Northern Trust Bank’s senior vice president and director of sales. Northern Trust had $4.4 billion under administration in Sarasota and Manatee counties in October 2005-roughly the same amount as in its Naples and Palm Beach offices. That’s a jump in Sarasota and Manatee of 8 percent over mid-2004. (The Miami office was No. 1, with about $11 billion.)

And it’s not all flashy cash. "Some of the people who have left the biggest legacies here were not known to have great wealth," says Stewart Stearns, president of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. "They’re not necessarily the people who appear in the pictures in the society column. One of the first donors to the foundation left us a couple of million dollars, and he lived in a trailer park. Mrs. Nobbe left close to $20 million in two gifts, and she was not known in the community at all. She lived in a modest home on Bird Key."

The Community Foundation of Sarasota County is one of the fastest-growing in the country; when Stearns arrived in 1988, its assets were only $300,000. Less than 20 years later, with assets of more than $125 million, it is the second-largest community foundation in Florida. (The largest is also local, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice, with assets of $200 million.)

THE BOTTOM LINE

A sampling of what upscale services cost.

Concierge: $35-$50 per hour

Chef: $25 per hour

Full-time personal assistant: $35,000-$60,000 annually

Governess/family assistant: $50,000 and up annually

House manager: $50,000 and up annually

Formal butler: $80,000-$120,000 annually

Sources: Key Concierge and Home Staffing Services of Naples.

MILLIONAIRE’S ROW

How many millionaires live in your neighborhood? Here’s a sample of households worth $1 million-plus and $5 million-plus in investable assets, broken down by zip codes. (The highest percentage of millionaires: 34201 in Manatee County, with 31.7 percent, nosing out Longboat Key, with 26.8 percent.)

34236, Sarasota (Downtown, St. Armands, Lido keys)

Total households: 6,620

$1 mil+: 1,217

$5 mil+: 330

34228, Longboat Key

Total households: 4,686

$1 mil+: 1,257

$5 mil+: 327

34238, Sarasota (Palmer Ranch area)

Total households: 7,645

$1 mil+: 1,227

$5 mil+: 256

34229, Osprey

Total households: 2,559

$1 mil+: 471

$5 mil+: 110

34285, Venice (Isle of Venice)

Total households: 4,863

$1 mil+: 681

$5 mil+: 138

34201, Bradenton (University Park Country Club)

Total households: 397

$1 mil+: 126

$5 mil+: 32

34202, Bradenton (Lakewood Ranch, surrounding S.R. 70 communities)

Total households: 3,653

$1 mil+: 429

$5 mil+: 79