Lonely billionaires seek love therapy

Written by Bloomberg | Updated: Jan 30 2011, 20:29pm hrs
A Craig Copetas

Inside an elegant Berkeley Square London townhouse, a team of eight executive matchmakers have spent the past 23 years quietly making a fortune coupling romance-starved millionaires and billionaires.

For between $24,000 and $93,000, Virginia Sweetingham and her luxury love advisers at Gray & Farrar International will vet suitable partners for clients prepared to abandon the raunchier applications of money and love. There are a lot of wealthy single people out there ready to commit, looking for loyalty, Sweetingham, 53, says of her current client base of 750 men and 750 women. The median age is around 40 years old. The firms youngest client is currently an ambitious and focused 22-year-old man, the oldest a fellow over 70 with a great sense of intelligent humor.

The pressure of work is the top barrier for them in finding a partner, says Sweetingham, a single mother of four, tapping a fish bowl filled with white orchid petals in her firms homey interview salon. Our clients want to meet new people, enter new social circles in a dignified way.

Ugly Tree

Its the oldest story around, a tale of boy-seeks-girl-seeks-boy that Sweetingham says has been debauched by TV shows like Millionaire Matchmaker and cyber-love sites such as Loveplot, Manhunt and UglyBug Ball. Howard James, creator of UglyBug, told The Sun that the site was for people have fallen from the ugly tree and hit every branch on their way down.

Membership prices range from $19.95 to $59.95, yielding a behemoth lovelorn brokerage industry that the OnLine Publishers Association values at $932 million and the US venture-capital firm Canaan Partners pegs at $4 billion a year.

There are many multimillionaires who come to us, flashing the cash to buy whatever they want, Sweetingham says. We dont cater to those with that system of core values. Gray & Farrar is not about casual dating. It also has nothing to do with Gray or Farrar. I didnt want a cheesy name for the company, says Sweetingham, who scoured surnames listed in the phone book, picking Gray and Farrar as the most suitable.

Kitchen Encounter

I needed a proper name that gave no clue to what we do, Sweetingham recalls of the business started around an Oxfordshire kitchen table in 1983. My first two clients were a 32-year-old British army officer named Neil and a delightful 27- year-old blonde executive named Sue.

The fee was 575 ($920) each. Sweetingham says theyre now happily married with three children. Dont even think about asking for evidence of the transaction.

Confidentiality: We cant compromise our clients, the relationship is sacrosanct and our position reassures them, Sweetingham says. The name reflects the privacy and sensitivity of our work and reduces the slight stigma clients feel in coming to us for help.

Cheekbone Measurements

Their requests are often daunting. We have one male client who has a particular look in mind, right down to the precise length of her cheekbones, Sweetingham says. Thats a specific brief that requires our bespoke service. Some of the tools we employ are the worlds lists of the most beautiful and available men and women.

Sweetingham says the firms yield curve is 90%. We successfully match two out of every three clients within one year, she says. About 10% fail to end in marriage. A computerised client database is forbidden for security reasons. Almost everything is done by hand.

The men get blue folders, the women pink, says Sweetingham. As for the annual fee, Sweetingham reckons the price is indicative of our clients commitment to find the right person and settle into a relationship; theyre individuals who wouldnt think twice about paying even more to an executive headhunter to locate the right job candidate.

Our interview begins over fresh-brewed coffee served in a stylish porcelain cup. Sweetinghams 31-year-old daughter Claire, who holds a degree in biochemistry, is in charge and shes not wearing a lab coat.

Right Demographic

She says due diligence is paramount. Potential clients are screened before sitting down for the first of two meetings to discuss demographics and why previous relationships ended in emotional disaster. Sweetingham says the No. 1 reason for heartbreak among the rich is a couples failure to grasp each others lifestyle.

Wealthy single people today between the ages of 25 and 40 are gypsies who live nomadic lifestyles, Sweetingham says of her core clientele. For them, the most important thing is to meet someone who understands that lifestyle. What they tell me is theyd rather be on their own than with the wrong person. These are people whose lives consist of departure lounges, private planes and hotel rooms.

All of them have one thing in common. They want to find a partner with whom they can create a legacy, she says. Everyone wants a real legacy.

Therapeutic Adventure

Sweetingham says accomplishing that task is almost a science and that her clients find the experience a therapeutic adventure. I know if a client is for us within the first five minutes.

Video conferences and meetings outside the UK are available for those who cant make it to Mayfair. Pink and blue folders in hand, the Sweetinghams deal their hand. The man always makes the first call and the first date is always over dinner, Virginia says. Then nature takes over, Claire adds. We do a debrief on how both clients felt about their date. I can pinpoint the right client-to-client chemistry by the third or fourth date.

The Sweetinghams say the biggest change in their lonely-hearts business over the past two decades is the growth of the firms international clients and their transient lifestyles.

We have more demand than we can cater for, though most people over 50 still dont get what we do, Claire says. Wealthy young people are used to asking for help, so the shame once attached to using a matchmaker doesnt exist for them.

Single in Shanghai

Sweetinghams statistics over the past decade show a 20% drop in divorced clients. She calls the figure critical for expanding the Gray & Farrar brand, particularly in Shanghai, a city full of moneyed single men and women and one of the firms fastest growing metropolitan markets.

Women who have it all are willing to give up their success tomorrow for a family, Claire insists. The men tell me that their expensive toys are no longer an exemplar of success. Our clients want a home.