An invitation to an event at No 10 Downing Street? Not a problem. A place at one of England’s most prestigious schools? Consider it done. The chance to mingle with Prince Harry at a Coldplay concert? Leave it to us.
These are the sorts of services that Quintessentially, a London-based luxury concierge service, claims to have arranged for its well-heeled clients. Boasting powerful connections across British society, the company has marketed itself for two decades as a personal assistant to the 0.1 per cent.
At the centre of the operation is the company’s co-founder, Ben Elliot, a 44-year old Etonian who moves effortlessly across a social circle that mixes the royal family, the Conservative party and the City of London.
The nephew of Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, he is frequently photographed with her husband, Prince Charles, the future king. Mr Elliot is also a friend of influential politicians including prime minister Boris Johnson.
That sort of access dovetails with the sales pitch from Quintessentially. The company advertises that it has secured clients a private dinner at Buckingham Palace hosted by Mr Elliot and invitations to events where customers might rub shoulders with political figures. Prince Charles is quoted in a promotional video for Quintessentially, praising its services.
Mr Elliot’s networking skills have proved to be useful. Last July, he was made co-chair of the Conservative party where his list of contacts helped raise funds for Mr Johnson’s triumphant election campaign in December.
He also has a growing presence in Whitehall. Mr Elliot was appointed in January 2019 as the government’s first “food waste tsar”, an unpaid role, to raise awareness about the issue. Quintessentially has also signed up the government’s department for international trade as a client of its door-opening services.
But behind Mr Elliot’s high-profile web of relationships and society image, his company has confronted difficult questions.
Quintessentially — which recorded losses in its last two sets of results — has faced allegations of financial mismanagement and has been accused of a macho, Mad Men-style working culture.
Late last year Quintessentially paid millions of pounds to settle a lawsuit brought by two of its senior female executives, the Financial Times can reveal. The claim contained criticism of the management style of Mr Elliot and the company’s other two co-founders, Aaron Simpson and Paul Drummond.
The High Court petition, seen by the FT, contained accusations that Mr Elliot, who once described himself as a “relentless, bossy fucker”, and his co-founders created a hostile environment for the two women.
The lawsuit cited an independent report from 2018 by accountants Albert Goodman, alleging serious problems in the way the company was run. Quintessentially’s structure was “opaque and complex”, the report said, and it claimed that the group’s directors took “substantial” management fees and “aggressive” dividends from the operating companies.
The result of the payments had allegedly been to make Quintessentially’s events business “technically insolvent”, according to the report.
The lawsuit also cited a recording of a board meeting in February 2019 during which Quintessentially’s directors discussed the possibility of reducing a corporation tax payment, estimated to be £260,000. According to the legal complaint, Mr Elliot, who has cultivated the government as a client, was alleged to have said at the prospect of paying that amount in tax: “We can’t give the fucking thing to the government.”
Quintessentially told the Financial Times it “categorically denied” that Mr Elliot made the statement and said it was “simply untrue”. It denied all of the allegations contained in the claim and said the dispute had been “fully resolved”. Mr Elliot declined to be interviewed for this article. Mr Drummond did not provide any comment.
The secret to Quintessentially’s success, Mr Elliot has said, is “knowing the right people to contact, for the right favour”.
The company was born in 2000 in the shadow of the royal family. After Eton and Bristol University, Mr Elliot was introduced to Mr Simpson, a former film producer, and Mr Drummond, a lawyer, through his cousin, Tom Parker-Bowles, the Duchess of Cornwall’s son.
It offers clients “anything you want, anytime you want it, anywhere you want it”, as well as access to exclusive events. Quintessentially’s latest brochure advertises “membership highlights” that have in the past included “access to an intimate charity event with Samantha Cameron at 10 Downing Street”, referring to the wife of the former prime minister, and “a personal invitation to a fundraiser hosted by HRH Prince of Wales at Windsor Castle”.
Ever-grander ideas have been dreamt up. In 2017, the company said it was building a 220-metre superyacht that would be the “world’s largest floating private members club for the global elite” — although the yacht has yet to materialise.
“He’s a big personality and a big person physically,” says someone who has worked closely with Mr Elliot. “He’s an impressive person to talk to and he’s good with clients. His challenge was managing people and working with staff, he has an abrupt manner.”
Quintessentially made a loss of £833,000 in its first year, but grew rapidly to more than 1,000 staff and 30 subsidiary companies that have included an art dealership, a florist, an estate agency and a chauffeur service.
From its roots reserving top restaurants and booking theatre tickets for individual members, the company has tried to branch out in different areas — signing up corporate clients and opening its contacts book for the British government.
Since 2016, the department for international trade has paid Quintessentially £1.4m to introduce Whitehall officials to high-net worth individuals so they can “network at the highest levels”, according to a contract seen by the FT. Quintessentially arranges “exceptional visits” for civil servants to meet high-net worth individuals and convince them to invest in the UK, according to the contract.
Quintessentially has also looked to corporate customers to fuel growth. One former senior employee says the majority of the 160,000 customers the company claims to have came through corporate contracts. Quintessentially has disputed this but declined to provide the breakdown of members.
Several people close to the business say that a model tailored to individual needs sometimes suffered when applied on a larger scale.
HSBC, which offered Quintessentially’s services to its wealthy Jade account holders, and British Airways, which partnered with the company to promote its services in the first class lounge at Heathrow airport, did not renew their contracts in 2018.
HSBC said the bank had reviewed its relationship with Quintessentially and decided to move to a different provider after just 12 months.
Quintessentially says the BA and HSBC contracts were not renewed for “specific business reasons . . . unrelated to customer service or feedback”, pointing to a redesign of the airport facilities and a shift in strategy at the bank.
Other members have expressed disappointment. A publicist from Chicago told the FT she was offered three tiers of membership that started at $8,500 a year and rose to $40,000 for “Quintessence” — a 13-month invite-only subscription that included dinner at Buckingham Palace, VIP packages to the Sundance and Cannes film festivals, and a tennis tournament with Richard Branson on his private Caribbean island.
She signed up for its “bespoke elite” membership, which cost $21,000 per year. It promised 24-hour global access to a personal “lifestyle manager” who would organise “travel, VIP event access, exclusive dinners, top hotel access, hard to get restaurant reservations” and more, according to emails seen by the Financial Times.
But the publicist did not feel it was value for money. “They promised anything, but . . . I ended up paying for one restaurant reservation and a PDF guide to London telling me to shop at Harrods.”
Quintessentially says it has an 88 per cent renewal rate for customers, and that its internal monitoring system for member satisfaction shows a “net promoter score of nine out of 10”. It provided the names of three customers who were willing to share positive experiences about the company.
One of them, a well-known City businesswoman who did not want to be named, says she knew Mr Elliot before becoming a client and now pays “hundreds of pounds” a month as a retainer for Quintessentially services.
The company had helped her find a house and move her family from Scotland to London, as well as finding hotel rooms and a tutor for her child. “They got everything set up, got us a discount and even stocked the fridge,” she says.
Quintessentially prides itself on an ability to plan meticulously extravagant events — it claims to have helped a Saudi member host a party for 300 guests at the Pyramids in Egypt.
But several insiders say it has struggled to manage its own complicated empire of subsidiary businesses.
In 2015, according to several people familiar with the situation, Quintessentially talked to WPP about selling itself to the advertising group. A person close to WPP says the potential deal was called off at an early stage: “It was [like] a rabbit warren.”
In 2018 the founders launched a restructuring of the company’s web of businesses to consolidate dozens of subsidiaries under group control. This meant rolling about 30 of its subsidiaries, whose management teams held significant equity interests, into the group company, Quintessentially UK.
The legal claim brought against Quintessentially last year was linked to that restructuring. The petition was issued by Anabel Fielding and Caroline Villamizar-Duque, co-founders of Quintessentially Media, an events business that has organised parties for clients including the Prince of Wales and Facebook. The two women argued the shake-up unfairly devalued their stakes in the company.
The claim also alleged that Mr Elliot and his two co-founders supervised the movement of money between UK and overseas subsidiaries in a series of loans, share transactions and dividends to help fund the group. At one stage, cash flow difficulties left the group unable to pay its staff, the claim alleged.
“Due to a large payment, Q group has insufficient funds to make payroll this month (which would obviously [be] negative for the Quintessentially brand),” Mr Drummond said in an email to Ms Fielding and Ms Villamizar-Duque in November 2018, in which he requested their events business provide funds to support the group, according to their claim.
It also said a dividend paid to the founders from Quintessentially Events “took the company very substantially into a deficit” of £602,000 in 2017. Citing the report by the external accountants, the claim said that the dividend “could be deemed to be illegal”.
The company disputes all of the allegations contained in the claim and says the matter has been “fully resolved”. It adds: “Any suggestion that the directors of Quintessentially UK have breached their fiduciary duties and/or they have failed to act in the best interests of the company are vehemently denied.”
Quintessentially settled the claim out of court. The resulting restructuring of the group left two charges over its assets that gave Ms Fielding and Ms Villamizar-Duque rights to equity in the group, according to people briefed on the matter and filings at Companies House.
Quintessentially UK Ltd — the holding company before the recent reorganisation — recorded a £3.1m loss in the latest available accounts and a £1.8m fall in revenue to £23.1m in the 12 months to May 2018. It blamed the drop in revenue on pulled corporate contracts and bad debts related to a customer that went bust. In 2017, the company made a loss of £2.8m, after a £359,000 profit the previous year.
The pressures on the business have made its headquarters near London’s Regent’s Park a sometimes turbulent place, according to several former employees. They have criticised the company’s leadership in interviews with the FT, citing a high turnover of staff, dissatisfaction over levels of pay and tirades by some of its directors.
In a typo-strewn email sent by Mr Simpson in 2018 to the heads of Quintessentially’s subsidiaries, cited in the claim brought by Ms Fielding and Ms Villamizar-Duque, he wrote:
“Anyone whop questions any decisions I am not making and doesn’t act on what I am saying is immediately fired for gross misconduct.” He added: “I am not FIGHTING OVER ANY OF THIS. You listen to what I say and you act on it for the greater good of all in this company. I don’t wasn’t any decision queries. I will be responsible for any mistakes I make, no you. Reply that I have full agreement and that you understand what I am saying.”
“There was so much masculine bravado at the top of the organisation,” one former staff member recalls. A separate former executive, who reported directly to the founders, says: “The place felt Mad Men-esque, it was old school.”
A third former employee adds: “Ben was a very different figure to the image of him we would read about in the media. Some of us found it quite hard to square the [public image of a] charismatic, charitable Ben with the man who shouted in the office and reduced some younger staff to tears.”
However, Annastasia Seebohm, who was appointed in 2018 to run the company, disputes this. “The culture here is so far from macho,” she says, citing her own rapid rise from a business development assistant in the group’s Athens office to global chief executive in under eight years while in her early 30s. She points to the fact that 70 per cent of the group’s senior executive team are women.
“Some employees when they leave are disgruntled but we have a wonderful network of former employees that remain very close to the business and a happy team,” Ms Seebohm adds.
Mr Elliot’s status in UK politics has continued to rise since the Conservative party’s general election win in December. He was lauded within the party for raising funds for the campaign.
This month he retained his role as co-chair of the party, despite a reshuffle in which Mr Johnson replaced his colleague in the same position. Senior executives at Quintessentially insist that Mr Elliott has no problem in managing his public and private sector roles.
The company says its next financial results are likely to show a very different picture. Its first global consolidated accounts will be filed before the end of March. Preliminary results showed an 8 per cent growth in revenues to about £80m, the company says, with earnings of £3m before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation. Insiders say relationships with big name clients, such as Facebook and Gucci, are growing.
“It’s clear that we are in great shape,” says Mr Simpson.