When the luxury concierge company Quintessentially was established more than 20 years ago, it quickly made a splash. One of its founders was Ben Elliot, whose aunt is now Queen Consort, and the company boasted that it could provide anything, anywhere, anytime.
However, after a pandemic that saw nobody needing anything, anywhere, anytime, auditors have raised concerns. Last year the company disclosed that it had previously made errors of more than $7.9 million in its accounts and paid $1.5 million of unlawful dividends to its shareholders. This year there were reports that it has received several approaches about a takeover.
It was 2000 when Elliot set up Quintessentially with Aaron Simpson and Paul Drummond — “jolly good eggs”, as he referred to them — as a rival to American Express’s Centurion card, billing it as an exclusive private members’ club.
It was launched with a breakfast at Tiffany’s and, at first, relied heavily on Elliot’s bulging Rolodex: Santa Sebag Montefiore, the daughter of two of the King’s best friends, was an early “adviser”, along with Lucia van der Post, whose father, Laurens, was one of the King’s mentors; Elliot’s cousin, Tom Parker Bowles, son of the Queen Consort, was for a time in charge of stock control and forging links with new commercial partners.
“Here are two kids with a wine-bar mentality claiming they know ‘time-poor, cash-rich aspirational kids who will go for this’,” said one of those approached at the beginning about becoming involved. “It’s not a real-world deal.”
And yet it turned out that it was. For a membership fee of a few hundred dollars a year, Quintessentially promised discounts at top hotels, reservations at fully booked restaurants and entrance to airline VIP lounges.
Elliot’s cousin, Tom Parker Bowles, son of the Queen Consort, was for a time in charge of stock control.
Before long it was thinking bigger: a party for 300 was thrown at the Pyramids for a Saudi member; Sydney Harbor Bridge was closed down for a marriage proposal; one member was flown to Necker, Sir Richard Branson’s private Caribbean island, to play tennis with the billionaire entrepreneur.
One client told of how Quintessentially helped to relocate her family from Scotland to London, and stocked the fridge ready for their arrival. The company boasted about arranging invitations to 10 Downing Street, dinners at Buckingham Palace and tickets to sold-out gigs. A story about flying some tea bags halfway around the world to Madonna was, however, later described by Elliot as “a slight urban myth”.
At one point the company had more than 1,000 staff. Elliot spent seven years getting it off the ground in New York, and there were offices in Russia, the Middle East and China, as well as 30 subsidiary companies, including an art dealership, florist, estate agent and chauffeur service.
“The point of Quintessentially is to look after people,” Elliot remarked, “and most of our jobs are looking after much more banal, menial organizational tasks.” His job, he said, was to be “a willing slave to the stars”.
Less starry members gushed in the Quintessentially magazine about how the company — whose motto is “Life’s hard enough as it is. Let Quintessentially make it easier” — arranged an invitation to the red-carpet premiere of a Bond film and tracked down a long-haired Syrian hamster for a child.
By 2016 it was reported by the Financial Times that Quintessentially was being paid $1.5 million by the Department for International Trade to introduce officials to high-net-worth individuals who might be persuaded to invest in the UK.
Elliot, 47, was brought up in Dorset, the son of Simon Elliot, a property developer, and Annabel Elliot, an interior designer and the Queen Consort’s younger sister. He went to Eton and later Bristol University, and has said that the secret to the company’s success is “knowing the right people to contact for the right favor”.
Quintessentially was being paid $1.5 million by the Department for International Trade to introduce officials to high-net-worth individuals.
He counts Boris Johnson and Zac Goldsmith as good friends — having worked his contacts book to raise money for the former prime minster’s election campaign in 2019 and once dated Goldsmith’s sister, Jemima Khan. Co-chairman of the Conservative Party until last week, Elliot was at one point charged by Michael Gove with reducing food waste.
In 2011 he married Mary-Clare Winwood, with Tom Parker Bowles as his best man. The couple live in West London and share two children. Elliot told one interviewer that he collects first editions of Ordnance Survey maps, Wisden almanacs and books by Ernest Hemingway, and cited his hobbies as running and cycling.
The Financial Times reported in 2020 that Quintessentially “has been accused of a macho, Mad Men-style working culture”, accusations that the company denied. “He’s an impressive person to talk to and he’s good with clients,” someone who worked closely with Elliot told the newspaper. “His challenge was managing people and working with staff. He has an abrupt manner.” Tall, handsome and charming, he once described himself as “an irritating f***er”.
“I will go after people and hold them to account,” he said after being appointed to tackle food waste. “Most of the people that I work with find me pedantic and irritating, to say the least.”
Hilary Rose is a longtime columnist for The Times of London and the author of the weekly column How to Get Dressed