Matchmaker to millionaires

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WILD GEESE Mairéad Molloy, Client director, Berkeley International, CannesA dating agency that attracts the rich and famous has seen business grow through the recession

A DATING agency that charges clients an upfront fee of $40,000 knows its niche, but Mairéad Molloy says even she has been surprised by some of its quirks.

Berkeley International, the company Molloy runs and partly owns, had “a very bad year” in 2007, she recalls, and the global downturn promised a new wave of pressure. Or so she thought.

“When the recession started, the business started to grow again,” Molloy explains over coffee in a Paris hotel. She started to ask people about what seemed a counter-intuitive trend and eventually concluded that people feel “it’s terrible to be alone in times of difficulty”.

In a competitive industry, Berkeley situates itself at the most exclusive end of the spectrum. Molloy likens it to a personal head-hunting service. A prospective client is interviewed at one of the agency’s offices. A wish list is drawn up.

Once the fee has been paid, Molloy starts looking for a match from a client list of 2,500 names. The more specific the requirements, the higher the fee.

“If you come in to me and you’re a total nightmare, and you want a person who looks like that, then it’s going to cost you more money,” she says, laughing. “We get celebs coming in, asking us, ‘I want to meet that girl’. I have to go and find her. That happens in America all the time, and in Dubai.”

The result is that, while Cannes is her base, Molloy spends much of her year travelling.

After nine years at the helm of Berkeley, Molloy takes a hard-headed view. “I don’t see it as hearts and cotton wool,” she says. “I run businesses, make them a success, then do something else.”

Her CV bears her out. Originally from Co Wexford, Molloy spent her early career running the marketing side of a software start-up.

But when the company was sold, the former hotel management student saw the windfall that came her way as an opportunity to fulfil a long-standing dream and buy her own small hotel. She put her house in Co Westmeath on the market and started looking for a property in the south of France. She settled on Cannes.

“I came over with no French and opened the hotel doors. It was a terrible experience [at the beginning]. I had to buy a new telephone system – it was like trying to buy a bloody rocket. But I went wild doing the marketing, and we ended up getting into the Lonely Planet. It was a success from there.”

After five years, tiring of the hotel’s punishing routine, Molloy sold up and went back to college – this time in London – to study psychology (she is now working on a PhD). The Berkeley gig came about by chance.

While applying for some consulting jobs, one of her interviewers mentioned that he had just bought an introduction agency. Before long she was running it.

Molloy’s ambition for Berkeley was to “put it on the map as the world’s best introduction agency”, and she is proud of its progress. The agency has offices in London, Cannes, New York and Manchester, and Molloy hopes to set up in Ireland, where 20 per cent of clients are based. Turnover is “a million plus”, she says.

Of Berkeley’s 2,500 members, the youngest is 18 (“her father paid for her membership because he wanted her to meet a doctor from Harvard”) and the oldest is an 83-year-old widower.

Typical clients are “professional people who earn good money”, she says. “It’s very hard to meet someone in London. People are busier. They haven’t got time. In London it could be a lawyer or doctor, an architect or a vet.”

The difference between a standard online dating site and an introduction agency, says Molloy, is “filtration”. “Think about the kind of people who join and the cheques they write. We’ll filter for you.”

Finding other rich people, in other words? “Some people are really modest about their money,” she replies. “I get an awful lot of people who pay the $40,000 global head-hunting fee, but they don’t want to meet a wealthy person. They ask me to find them a normal person with a normal income.”

She may see it as just another business, but Molloy is alive to the occasional madness of her trade. “The last $40,000 woman I got was hilarious. I had to fly to Boston to meet her. Over I went. I nearly died. The house was on a lake. The sitting room had 66 sofas in it. I counted them. She had an eatery – that’s what she called it. There’s a pizza oven, with a pizza chef who lived in her house. She’s on her own in a house with 66 sofas, a library, a gym, an indoor pool, a lake. And she had no-one to talk to at night-time. Minted. To her, $40,000 was nothing.”

Not long after that trip, Molloy says, she got talking to a man sitting next to her on a plane and persuaded him to sign up. “I introduced them, and that was it. He’s living in the house with the 66 bloody sofas.”

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