Being a PA? It's the best job in London

Personal assistant to one of the world’s most accomplished businessmen, Nikki Burg says there is more to the job than many people think.

By Candice Krieger, January 21, 2010
Discretion is key: Nikki Burg, PA to billionaire Len Blavatnik

Discretion is key: Nikki Burg, PA to billionaire Len Blavatnik

Nikki Burg does not usually talk to journalists. In fact, she makes it her business not to. As personal assistant to one of the world’s most accomplished businessman, Russian-born oligarch Len Blavatnik, discretion, says Miss Burg, is everything.

But the 40-year-old has something she wants to share. Adamant she has the best job in London, she is keen to dispel the myths associated with being a PA and has launched a training course to help others.

PAs provide daily business and administrative support to senior members of staff. They are also known as senior, business or executive assistants. “There’s a whole debate about the title,” says Miss Burg. Secretary? “The S-word is not to be used.”

Launched towards the end of last year, her course, run at the Skills Academy — the training arm of recruitment firm Anderson Hoare — is aimed at people considering a career as a PA. The one-day seminar offers advice and tips on various issues and gives an overview of what working in a private office for a high-net worth individual or a celebrity involves.

“There is definitely a misconception about what it means to be a PA,” says Miss Burg. “If I knew back then what I know now my journey would have been so much easier.

“There are very special protocols that exist when dealing with successful and wealthy people. So whether they work in financial services, manufacturing, creative industries or politics, or are members of the Royal Family, they all need very special handling.”

She points out that “most successful people have an alpha personality. You can’t be afraid of your boss or they will lose respect for you.”

Billionaire Mr Blavatnik is the founder and chairman of Access Industries, a privately-held US industrial group. Ranked 132 in the Forbes 2009 rich list and worth an estimated $4bn, he serves as a director of numerous companies in the Access portfolio, including LyondellBasell Industries, one of the world’s biggest producers of raw plastics. Last year, Access Industries reportedly bought the UK arm of Mel Gibson’s Icon Group, which owns the rights to about 500 feature films, for an undisclosed sum. Born into a Jewish family, Mr Blavatnik was raised in Russia and emigrated to the United States with his family in 1978. He now divides his time between there and London.

What’s he like to work for? “He’s not easy but nobody of that ilk can be and I wouldn’t want it to be that way because it would be less challenging. He has been so supportive of this venture and I feel very lucky to work for him. I have learnt so much.”

A former advertising professional, Miss Burg says she had always wanted to work as a PA within the business world. “Business fascinates me. Everyone claims that advertising and media is fast-paced and glamorous but I knew there was more out there. I wanted to get into some sort of financial institution as a PA.

Nikki Burg’s Top Tips to being a private PA

Have empathy and a sense of humour
Discretion is crucial - don’t divulge too much
Always look the part
Don’t be afraid of your boss
Have a thick skin
Never cross the line

“Friends of mine were going down much more glamorous routes, or the professional/lawyer route, but I knew that I was made for this. So I left the world of advertising and made a bee-line for it.

“When recruiters looked at my CV, lots said I didn’t have the right background and were closing doors in my face — but I knew that I needed to get into one of these companies and show them how great I am.

“I want to tell people thinking about being a PA that it is attainable. You don’t need to be of a certain ilk or be well-connected. Everyone is looking for something different. You just have to go about it pragmatically.”

She joined a private equity firm as a freelance temp, where she was headhunted for her current role. “I believe I have the best job in London.” According to Miss Burg, private PAs can earn upwards from £35,000 a year.

What exactly does the job entail? “Organising meetings, recruiting other people’s PAs, arranging travel trips, the delivery of artwork, replying to invitations, writing letters on my boss’s behalf, reminding him of things.” As for the perks: “I might go shopping on behalf of my boss. Shopping with someone else’s credit card — amazing.” That said, there are many serious aspects to the job, which Miss Burg focuses on in the course.

“Trust is integral for any private PA. Discretion is of the upmost. Walls have ears.” How does she deal with press inquiries? “I don’t comment. It’s good to be the PA that knows nothing. That’s a very good line to take.” Besides, Mr Blavatnik prefers to stay out of the public eye.

“Never cross the line. At the end of the day, I am a business decision. It’s very much a business relationship. You have to stay in control. I ask questions, I reiterate facts, I have to cover my tush. You can’t assume someone has cottoned on to something you have. Never be afraid. What’s the worst that can happen?”

Last updated: 1:16pm, March 8 2010