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The business of being Betty: Helping families pack up lifetime of seniors' memories

DETROIT — Sharon McRill is a sophisticated, college-educated woman with a background in corporate marketing who cleans up other people's cluttered lives, dirty cars and doggie droppings.

Her copper-colored pickup truck announces the arrival of the Betty Brigade. McRill, of Ann Arbor, Mich., is the No. 1 Betty.

The Betty Brigade is a concierge service, an all-purpose personal assistant-for-hire, a party planner for weddings and mitzvahs, a professional organizer to help mom move out of the family homestead after 40 years, and a pet-sitting service.

McRill, 43, has six employees and, in the midst of a recession-racked economy, has expanded her business. It illustrates a trend in the workplace. She's a successful example of how Americans are reinventing themselves and starting their own businesses.

"I get paid to pick up dog poop," marvels McRill, "and it's paying my mortgage, so I don't care."

Small businesses owned principally by women rose about 53 percent from 1997 to 2006, according to U.S. census data analyzed by the Center for Women's Business Research. And female-owned companies in Michigan grew at a faster rate than male-owned firms during the same period.

The field of professional organizing has surged due, in part, to the popularity of reality shows like cable channel TLC's "Clean Sweep," says Laura Leist, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers. Membership in organizations such as hers has doubled to 4,000 in the past five years.

McRill's business started informally after she was laid off from a corporate marketing job at Borders in 2003. From a request to paint a friend's kitchen was borne the idea for My Gal Friday, a service that got its name from an old-time term for executive assistants. McRill knew exactly what the company would do — all the chores and errands she dreamt of having somebody else do for her when she was toiling for Borders.

"My entire corporate career, I kept saying I wish I had a personal assistant," she said.

She renamed the company — when another similar firm surfaced elsewhere — through a contest offering eight hours of free organizing to the winning moniker.

"Betty is slang for a woman, and we are a brigade. We are a gang of women," is how McRill defines her workforce. Actually, there are six women, including McRill, and a guy, her newest hire.

"If you want your business to succeed, you have to be available to handle what needs to be handled. My staff knows there isn't anything I'd ask them to do that I wouldn't do myself," said McRill. "It doesn't have to do with white-collar or blue-collar. It's whether you want to succeed. I've made it work."

Last week, the Betty Brigade took a deep dive into a three-bedroom condo dense with family heirlooms and the homeowner's 1,000 stuffed animals. The owner, an Ypsilanti, Mich., woman in her 50s, is moving to Florida and needed help sorting through the contents of her life.

McRill called in appraisers to look through antiques and hand-me-downs to figure out what would go to resale shops, the Salvation Army or the new home.

In going through drawers, McRill and another employee found long-lost stock certificates and coin collections. Paper and documents no longer needed are going into a closet until the weeks-long job is over, to be transported to an off-site shredder. McRill goes through every item with the homeowner, figuring out what gets packed carefully into boxes to be transported away.

There is immediate gratification in the job. Rooms that were dirty and cluttered become polished and sleek.

"The biggest part is helping people who couldn't do the job or didn't want to do the job by themselves," said McRill.

She's frequently hired by families seeking to help older parents deal with houses filled with a lifetime of stuff. Through word-of-mouth and networking groups, she's established clients through probate attorneys and trust officers throughout metro Detroit.

McRill offers a free consultation to assess a situation, but her services aren't cheap. A three-hour organizing visit is $255.

She recalls one woman who hired her to help her move into a retirement community. The woman's adult daughters thought they could handle the job alone. The woman had a craft room piled high with stuff. The only way to maneuver through the room was along what professional organizers call the "goat path" — a reference to the only space on the floor.

While cleaning, McRill found an envelope with five loose diamonds in it. The owner thought they'd been stolen.

"We find savings bonds, stock certificates, and we almost always find money," said McRill.

She helped the woman cull through an array of 27 red turtlenecks. Out went the ones that were pilled or ripped or didn't fit. They cut the supply of red turtlenecks by half.

"We allowed her to keep what she loved and treasured," said McRill. "We're not there to throw away and toss things they really care about."

McRill recently spoke about preparing elderly adults to move from their long-established households at the Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County, Mich. Abigail Lawrence-Jacobson, director of older adult services, mentions the value of professional organizing services to her clients "because it's so useful to them when they're trying to downsize a large home."

She hired the Betty Brigade when she was on bed rest for 13 weeks last year with her second pregnancy. The brigade helped her organize a kitchen pantry and basement, "and helped with my nesting instinct when I couldn't do those things myself," she said.

McRill's efficiencies also extend to her home life. The only thing unorganized for long at her home is a junk drawer, and that gets cleaned out every few months. Oh, and there's a room she's designated just for her husband, Donald Adiska.

"I married a messy guy," she said. "I shut the door to that room and he can do whatever he wants with it. Love does not have anything to do with being organized."

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.