Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: Downsizing - with a bit of TLC
LISE HILDEBRANDT showed up for an interview at the New Hampshire Union Leader with props: a handheld garlic press, a small wooden statue of a wading bird and a slightly dog-eared book of sheet music.
You might find those things at a yard sale, but for Hildebrandt they carry special meaning, such as a love for cooking, a gift a friend gave her and the music that sustains her. (She plays cello in the New Hampshire Philharmonic.)
Now imagine a houseful of possessions that resonate with such memories and how difficult it could be to separate the trash from the treasure when you are faced with downsizing after a death, divorce, retirement or other life-changing event or need to help a family member tackle that job.
That's where Hildebrandt comes in. The Concord resident recently launched Clean House, Clear Heart, a one-woman business that combines the skills of a professional organizer with the empathy of a counselor who also happens to be an ordained Episcopal priest.
Hildebrandt got the idea for the business after helping her father downsize several years ago and realized she could handle such work dispassionately. If she could do that with her father, she figured she could help other people.
"It is an emotional process. We associate things with memories and people and things in our lives that are important," said Hildebrandt, 54.
And sometimes they come with memories we would just as soon forget.
"What happens when I have a whole basement of stuff that reminds me of my ex-husband, whom I hate?" she said, offering a hypothetical example. "It's not just about giving stuff away. It's about your life."
Hildebrandt has worked with four clients since starting the company, helping them arrange what they want to sell, what they want to donate to charities and what they would like to keep. She charges $80 an hour, depending on the job. She tries to reuse and recycle whatever is salvageable.
Hildebrandt's work includes preparing an inventory listing all the household items and designating what will be done with them; identifying referrals, such as appraisers, nonprofits and trash haulers;
and assisting with sorting and cleaning.
That's culled from the "practical help" section of Hildebrandt's brochure. She also lists "emotional & spiritual help," including helping clients articulate their priorities, overcome obstacles, deal with grief and preserve memories without holding onto "excess items."
She says an underlying principle of her business is questioning how we end up with so much stuff, and the social and emotional toll it has on us. Letting go of the past and moving on can mean sifting through rooms full of possessions collected over dozens of years.
"You take a place of chaos and disorder, and you clean it out," Hildebrandt said. "At the end of the time, you have a place where the whole atmosphere feels different. The person feels a sense of accomplishment."
Hildebrandt said she had one client who told her she did not want anything to remain in her house that was not pleasing to her, nothing that stirred up regrets or bad memories. "A lot of what I am is a permission granter," she said, someone who helps her clients reach a place where they are comfortable giving away that old sweater or rocking chair even though it was a gift from a relative.
David Wood has served as Hildebrandt's mentor through the Merrimack Valley Chapter of Score, which provides free business counseling through its nonprofit network of current and former business executives. He believes there's a growing need for Hildebrandt's services as baby boomers deal with their aging parents.
Wood said he spent $4,000 to $5,000 paying a "senior move manager," an occupation that has emerged nationally over the past decade, to sort through his mother's belongings in New York. Wood preferred that someone else sort through it and see what could be sold.
"Just the money that came back to me in the sale of items more than paid for what I paid her," Wood said. "That doesn't even factor in the amount of time and what my time was worth had I had to go down there and do that myself. To me it was a tremendous return on my investment."
What Hildebrandt can provide brings something extra to such a service, Wood said.
"I had no emotional involvement whatsoever in the stuff my mother had in her house . but I do recognize that for most people that is not the case," Wood said. "If it is your stuff or your parents' stuff, having someone who can help you through that is a tremendous asset and is invaluable."
Wood said Hildebrandt had a strong business plan and a good sense of how to operate her company. What she needed help with, he said, was learning to accept that it's OK to charge people a fair price for a valued service - a concept that first-time business owners often struggle with.
"You need to charge a certain amount of money to make a living and perform the service you are offering," Wood said.
Hildebrandt believes she has something to offer that will more than pay for itself.
"I work very efficiently, and I help people work efficiently," she said. "When they need to downsize, I get them where they need to go so they can move forward with their life."
Hildebrandt can be reached at 724-7359 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Mike Cote is business editor at the Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321, ext. 324 or email@example.com.