From The Birmingham News - LIVING
December 11, 2008 - by Chanda Temple Guster
There was a time when Steve Key, who owns Home Theatre Visions in Hoover, wouldn't stop working until 10 or 11 p.m.
Once he and his staff of four had finished a day of installations, Key would sit down at his computer at 7 p.m. to handle company invoices, check e-mails and do clerical work for the business he runs out of his home. But six months ago he found some relief in the clerical field when he contacted a local company that offers "personal assistant" services to address everything from running errands to handling paperwork for small businesses and individuals.
Once a week, a staffer with My Personal Assistant of Birmingham visits his home to handle company bills, call vendors and more. In November, they called his health insurance provider to handle a medical claim for him. "I just got tired of having to use my brain all the time to think and remember every little thing all the time," said Key. ''They took a large load off of that." They are even sending out Key's business Christmas cards.
Diane Henderson, who has a background in employee benefits and human resources, started My Personal Assistant in 2002 after noticing that small companies understaffed in their human resources departments, were outsourcing a lot of tasks to her. Soon, those companies started asking her to arrange meetings, order business lunches and handle presentations. She thought other companies might need the same services. Today, Henderson's clientele consists of small businesses and professional individuals. 'We are just there for the busy people who can't justify full-time help," she said.
"Our clients are in control. They tell us what to do." With a sagging economy, more businesses and professionals may take note of her services, which also include delivering and picking up important documents, scheduling appointments, and following up with clients and prospects. Those who are swamped with deadlines even call her to pick up and deliver dry cleaning ' shop for a last-minute birthday gift or find a good handyman for a home project. :·People can't afford to hire full-time, regular help, and what's good about our service 1s they can call us anytime for a couple of hours -here and there. We don't have a set schedule," she said. For eight total hours, Henderson charges a daily rate of $155.
There's also an hourly rate of $25 to $30. For those who may not need an assistant all day, they can get a block of hours to use over a month. A minimum of 10 hours for a month for example, will cost $20 an hour and the client can split up the time as he or she sees fit. She said such concierge-like services were considered a luxury many years ago. Now, they are a necessity. A check on the Internet showed that at least two other companies in the Birmingham-area offer similar services.
"When they use us it's like buying free time. I tell people if you want two or three hours to yourself, call us," said Henderson, whose company is bonded and insured and staffers sign confidentiality statements. Betsy Holloway, associate professor at Samford University's Brock School of Business, said that when consumers have less disposable time or less time managing all areas of their personal and professional life, more products and services surface to help alleviate that problem.
Today, there are self-checkout lines in stores, and even a company that allows customers to order a movie online in the middle of the night. Through companies like Henderson's, people can outsource parts of their personal lives. "I'm sitting here and wondering if I shouldn't have somebody helping me out. I haven't wrapped Christmas gifts yet," Holloway said. "I'm a mom and work full time and certainly I know I could use some help."
For clients with personal needs, Henderson offers services, including gift wrapping, picking up children from school or practice, party planning and staffing, home and pet sitting, and waiting to let in the repairman. Last week, she met with one-year client Sandy Logan, who had gotten so tied up with preparing for the holidays that she asked Henderson to address her family's 200 Christmas cards this year. "Most people know me. They know if I had the time I'd address them," Logan said. Henderson has a team of three full-time staffers, four part-time employees and
hires others as needed. She said her diverse team works together to determine who is best for a certain job.
For example, Marianne Brandon, who handles Key's clerical work and is Henderson's business partner, has a law degree; and concierge consultant Meredith Cleckler specializes in customer service. Cleckler and Henderson turned Lavonne Williamson's spare bedroom Into a gift-wrapping station and storage room for all the things Williamson uses to decorate weddings and different church functions. Previously, Williamson had a hard time finding what she needed because the items were stored in closets throughout her Mountain Brook house. Now, they are neatly arranged in one room. Cleckler also organized Williamson's Christmas card list, pulling together addresses from cards Williamson had collected over three years. Cleckler alphabetized the names and addresses on a spreadsheet.
"Now, 1 have my list. This week I'll be home mailing them out thanks to them," Williamson said. Henderson has also found a way to personally assist brides on their wedding day and at a bridal shower. She has three packages as a personal bridal assistant. They range from working eight hours on the wedding day to help the bride with anything ($375), to working for three days the week of the wedding ($1,000.)
To keep wedding costs down, Andrea Buchanan and Edwin Martv of Avondale hired Henderson to work their Dec. 31 wedding at Jones Valley Urban Farms in downtown Birmingham, which Marty owns. Since Marty has always been the go-to-guy for events held at his farm, Buchanan thought it would be nice to give him a break and have someone else handle the details. During a consultation, Henderson walked the property to get ideas for their "New Year's Eve Farm Wedding," which will include lit mason jars hanging from tree branches, a bonfire and a live band.
"She just seemed open to a lot of our unique ideas about what we'd like our ceremony to be," Buchanan said. "She gave a lot of good suggestions too like roasting the marshmallows" after the bonfire. During the meeting with the couple, Henderson showed just how far she'd go to finish a job. Said Buchanan: "Should we let the chickens out during the ceremony?" Said Marty: "Yes." Said Buchanan to Henderson: ''You all will get the chickens back in the coop?" Said Henderson: "You show me how to do it and I'll do it." The light-hearted conversation eased to a close when Marty said the farm's staff wilt handle the chickens. But Henderson will be standing at the ready just in case. "Our logo is, ·we get the job done.' If we say we're going to do it, we will."
For more information on My Personal Assistant, go to www.starmkt.net, or call 313- 6444.
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