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Stealing Some Time -- on Their Watch

Potomac Concierge co-owners Aida Middel, left, and Libby Kinkead deliver dry cleaning to clients at Mercantile Potomac Bank in Bethesda.
Potomac Concierge co-owners Aida Middel, left, and Libby Kinkead deliver dry cleaning to clients at Mercantile Potomac Bank in Bethesda. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 5, 2006

It's 10 a.m. on a recent Wednesday and already, PTA moms Libby Kinkead and Aida Middel have prepared breakfast for 38, booked a limo for a Foo Fighters concert, commissioned a watercolor piece, picked up dry cleaning, ordered custom couch slipcovers, delivered a trunk full of soda and fixed a needlepoint rug.

That doesn't include making breakfast for their own children and chauffeuring them to sports practice and doctors appointments.

The two are the founders of Potomac Concierge, a do-it-all errand-running service that aims to complete the "to-do" lists of Washington's stressed-out, time-starved workaholics.

Their business is part of a growing niche of micro companies with few to no employees that have sprung up as an offshoot of the local economic boom. As unprecedented federal spending creates a bounty of jobs in the government-contracting and high-tech sectors, as well as the law firms, banks and accounting firms that serve them, further down the chain are companies such as Potomac Concierge that have made businesses out of serving the personal needs of the region's growing and more affluent workforce.

While such services have existed for years, they were reserved largely for the rich. In the Washington area, which has the nation's highest median income, at $72,800, such businesses have become increasingly popular among the busier and higher-income workers. Employers also see the appeal, as such services keep their workers happier and in the office longer.

"Wealthy people have staff to do this full-time," said Middel, 53, who carries two cellphones -- one for the business and another for personal calls and very important clients. "We work for all sorts of people by taking care of the things that would normally keep them away from family or personal time."

The number of businesses in the Washington area with fewer than five employees grew about 6 percent from 1999 to 2004, according to census data. Even companies with no employees are growing in the region -- up 5 percent in Montgomery and Fairfax counties between 2003 and 2004, according to the Census Bureau.

Errand-running businesses base themselves on the lifestyles of the affluent. They call themselves personal concierges, gofers and lifestyle managers. There are businesses that train aspiring errand-runners with lessons on etiquette and discretion, among other things.

At $50 to $150 an hour, depending on the errand, Kinkead and Middel's services aren't exactly for working-class or even many middle-class families. They say that many of their clients are single professionals and that they have a growing base of corporate clients that hire them to serve several of their employees at once.

There is not reliable data on the number of such businesses, though Katharine Giovanni, chairwoman of the International Concierge and Errand Association, estimates that about two dozen have popped up in the Washington region over the past five years. The association says that the personal concierge industry is booming and that its membership -- which is mostly U.S. companies -- has doubled to 500 members from 250 last year.

In Northern Virginia, On The Go 4 U LLC and At Your Service Unlimited LLC have regular rosters of customers who pay them to watch pets, run bank errands, service their cars, buy their groceries and pay their bills. In the District, Capitol Concierge is one of the oldest personal concierge services, and it makes its business from lucrative corporate contracts.

"We're all trying to squeeze 36 hours into 20 hours," said Giovanni, who also runs Triangle Concierge Inc., a business that trains people to become personal concierges. "Why not have one person do the tasks that you would normally have 20 or 30 people do or do all by yourself?"

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