Aida Middel’s memories of her family’s last days in Cuba center on her parents’ attempts to emigrate to the United States in the autumn of 1961, after Fidel Castro had turned the country into a communist dictatorship. Her engineer father and schoolteacher mother were jerked around as they stood in line for their exit visas.
A Russian (“Cuba was overrun with Russian consultants,” she says) adviser later approached her father and said they could have their visas. The price was the family’s condo (and everything in it) that overlooked the ocean.
Middel’s parents and two siblings left the condo and built a life in the United States. Aida Middel, a 60-year-old businesswoman with an accounting degree from George Mason University, is fanatic in her love for her adopted country.
“I can’t tell you how angry I get when I hear people bashing the U.S.,” said the native of Havana, now a U.S. citizen. “We were taken in. The U.S. helped us. No place else in the world would have done this.”
Now she and a business partner, Libby Kinkead, 50, run a healthy little enterprise called Potomac Concierge, which provides a six-figure income for each of them. Potomac Concierge and its team of organizers do a million things for about 100 clients, from helping families move, to sorting out puzzling health documents, to cleaning out closets.
Those clients range from the rich and powerful to six-figure-income wage slaves who can’t take a day off to wait for the shredding service to show up or move someone’s automobile cross-country.
“It’s stepping into people’s shoes and solving their problems,” said Middel, who has accounting skills that help her sort out people’s paperwork. “I do everything. I’m a fixer-upper. A day-maker.”
The company grosses about $800,000 a year, billing its clients between $55 and $85 per hour, depending on the skills required to accomplish the task and the length of the relationship.
The firm and its 12 full- and part-time employees — all of whom are women — has served more than 500 clients since its 2005 launch, but most of its current clients are in the upscale areas of Northern Virginia, Montgomery County and the District.
“Most of the women we hire are married, professionals, college-educated and very talented people who don’t want to put on pantyhose and go to the office,” she said. Most want a flexible work schedule.
The full-timers have sophisticated business backgrounds: One worked at Freddie Mac and Deloitte; one is familiar with information technology; another worked in executive support and staffing; one has a degree in psychology/gerontology, and works with Potomac’s elderly clients; another has a speech/language pathology degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Customers include famous journalists (not me), politicians, businesspeople, lawyers and lobbyists.
The jobs can be comedic, crazy and — occasionally — dangerous. Kinkead once had a refrigerator fall on her.
And all of the jobs are personalized.
Potomac Concierge once hired two college students on their way to a football game in Atlanta to each take a cat so they could be transported to a customer’s new home in Georgia.
One aging big shot lacked the physical and emotional vigor to reorganize his life after his wife’s death, tasks ranging from sorting out jewelry and clothes closets to organizing files, disposing of her car and prioritizing sentimental acquisitions accumulated over a long life.
One executive trying to impress a job applicant he was wooing had Middel and Kinkead deliver a kitchen sink to the man’s doorstep to send a message: “I’ve offered you everything but the kitchen sink.” And there was the sink.
Around five years ago, a client in the midst of a divorce asked them to make the house ready for sale. Thus, a subsidiary, Moving Managers, was born. The moving division has helped dozens of clients move to new residences, bringing in between $1,500 and $15,000, depending on the job.
Even that brings a personal touch. When employees help people move, they keep track of what is in clients’ refrigerators and medicine cabinets, as well as how they like their bathroom sink organized, right down to the placement of the soap.
“We have a system where we code everything so the new sink and medicine cabinet will look like the old one once we move a client,” Middel said.
So how did these two entrepreneurs get into this business? They hatched the idea over margaritas in Bethany Beach, Del., about a decade ago.
“It was happy hour, and we were at a beach house and decided to get paid for the errands and planning we were doing for friends,” said Middel. “I am a serial volunteer.”
They met through mutual friends, and realized their knack for organization and solving problems for others had real potential.
They helped one friend locate her traveling husband between plane flights. They would babysit the house, waiting for repairmen or drop-offs. They helped some organize their financial records.
Kinkead even had a little concierge business on the side, helping two or three clients run errands, pay bills, keep the yard up — whatever needed to be done. Divorced with three teenage daughters, she needed money.
When they returned from the beach to their respective Potomac homes, they decided to combine forces. They wrote a business plan and were assigned a mentor by SCORE, a nonprofit that helps small businesses get off the ground.
They started with the name Time Solutions, but within weeks changed to the more upscale-sounding Potomac Concierge.
Right from the start, they kept the business lean. They didn’t borrow money. They improvised. After they volunteered to stuff hundreds of goody bags for a women’s business group, accounts began to trickle in.
Their first big break came from Mercantile Bank, which signed them to a three-month contract to take care of errands, dinners and shopping, as well as to help organize financial records for the bank’s merger staff. The idea was to free up the bankers from their personal distractions so they could concentrate on doing deals.
Potomac Concierge used the income from Mercantile, which was acquired by another bank, to jump-start its Internet advertising. The company bought Google AdWords and paid a firm to get its name and keywords out through search engines.
Personal clients now make up 80 percent of the business, with the rest coming from corporate contracts.
I asked Middel if she had any intention of going back to Cuba, now that President Obama is pushing to normalize relations with the U.S.
Probably not, she said.
“I have some great memories of being at the beach with my cousins, and our parents and horseback riding and water sports,” said Middel. “Those are the memories I want to keep. I think it would depressing to go back and see what has happened. Besides, if I want a little Cuban flair, I can go to Miami.”