Margaret Fearey WalshEach month, LuxeSF profiles a member of The Luxury Marketing Council. This month we talk with Margaret Fearey Walsh, President and Founder of Changing Places, the Bay Area’s earliest pioneer in the growing field of home organization, which covers the gamut from managing home relocation across the globe, to organizing households for the affluent as well as families, seniors or time-deprived. Walsh takes us from her company’s humble beginnings 23 years ago to its current peak as industry leader.

LUXESF: Tell us how the company got started.

WALSH: My entree in doing this work came after I opened Rent-A-Wife. We did errands, housekeeping and catering. In the first year of business, one of my clients who “rented” me was a bachelor working for GE Capital. He asked me if I could move him to New York, which I did. I flew to the city, and settled him into his new apartment, putting it all together.

LUXESF: What’s the scope of services that the firm provides today?

WALSH: We are a team of expert organizers, moving architects and designers who orchestrate simple to complicated moves around the world.  We handle every detail of a move so that our clients can return to work or life.  We offer personalized organization systems for a home or office.  Other services we offer are Staging & Design, Estate Resolution, Rightsizing & Senior Relocations and Home Renovations & Remodeling.

LUXESF: So, let’s take those separately. You said you organize the home. What does that mean?

WALSH: Well, somebody can’t see their car in the garage because it is so buried; they have an office that is cluttered and not working well; or a couple who are moving in together need to sort their belongings so they have more space. We’ll come in with a select team and solve the problem and do whatever it takes … build them storage if need be, help them to keep the best and sell or donate what they don’t need. We also provide vendors, guidance, support and motivation to get the job done.

LUXESF: Not dissimilar to some of the programs I see on HGTV?

WALSH: Yes, and when we organize a house for sale, we do an instant home make over.  Recently, we had homeowners who were moving to Palm Springs and wanted to sell their San Francisco home. We went through 40 years of memories in that house with my client. We tagged what they wanted to keep, threw away, donated and sold. When that was done, we had it all packed up and moved it out. Then, the stagers, Realtors, and the contractors could come in to start their work.  Changing Places acts as the project manager to get the house on the market. They trust us implicitly to manage all the elements of what can be a trying and anxiety-ridden experience. We handle everything, all of the details.

LUXESF: In essence, the client gives you the assignment and says, “Get it ready so I can sell it.”

WALSH: Yes or we’re working with the Realtor and following their direction.  One top San Francisco realtor recently said that Changing Places helps clients transform their property to an extraordinary marketable asset.  We are the agents of change to benefit both the client and realtor.

LUXESF: Who are the market segments? What’s the need in people’s lives that makes them want to use this service?

WALSH: We have families with small children, busy executives with no time, international moves and complicated multi-faceted moves. We also work with senior citizens who are downsizing and need to settle their estate. We recently handled a downsizing project where our client was moving from a 10,000 square foot home into 1,700 square foot apartment and a majority of her possessions were being shipped to Europe.  And we got this job because we understand all the details that go into moving items internationally.

We recently had a busy executive who was relocating to Europe.  He called us and said, “I think I made a mistake.  I have a horrible moving bid, and I don’t know what to do with it.  Can you help?” We started on a Friday night and on Saturday morning we had a reputable International moving company at his house with a better estimate for the move.  And by Tuesday evening everything was done and being shipped to Europe including one of his fancy cars.

LUXESF: What about corporate relocations? If somebody is moving in from the East Coast, do you do much of that?

WALSH: Yes. We just finished one from Boston, and believe it or not, this year we have had quite a few from Australia, Japan and Canada.

LUXESF: Let’s say for somebody relocating from Australia, what are the primary difficulties associated with the move?

WALSH: One difficulty is that they come without knowing the area or which vendors to use, so it is really hard for them to settle in.  Some people move here from bigger homes and don’t know how to fit everything in. But if we help manage the move, they will have fewer difficulties and be able to settle in to their new homes faster.

LUXESF: So, in terms of vendors, you’re working with people who build closets, real estate agents, carpenters and handymen, cleaning crews…

WALSH: Plus picture hangers, moving companies, carpet cleaners, computer and stereo companies, nanny services, baby-proofers, contractors, so much more …

LUXESF: In a sense you’re like a high-end concierge for people who are moving homes. And you also deal with the elderly, do you not?

WALSH: We do a lot of relocation work for elderly people because they’re the ones who really need the help.  Their families live far away and they don’t have the energy to manage their entire move. Their moves are usually confusing and difficult for them.

LUXESF: So, they’re moving out of a traditional big home into an assisted living facility perhaps or a smaller unit…

WALSH: They don’t know where to start. They have 25 or 40 years worth of accumulated belongings and possessions. They don’t know whether they should have a garage sale, give everything to an auctioneer or have an estate sale. We have solutions for all of that.

LUXESF: You’re very much a confidante and an adviser in a case like that. It’s not just a matter of disposal; it’s whether or not it should be disposed.

WALSH: We have to create a floor plan so they move the right pieces. Then we determine who will take the rest. Should they sell, auction or give to the children? Changing Places becomes their sounding board; we talk about all of the choices and then figure out the best way to approach the issues.  We become their advisor.

LUXESF: The ideal assignment, or the ideal client for you, would be who?

WALSH: We really love a client who wants to be hands on with us, working alongside us. Then we can give them a place that is exactly what they really want. And we also do a lot of jobs where they give us the keys, go on vacation, come back and it’s all done.  That is the most exciting.

LUXESF: When I moved to the West Coast, it never occurred to me to hire an organizer. We moved to a smaller home, from 3,000 to 1,500 square feet. It never occurred to me that a service such as yours existed. Do you think that’s the mainstream point of view?

WALSH: It’s big business here in San Francisco because I pioneered and seeded most of our competitors. Yes, it is true.  After 23 years, a majority of our work comes from word of mouth – it’s really the best way.

LUXESF: How do you develop your leads?

WALSH: In the beginning, we sent fliers to the Real Estate companies and mailed out brochures. A majority of our work comes from word-of-mouth and Changing Places is now networking as a member of several organizations, including the SF Luxury Marketing Council, Marin Association or Realtors, San Francisco Association or Realtors, and ads in major magazines like San Francisco Magazine and Nob Hill Gazette.

LUXESF: If you had a “Wish List” of lead sources, what would it contain?

WALSH: It would include Top Realtors across the Bay Area, renowned interior designers, estate planning attorneys and even the high-rise condominiums.

LUXESF: If you were talking to somebody who was a lead or referral source, you would say to them, “Send me your leads because…?”

WALSH: We make miracles happen. We use psychology, intuition, caring and lots of hard work to make each job go well. We deliver what we promise, on time and on budget. Our employees are competent and reliable professional organizers; we complete each project with care, thought, efficiency and skill.

LUXESF: What constitutes a very happy customer? How do you know that they’re happy?

WALSH: They are usually so giddy and exuberant that you can’t miss their excitement.

LUXESF: But what are the emotional cues?

WALSH: Sometimes they cry with joy. We just did a job up in Piedmont and the husband said to his wife, “You know we’d still be in boxes in six months if we did not have this help.” They say some really wonderful things at the end of the job.  One client even said our work might have saved their marriage!

LUXESF: Do they usually say, “This is perfect.”? This is exactly the way it should be.”

WALSH: We tell them it will be 95% perfect and the rest we leave for them to add their own taste and feel. They’re always surprised and thrilled. Yet shocked at how much work it was.

LUXESF: This is a service business where a million things can go wrong. Without giving away trade secrets, what are the core elements that make for a successful practitioner in this business?

WALSH: We work with each client differently, according to their emotions and the situation. With so many years in the business, we have seen a lot and that gives us a big head start. Moving is one of the top five stress factors in life — plus most people don’t like change. We put them in charge and make the process as simple as possible.

LUXESF: A lot of detail I assume…

WALSH: Very definitely. We are masters at multi-tasking, organizing and handling lots of things, people and places all at once.  That is why we call ourselves “The Moving Architects” – each job has so many details and moving parts.

LUXESF: How do you develop your vendor relationships? How do you pick the best ones?

WALSH: Over the last 23 years, I have fine-tuned my vendor list to include only tried and true affiliations that are vetted.  And many fabulous vendors come from our realtors, associates and industry friends.

LUXESF: When I did my cross-country, our furniture arrived days late. We were never told the reason for the delay but then subsequently learned that that the driver had been jailed mid-trip on an outstanding warrant. In the meantime nobody at company headquarters would tell us what was happening. How do you prevent those things from happening?

WALSH: You want to make sure you get a reliable Master Mover from a renowned moving company. You also want to have the phone number of the actual driver, the number of the sales person and the president of the company. You have to make sure that you can fix a problem because emergencies do happen.

LUXESF: Are there business categories that you would like to develop? Are there new territories that you want to branch into?

WALSH: We are branching into overseeing renovations and remodels – it’s a huge trend today as the housing market tightens.  With limited inventory of homes and generally high prices, many of our clients are staying in their home but renovating all – or part – in stages.  We expertly oversee the entire process.

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