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Article - North and South

House organisers who unpack and even colour code linen

It's a scene guaranteed to reduce home-shifters to jabbering wrecks. Half-empty boxes and packing paper strewn throughout a smart Parnell house on a stonking hot Saturday afternoon; kitchen bench piled with crockery; beds unmade. And where's the stereo remote?

But instead of fraying nerves, all is calm, brisk industry. Home-shifters, corporate executives David and Linda Strickland, newly arrived from Australia, serenely set up their office while five women they've never met before work like a well-oiled machine in the rest of the house, stacking, folding, hanging and arranging. 'The helpers started at midday and by 4.30 everything will be neatly put away, linen colour co-ordinated, coat-hangers aligned, wardrobes categorised, remote control found. And not one temper lost.

The quiet organisers work for Vanessa Godbaz, 40 and her mother Julanne, 62, who run The Finishing Touch, a unique family company helping people stay sane either end of a house move. While there are plenty of removal firms to shift your household chattels, this is the only company in New Zealand that will unpack, put everything away and even leave flowers as they step out the door.

Operating in nine centres nationwide, the business employs 65 staff, mostly middle-aged women who have the tactfulness, attention to detail and initiative to handle the job's sensitivities and unpredictability.

Explains Vanessa, "Most have moved many times and understand how it feels, and a motherly demeanour helps calm people".

David Strickland, national manager of a hygiene product company agrees: "I don't cope well with moving. I was pacing around and the ladies told me to go away and do something useful. We moved four times in Australia and it's a nightmare, by the end you're just buggered." This time, the unpackers have whisked away the stress.

The Stricklands' is a straightforward job, says Vanessa Godbaz, no nervy pets or scratchy kids, and amiable clients. But the Finishing Touchers never know what they are walking into. "The hardest jobs are those where the client doesn't want to shift. Many people move for unhappy reasons. We just try to make the day run as smoothly as possible and be cheerful. There may be arguments and tears so we try to give the clients privacy.

A huge part is reassuring people. Parents with young children worry how they'll adjust; people new to the country don't know how we operate here and don't have any contacts, so we try to make them feel at home, offering advice on where to shop, for instance. We'll even feed the baby, if that's what's required."

There've been comical as well as fraught moments. Like the time the unpackers arrived to find boxes piled ceiling-high in the kitchen. Vanessa: "The removal boys are told to put all the cartons into the rooms written on the label and the client's name was Kitchen!" Another time a power cut disabled a houses security gate, so the unpackers had to use a ladder either side of a high fence to clamber into the property.

Vanessa and Julanne set up Finishing Touch in New Zealand in late 1999. Fresh from a marriage break-up and disillusioned with the corporate world, Vanessa left her marketing job "looking for something to release my passion on."

When Julanne, then running a small recruitment firm, heard about the Australian version of Finishing Touch, mother and daughter flew to Melbourne to meet founder Susan Williams. They secured the license to bring it to here and now Julanne's husband, Graeme, and Vanessa's sisters-in-law help out at the Botany Downs home office.

Building on the Australian model, they've added room makeovers for houses being sold; a general home organising service and, currently only in Auckland, one-off moving day cleans or spring-cleans. An average three bedroom home costs about $650 to unpack, with four staff working four hours. The longest assignment took 72 labour hours to unpack almost 70 cubic metres of household effects (an average houseload has half that). Finishing Touch now unpacks 35 houses a month nationwide.

Many customers are business high-flyers shifting between Australia and New Zealand Then there are young mums and pregnant women; immigrants; elderly people shifting into retirement homes; and doer-uppers.

Gaining people's trust is the key to good client relationships, says Vanessa, and overcoming the obstinate Kiwi DIY attitude is another challenge. "There's sometimes a reluctance to pay someone for something you can do yourself - even if it almost kills you!"

Writer - Nicola Shepheard
Photographer - Scott Venning
North and South June 2005

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