This LGBTQ+ owned removals company is creating a safe space for everyone - here's why that's important

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Posted by for People

LGBTQ+ owned business Shirley’s Removals has been serving the London community for over three decades. Here, partners Magali Boato and Wendy Robertson reflect on the company’s heritage, the importance of putting the client first and why they’re on a mission to reinvent the term ‘man in a van’…

When it comes to stressful experiences, most people would agree that moving house is a life event with a deservedly bad reputation. 

Research confirms its status as a top source of stress: according to a 2019 poll of 2,000 UK homeowners, 40% voted moving house as more nerve-wracking than getting a divorce, having a baby or starting a new job.

But while researching everything from van hire to the best way to pack a cacti collection is nobody’s idea of fun, for underrepresented groups like the LGBTQ+ community or the elderly, finding professional help for moving day can be a source of fear, and even discrimination.

For Londoners who want to minimise the stress of moving, however, Shirley’s Removals is one company that makes getting from A to B a more manageable experience, and they’re particularly well-versed in helping those who are in vulnerable situations.

The business was founded in the late 80s, when many people living with HIV weren’t able to get hired help when moving home because of the stigma around the disease. So in 1988, Shirley McGah started a removals business to support the community and partnered with the Terrence Higgins Trust to become one of London’s first LGBTQ+ removals companies. 

Now run by Magali and her partner Wendy, the company mainly serves London’s community, helping everyone from the elderly to victims of domestic abuse to move anywhere in the UK.

Here, they reflect on the company’s heritage, putting the client first, and why they’re on a mission to do away with the term ‘man in a van’.

Generational love

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Wendy: “Shirley started the business with her partner Jane in 1988 as a way to do something different from driving an ambulance to care homes. Then they came into a bit of money and decided to buy a transit van and advertised themselves as ‘Women’s Light Removals’.

“They quickly gained a great reputation and changed the name to Lesbus. When they separated, Shirley decided to set up on her own as Shirley’s Removals. 

“Word spread and she was interviewed by a woman at Terrence Higgins Trust to help move people living with HIV and AIDS.

“During her interview she was asked what would she do if during a move the person with HIV threw up. Shirley said ‘I’d just clean it up’ and the woman said ‘That’s what I wanted to hear’ and she got the job.”

Magali: “I came to work for Shirley in 2000 when I first arrived in the UK from Brazil. I started as a driver, and I learned everything about the business. About six or seven years later, I began to help her to manage the company.

“That continued for another 10 to 12 years, and then in 2016, she decided to retire. I didn’t know what to do, but Wendy said, ‘Why don’t we buy the business?’”

Wendy: “Shirley only wanted to sell it to Magali. She really trusted the name and the business with her.”

Magali: “She wouldn’t offer it to anybody else. Because of the way she always treated the clients, she liked that very personal approach.

“She was the owner for many years and she never gave up answering the calls and talking personally to the clients.

“She taught us that the physical act of removals is always the same, but the client’s needs are different, so we need to talk to the clients, not treat them like a machine.

“She knew that I would carry on with that mentality. So we got it.”

Making a difference

Wendy: “Once you find the people you want to move with, and especially if your friends recommend them, it’s one less stress. 

“We moved an elderly woman up to Coventry to be near her daughter and three-year-old grandson and they wrote us an amazing Google review – we were nearly crying. 

“Her grandson wanted to go on the tail lift, but he also wanted to help his granny move in, so we gave him tiny little things to help move into the house. And at nighttime, he whispered to his mum, ‘That was the best day ever, the best day of my life.’

Magali: “That’s something that Google has helped a lot with. Before, we didn’t have a way to show the clients the reviews that we had. But now people will read them on Google and book us for their removal based on the positive feedback we’ve had.”

Wendy: “We always ask people if they want to leave a review.

“Some people do, some people forget because they’re too stressed, but the ones that we get, they’re all absolutely genuine and heartfelt. It’s always lovely to read them and answer them.”

Serving the community

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Wendy: “Our roots are in the LGBTQ+ community, and that community is growing. We have an innate understanding of what it’s like to be part of an underserved group, which means we’ve built up a customer base who feel safe and understood. 

“Some people ring up and say, ‘I’ll only use an LGBTQ+ company, I want to support that company’, other people say, ‘I only want to use you.’ We’ll have people say, ‘I’m in Manchester and I’m moving a long way away and I only want to use you.’ 

“We have built up a reputation for being good listeners, kind, caring and patient and then people tell other people.

“We don’t judge anyone, we are who we are and our reputation reflects this. We really do care about how the elderly, the vulnerable and people who are stressed about moving need to be managed, it comes from the heart.”

Magali: “And we’re very proud that we can offer this service to the LGBTQ+ community, as well as women victims of violence, the vulnerable and the elderly. It’s what makes us super-proud.

Wendy: “We are one of the removal suppliers to Camden Council and have been for many years, which puts us in contact with lots of vulnerable communities. Originally we’d take washing machines and other essentials to HIV positive and vulnerable people, then we started moving them. 

“As well as the elderly, we work with charities for women who have been abused. Creating a safe space and a sense of privacy is absolutely crucial when it comes to those kinds of clients, and something that is often overlooked by people.”

Wendy: “Since the heightened news this year around women not feeling safe, we’ve also been inundated with calls and emails from single women moving homes. Maybe it’s because they feel more secure with women at a point where they’re feeling quite vulnerable.

“People have been searching for us on Google and we’ve really had to develop our online presence to make sure we’re reaching the people who need us.

“We notice that a lot, so that’s an area of the business that we want to do more in as well – to provide a service that’s more clearly about being ‘woman in a van’, not ‘man in a van.’”

Learning to adapt

Magali: “I ran the business on my own until last year and then we started to get super-busy and I couldn’t cope with everything.”

Wendy: “I was working at my previous job from home while she was out, and the phone was going bonkers. I was working saying, ‘Shirley’s Removals’ in one ear, with another company in another ear. 

“It got to November time last year and I said, ‘Why don’t I just come and help you for a while?’ And then we thought, ‘Actually, this is no different from running an agency (my last job). It’s still about finding clients, keeping a slick schedule and making sure everyone is happy.’

“Because I was used to doing finance and operations, I took over that side, while Magali looks after all the clients and the logistics of the job on the day. So the skillsets are very complementary, along with the team we have out on the road as well.”

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Magali: “The way we treat our clients is the same as Shirley, it’s very personal.”

Wendy: “It’s all about the customer. From the minute they make contact with you, to when they’ve been moved – and even if they need a bit of help afterwards – it’s all about how we are with them all the way through. It’s not just about booking it in and then waiting for move day.

“Trust is so important when it comes to moving vulnerable clients and that’s why our reputation is everything to us. “

New horizons

Wendy: “When I came into Shirley’s Removals last year, it dawned on me that there’s so much potential for growth.

“This business deserves to have more vans out on the street and it deserves to be able to offer a service to more people. 

“We don’t want to have to say no to vulnerable people because we’re not available or because we don’t have enough vans and enough people on the street. 

“That’s my big thing now. Let’s get to it, let’s get this business growing.

“Since we took things over, we’ve put in some process and a system, which technology allows you to do a lot more quickly.

“Google certainly did help us do that, so that’s changed – the speed, the response, the volume that we can get through.

“We can reach a wider audience more quickly. Business before was very much word of mouth referrals and advertising in the gay press. Through Google we can reach a wider audience and much more quickly. 

“The evolution of the business is to be able to grow it and get more vans on the road. It would be lovely to see Shirley’s Removals with women in vans all over London.”

In the past 18 months, an average of 5,000 British businesses a week sold online for the first time. Google provides companies like Shirley’s Removals with tools to support growth, helping 700,000 UK businesses contribute £55 billion to Britain’s economic recovery in 2020. Whatever your mission, Google can help you make it a reality with the Grow With Google programme. Check out Shirley’s Removals’ favourite tools below…

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