Business is not always about boardrooms, briefings and black coffee. So, in tribute to the North-East men and women who take a more unusual approach to enterprise, Lauren Pyrah examines the unconventional, alternative or downright difficult careers in the region’s economy

Darlington-based Quality Cleaning Services’ co-owner Yvonne Budgen, 63, and director, Gillian Millington, 51, take us through the highs and lows of being an industrial cleaner.

HOW did you get started in the business?

YB: I have done it for more than 30 years. I trained in accountancy, but became a cleaner 30 years ago when my first marriage broke up and it was the only thing I could fit around looking after my children.

I worked my way up to supervisor, then area supervisor.

I started working for myself in 1996 when I formed a company with two others to take the Rothmans contract.

That was how I met Gillian – she was working for another cleaning company as a site manager there. She came to work for us when we won the contract.

When Rothmans closed in 2004, we had the contract for a year afterwards while things were getting sorted out, then we took on other work, including domestic, company and industrial and we now have 87 staff working for us. I love cleaning – I find it very satisfying.

GM: Cleaning is not generally a chosen profession. Not many people leave school saying ‘I want to be a cleaner’.

A lot of people end up doing it out of necessity. When I was offered the job at Rothman’s I did think twice because it was cleaning but then took it as it was a managerial role.

It does give you a real sense of satisfaction when you get something really clean. It’s also important to keep your sense of humour in this job.

WHAT’S the worst mess you’ve ever had to clean up?

GM: We once cleaned for an alcoholic. He kept messing himself and just stepping out of his clothes and leaving them on the floor.

It was so bad we had to wear protective clothing. And I’ve never cleared out so many bottles – there was literally a skip full. Dirty protests in prisons are always fairly horrible, as are cleaning up after people in prison who self-harm.

We also cleaned up after a riot in a prison, and that was pretty scary. They had managed to break shatter-proof glass and they had gone to the toilet everywhere. We do wear protective clothing, but you have to be very careful if there are any needles or sharps around. I once got pricked by a used needle and I had to go to hospital to be tested.

YB: You sometimes need to lose your sense of smell. We have heard all the excuses under the sun as to why places are in a such a bad state, but we don’t judge – we are professionals there to do the job.

We’ve seen everything. I went into one place and my head hit the lampshade. I’m only 5ft 2in so I quickly realised we were standing on two feet of junk.

Another one which was particularly bad was a place where there were 17 cats which never went outside – and there was no litter tray.

It was everywhere. In the kitchen cupboards, in the bath. The smell took your breath away. The neighbours kept bringing us cups of tea because they were so grateful it was getting cleaned up.

HAVE you ever had to clean up after someone has died?

GM: There was one which we did which was really sad – a gentleman who lived in sheltered housing accommodation.

He lived alone and I don’t think he had any family. He had a fatal heart attack in the shower and had been in there for three days with the water running.

The undertaker had taken the body, and we were given the contract to clean up. It just struck me as so sad that no one had realised he was there.

THERE must be some up sides to the job?

YB: We’ve met some lovely people and made some great friends.

And we get to clean some beautiful places. Stately homes, barn conversions out in the country, luxury apartments.

You get to know the people you clean for really well – they know all about you and your family, and you know all about theirs.

You get quite attached to some of them. If you know someone’s elderly and on their own, we quite often give them a quick ring before we go round to see if they need any shopping. All the girls who clean for us end up with Christmas presents from customers.

GM: We have some fantastic customers. We went to one house around Christmas time and the lady gave us stollen.

She was lovely.

It’s nice to clean the nice places, but I also find it really satisfying to clean somewhere that’s really dirty. It’s hard work, but when you get it all clean you have a real sense of achievement.

WHAT’S the strangest story you have from your years as cleaners?

YB: The funniest one I have is when I used to work for a company which had a contract for one of the department stores in Newcastle.

We had this lady who had just started, although she’d been a cleaner for a long time, and I asked her to go and clean the lift. I explained exactly what I wanted her to do, and off she went.

We were cleaning away, and no one had seen her for ages, and were starting to worry she had got lost.

Eventually she reappeared, looking a bit frazzled and dishevelled.

When we asked her where she’d been, she said, “I started cleaning the lifts, and I’m sure someone else was doing them too, because every time I got up to the next one and opened the doors, the floor was wet.”

It turned out she had cleaned the same lift on all five floors.