The debt collector who faces bankruptcy

Tue, Jan 29, 2013, 00:00

When debt collector Anthony Kelly first moved to the picturesque village of Kilfinane in Co Limerick, he had to work to earn the trust and respect of his local community.

“When I set up business here, locals thought a debt-collection company in the area was going to be trouble,” he says. “They thought it would mean criminals hanging around the place. Then they realised I was a normal family guy not involved in nastiness.”

Kelly helped ease relations with his rural neighbours by deciding from the outset not to take on any debts of people living within a 10-mile radius of his home.

Apart perhaps from tax inspectors and car clampers, there are few other professionals that the general public dislikes and misunderstands more than debt collectors. Many debt-collection companies are reluctant to speak to the media (I approached up to a dozen before making contact with Kelly) for fear of negative stereotyping of their work.

Kelly has been collecting debts on behalf of clients for 22 years and has always done so, he says, with a sense of compassion. When I initially approach him, he replies: “I’m about to be made bankrupt, so I’m not much use to you.”

As we chat, he explains that the public rarely hears the debt collector’s perspective. They seldom hear about the businesses and jobs debt collectors save because of monies they collect on behalf of their clients. He is out of the game now, he says, waiting for his business to be wound up, living in a rented home and driving a 10-year-old car. He lost money trying to expand his business. The debt collector has become the indebted.

On the wall of Kelly’s now disused offices of All Ireland Credit Solutions is a cheque worth more than $346,000. The cheque purports to be from a well-known bank, and was part of a scam that Kelly was hired to investigate. Luckily, he says, his experience taught him something wasn’t quite right when the cheque was presented as payment for debts (a bank had allowed the cheque to be lodged), and he was able to prevent a fraud being committed.

This is just one example, he says, of how he helped businesses avoid well-executed scams over the years.

Kelly apologises for the lack of heat in his office building, which is divided into a smaller office for him and a larger space where employees once worked.

Kelly, a trained accountant, built up his business after returning to Ireland from the UK in 1989, and the eight employees he hired gave much-needed employment in the local community. He is well-spoken and articulate, but there is vulnerability in his voice.

Kelly wants to set the record straight in relation to some debt collectors he knows, himself included. He says anyone who genuinely could not pay their debts, and could prove so, was never pursued by him or his company. His methods were to send one letter a week over a four-week period and then, and only then, to attempt to meet the debtor in person. He never confronted people in public and never disclosed their debts to anyone other than the debtor – not even to family members.

“It wasn’t in my interest to write dozens of letters to someone if I didn’t think they had the money,” he says. Kelly was interested in people who could pay, but decided not to. The biggest debt he collected was €5 million, and in that case the longer the company didn’t pay what they owed, the more the money earned on deposit for them.

‘The law is a joke’

“In my experience, the most common reasons people fall into debt are addiction, broken marriages, the death of a partner or a failed business,” he says. “All of those reasons not to pay debt are easy to prove. But we had countless cases of, say, large multinationals that wouldn’t pay suppliers on time and we had to chase them down.

“The law in this area here is a joke and the delays and costs seeking judgments in courts are prohibitive in terms of taking a legal case. Persons who owe money know this and that is why some don’t pay, even though they can. Many, especially after 2007, jumped on the bandwagon of the economic downturn and used it as an excuse not to pay their debts.”

Kelly made money by agreeing with a client what percentage of a debt his company could keep if they collected. For several debts totalling, for example, €100,000, the percentage might be 10 per cent. For smaller, one-off debts, Kelly’s cut could be anything up to 40 per cent.

He admits that not all debt-collection agencies adopt polite practices and he doesn’t condone some of their tactics. In a way, he says, his compassion probably cost him his business. So what attracted him to collecting debts for a living?

“Not paying debts is a crime everyone pays for. The only way a business can stay going and absorb bad debts is to charge other customers more. A lot of the satisfaction I got came from making somebody who had no intention of paying debt pay it.

“In Ireland, when you bounce a cheque, it is a criminal offence, and you should get a visit from the Garda but won’t. In Portugal, when you bounce a cheque, your account is frozen and all banks are notified. We are too lax in Ireland.”

Did he ever feel sympathy for those he tried to collect debts from? “If someone was genuinely in difficult circumstances and had lost their life savings, for example, of course I empathised with them. I’m not inhuman or a robot. I am a rational human being with feelings.”

The last good year for Kelly’s was in 2008. By 2011, his revenue was down by 80 per cent and he had to let his employees go. He has found it harder to collect debts in recent years, which affected his revenue. He is currently going through the liquidation process and expects to be declared bankrupt soon.

In an effort to keep the company going, he sold the family home to finance the business. In his driveway sits a 13-year-old Jaguar that he can no longer afford to run and he hasn’t yet been able to sell. Both he and his wife are now in receipt of social-welfare payments. In recent months, Kelly has applied for dozens of jobs, but despite his experience, he has yet to secure employment.

A few days after we meet, I call Kelly with some queries. He emphasises that he has talked to the media about his experiences because he has nothing left to lose. In his view, it is wrong that many good professionals in the debt-collection industry feel they cannot speak about the work they do for fear of being labelled thugs and criminals.

“I’m not one of the baddies,” he says towards the end of our conversation. “If I was, I wouldn’t have lost my own shirt.”

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