Getting books back in black
Publication: Sunday Tribune
Date: 29 January 2017
Author: Shirley Le Guern
MARK Essey, 46, who heads Debt-IN, says he hears some interesting responses when people learn he is a debt collector. "There's no baseball bat and chains," he laughs, "People also say I'm the wrong size for a debt collector."
Nevertheless, Essey does not see himself as someone out to take food off another person's table or exploit an unemployed debtor.
"I don't think people deliberately make debt with the intention of not paying. We all have a job to do and I joke that mine is to help people keep their agreements," says the affable businessman.
Discounting loan sharks, he doesn't believe lenders are baddies. "My experience has been that their intentions are good.Obviously, there's a profit motive, but I don't think they're out there to exploit people."
Well aware of the controversy surrounding borrowing and the pros and cons of the National Credit Act, Essey believes the measures in place are working.
"If you look at the 2008 financial crisis and how we were spared, we have our legislation to thank."
That was nine years ago and, ironically, it was at the height of this global recession that Debt-IN was born. "The most lucrative time to be in debt collection is when the economy is turning and people are employed and settling debts so they can become credit active again."
About 95% of Debt-IN 's revenue now comes from debt collection and the 110-plus in a different direction, this time to join his father-in-law's retail property development business, Flanagan & Gerard.
He spent two years as an asset manager, sourcing new development projects, as well as managing minority stakes in retail spaces.
But, with a young family, the extensive travel became too much and, in 2008, with a business partner who has since left the business and his brother, John, he set up Debt-IN.
"I wanted to be my own boss. It was just a massive leap of faith. It was hard. I was the only partner who left his job to start the business. I had no salary, a wife, two children and a bond. It was scary but exciting."
Although the partners initially considered buying an existing Durban company, Gaincor Credit, they started out by setting up their business within that business - hiring seats and taking on outsourced work.
Essey helped man the phones with three call centre agents and did some consulting to Flanagan & Gerard to stay afloat.
He says although it was good to start with a stream of business while still learning the nuances, they opted out and went on their own after a few months.
In eight years, Debt-IN has grown from four to 125 employees. After parting ways with Gaincor, he rented space at Flexible Workspace in Florida Road before moving to central Westville. He is now moving the operation to the CBD.
The formidable task of moving while keeping the business fully functional will be worth it, Essey says. By doubling his space to 900m2, he will be able to spread out his tightly packed operation and grow it to 225 seats. Big savings on transport will aid staff retention in the call centre market, where good employees are prized.
Right now has also been a good time to build a client book before a turn in the economy. He also wants to focus on growing a
operators manning the call centre collect everything from early stage debt on retail accounts to arrear payments on home loan debt after a foreclosure.
The company deals with both secured and unsecured loans and counts two of the big four banks and a number of large corporates, including retailers, as clients.
Essey, who grew up in Joburg, says his career has been a "long and winding road".
He graduated with a BCom in 1992 and started out working for a family-owned steel manufacturing business. Over five years he did everything from running the steel shop to working as the financial director.
He then signed up for his honours and went on to pass the exam for his Chartered Institute of Management Accountants accreditation.
In January 1999, Essey joined FNB as an assistant financial manager. He became a financial manager six months later.
In July 2000, he left to follow a dream. "I'd always wanted to work as a stockbroker, so I resigned and went to work as a private client stockbroker."
The two-year stint, during which he worked his way up from the office skivvy sending faxes and making coffee to an established broker with a strong client base, was an eye-opener and one of the most exciting times of his life.
But it was soon time to move on. He returned to FNB in the electronic banking division, where he supervised the building of a sophisticated management information system and activity based costing system, something that had not been done before.
Shortly after his marriagein 2003, he joined his wife, Gayle, who was completing a yoga training course in a small town outside New York.
"It was green, hot and humid and reminded us of Durban. We wanted to start a family and decided Durbs was the place," he recalls.
On his return to Joburg, he was approached to take a transfer from electronic banking to the head office of the debtor finance division - in Durban.
As head of operations, he was introduced to the broader sphere of debt, but it was different from what he does today. This division dealt with companies wanting to raise finance against the value of their debtors' books.
July 2006 saw Essey again head new product launched last year, that will enable the company to diversify its income stream.
Large American and European companies outsource their debtors' books and management to third party experts and Debt-IN has signed up its first client.
It has already seen an uptick in collections, he reports. Nevertheless, Essey says, 2017 will enable the company to consolidate. "That might sound like a contradiction but we've had a rapid expansion phase and need to exhale a little. I want to take on a few more clients and finish the year with 145 agents."