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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Repossession assignments and fine wine; a case study

The Auto Finance summit is convening in a couple weeks, and while I unfortunately won't be able to attend, I have replied to a question by the organizer of the event who asks what challenges does the auto finance industry face as we enter the 4th quarter of 2009.

Here is my reply:

A huge challenge lenders continue to face is in regard to assessing and managing risk; i.e. high risk loans on their books that go delinquent.

I have been on the cutting edge of the back end of our industry for nearly thirty years, and when you ask about challenges and solutions, I believe I have identified the challenges many lenders face on the back end, and I have worked very hard and invested a significant amount of my own capital to come up with a solution that can assist lenders, and one that can reward, instead of punish, the solid repossession companies, which is the direction I unfortunately have seen our industry headed in the two and a half years since I got back into it.

We have been working diligently to create an opportunity through a software product that assesses and manages risk, and we will be launching it in 2010. We have an immediate interest in adding one lender to our team of three external financial institution beta test users in Q4 2009. There is no cost to the lender during testing, and if our software works as we project, it can save a lender millions of dollars in annual losses.

As the person who started the first exclusive Skip Tracing company for the auto finance industry in 1988 in SkipBusters, and the first forwarding company to handle more than 50,000 assignments a year in American Recovery Service in 1993-94, I have re-entered this industry after my five year non-compete expired, and my goal was to create a software product that could assist lenders to identify, and better manage, their high risk accounts.

We have finished our internal beta testing of the new software and in a 90 day contest against two of the largest skip companies in the country, working a captive lenders oldest, most difficult charged off skip accounts, we won this contest handily. The results are a direct reflection of the power of our new software. In this 500 file per company contest, we've more than doubled the amount of repossessions the 3rd place company has gotten, and we've gotten 40% more repossessions than the second place company. We also helped our client get twice as many accounts paid in full than the second place finisher, with the last place finisher getting zero paid in full. These paid in full accounts are a direct reflection on the work done by our approved and contracted outside repo agents as they get paid a close fee when a customer pays, and they are not working on a strictly contingent basis.

As a comparison, we also beat these same two skip tracing companies in the last contest that ended July 1st, but we only were using the new software for the last 30 days, and in those last 30 days, we came from last to first to win by 10%, which happened as soon as we started using our new software.

These results are not a reflection on our two competitors as both are leaders in the skip tracing industry and I'm sure they do a fine job overall, in fact, I personally trained the owner of one of those companies when he used to work for me. These results do show that when utilizing the proper software, you can increase your efficiency and if you're a lender using this in a pre-charge off environment, you can reduce your losses significantly.

How many of you are on an old legacy software platform that isn't much better than using a green screen when it comes to measuring and analyzing data?

How many of you cringe when you or your collection managers need to deploy resources from your internal IT department?

Those are some of the major challenges our industry faces today, at least from what I've seen through the interaction I've had with some of the largest lenders in the industry in the past two years. I've created a back end solution for this problem, and so far, the results are positive.

In addition to these internal challenges facing lenders, they also are facing new challenges posed by two relatively new industries, and one older industry; Skip Tracing, Forwarding and Repossession.

When we started Skip Busters in 1988, there were no skip companies that exclusively handled skip tracing on delinquent auto loans. Now there are dozens, and its a several hundred million dollar a year industry. While this helps lenders, it also opens them up to risk as they now have outside vendors working their files by phone, and between FDCPA, SOX, GLB and many other federal and state laws, plus ID Theft issues, this is now a greater risk to lenders who outsource this work then they've ever faced. Due to this, you need a solid software program that analyzes and manages this risk. If your customers ID is compromised at a vendor level, you need specifics answers and metrics to back up those answers, otherwise, the liability and exposure you and your vendor face can be in the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars range.

When we started exclusively managing the repossession process for VW Credit on a national basis in 1993, Manheim had just closed its doors on a division they had started a few years earlier that did the same thing. There were a few other industry leaders from the repossession industry, i.e. Minnesota Repossessors, who had gained market share through trust in terms of direct repossession assignments as we had done with Skip Busters, and through our No Calif repo companies; River City Auto Recovery.

As a result of our growth, we were starting to get requests from clients to help them manage their national needs. The industry had grown from individual branches to large, national call centers, and the managers of these places were now facing new challenges in identifying their best repo companies on a national level, and not as they used to on a local level. Almost immediately after we started seeing success, ADT got in and soon they were purchased by Manheim, and many others followed suit on what we were doing for VW Credit, and then for a number of large, new sub-prime lenders; managing their repossessions.

They now call it Forwarding, a term I never really liked as it implies there is little or no skill involved. Our idea was to "manage" the process by paying the repo company a fair price, and then we would charge a flat service fee based on our work. We charged a $75 mark up back then. Nowadays, you'll be hard pressed to find anyone doing over 20% of their forwarding work for less than a $100 mark up per repo.

When I got back in the industry in 2007, I was shocked to see how much traction the forwarding business had gained, and I was also shocked by what it had done to the industry. Most forwarders now make their money on the mark up they get by charging the lender as much as possible, and by paying the repo agent as little as possible. This raises the stakes to the finance company significantly, and it's not just the cost of the insurance claim, it's now also the exposure on CNN they may someday get, something every lender would be more concerned with if they could see what's really happening on their repo assignments placed with most forwarders.

Repossession management was a good idea, and it still is on a limited basis, but only when lenders hold the forwarder liable for their actions and when they audit them to insure their practices are within the best interests of the lending institution. Are all their outside repo agents contracted? Do they have proper insurance? Do they drug test their employees and do the repo agents they hire hold their employees to certain standards? Do they perform background checks and do their agents? Do they allow repo companies to use independent contractors versus hiring employees? Do they get out of their truck to kick in a deal, or is it not worth it because they are being paid on a contingent basis and there is no commission for the repo man when he tries to help the lender resolve the account, unless its through repossession.

"Oh, but we pay our guys $25 on every deal they close".

Show me the documentation.

I challenge you CEO's out there reading this to pull a report on the average amount of days your repossession assignments are assigned to the agent they are currently with, forwarder or direct. If it's higher than two weeks on average you have a problem. Accounts need to be moved through queue's, followed up on, and managed to the point where there is always some form of forward progress. I don't mean the type of backward progress we see in our end of the industry when a collector runs a bureau or a public records report and throws the last three, or six addresses reported for the customer at the repo agent to run "and kick in hard", making the repo agent do the work the collector or skip tracer should, and can do with a couple phone calls to verify first if the address is good or not. Those are the challenges a lender faces, and if you have a high charge off percentage, you might want to start by analyzing those trends and numbers.

High risk accounts need to be identified and worked diligently, or they will become more difficult with age in the same manner a fine wine becomes better with age, by sitting around and aging. The difference is your customer is driving and causing your collateral to lose value with every mile whereas your wine is sitting in a wine cellar aging gracefully, increasing, noty decreasing in value.

Many forwarding companies do a good job, but if they're paying a tow jockey with marginal, if any insurance a $175 repo fee and then charging the client a $475 repo fee so they can make their margin that they're losing because 50% of their deals are being worked on a contingent basis, the client, and the successful repo agent who doesnt get the deal are the one's taking it in the shorts, not the forwarder. I"m not saying a repo agent needs to get paid on every close, but they should expect to get deals with verified addresses, one address at a time (two if there is a POE) and if they resolve that address in a positive manner, they should get something for their effort. This allows you to move the account to the next queue, and by doing so, you are addressing and not pushing aside your risk.

Forwarding, as it currently is being used, and from what I've seen, is not good for the finance industry, yet accounts are assigned to Forwarders thousands of times a day. Forwarders now control a material portion of the repossession assignments, which is scary when you see how most of them are operating their companies. That's a challenge lenders face, and the solution is to re-establish direct relationships with solid repo companies they identify, and then use software and training to manage the process. I know why Outsourced Repossession Management made sense in the 90s, but as I see how it's evolved, I believe it has trended in the wrong direction and that's a challenge lenders who use Forwarders face.

Some things were meant to be outsourced, and while early stage collections on an account that is not a high risk is a good idea, outsourcing the management of your entire repossession portfolio without a clear understanding of the relationship between the Forwarder and the repo agent and the metrics behind that to verify what you are being sold is accurate, its a recipe for disaster. I think the assignment and verification of specific pieces of your portfolio like impounds and assignments in remote locations is an idea worth paying a mark up for, but there is no reason to pay the mark up to a guy pushing the paper when you can, and are better off, making those decisions yourself.

If you are a lender and agree with some of what I've said and would be interested in speaking with me about becoming a beta test user for our software, please contact me at 916 730 3335 or

OK JJ, now you can ask your programmers to limit the replies to people's posts to xxx characters. Sorry for rambling about a subject I'm passionate about, but this industry has been good to my employees, my family, and to my wife and I, and if we can somehow give something back, we're hoping it can be through the technology we've created with the software we've written that's based on thirty years of experience as a lender, a vendor, and an outsider who is now back in.

John Lewis