By Starrla Cray
MONTROSE, MN “Everybody who does this job remembers their first day it’s a nightmare,” smiled Jim Gilmer, president of Commercial Collectors in Montrose. “You can laugh about it later, but the first day of a collector’s life is really quite scary.”
Gilmer’s father, Russell, built his business-to-business collection agency from scratch in 1961. Gilmer came aboard 20 years later, and he still remembers his first assignment.
“You’re calling someone about a bill that they either don’t want to pay or don’t have the means to pay,” he explained.
In Gilmer’s case, the call was to a jeweler who owed money to a supplier.
“He knew he had a rookie on the phone,” Gilmer laughed. “I don’t know if we ever got the money or not. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, to say the least.”
After the initial anxiety wore off, however, Gilmer began to fully enjoy his work, knowing that he’s helping businesses recover money that’s rightfully theirs.
“It’s a challenging job, but it can be really rewarding, if you’re the type who likes to see problems get solved,” he said.
Fifty years and thousands of accounts later Commercial Collectors is still going strong.
Interest in the collection agency started when Gilmer’s father, Russell, returned from service in World War II and was taking business classes at the University of Minnesota.
He got a part-time job at a collection agency to make extra money while in school. Eventually, he moved to full-time, managing regional offices for the company.
Originally from Cokato, Russell and his wife moved to Waverly in 1959. Around that time, Russell’s employer wanted him to manage an office in Philadelphia, but the family decided they’d rather stay in Minnesota.
As a result, Commercial Collectors was born. Russell based the company in Minneapolis, and his wife typed the collection letters.
Jim Gilmer, a 1974 graduate of Howard Lake High School, joined his parents in 1981.
In those days, job training was minimal, Gilmer said. First, he watched his father make about 15 calls, and then he tried it himself.
“Now, the training’s a little different,” Gilmer said, explaining that new employees are taught what they should (and shouldn’t) say, techniques for effective conversations, and what to do in difficult situations.
“Times have changed considerably in the last 30 years,” said Brian Armstrong, vice president of operations at Commercial Collectors.
Armstrong has been with Commercial Collectors for the past five years, but his experience in the industry began decades earlier.
At his initial firm, part of the interview process was to make a collection call.
“My first call was to a bail bonds company,” Armstrong said, recalling that the man on the line told him, “You’re a new kid, aren’t you?”
According to Armstrong, the man then told him he wasn’t going to get any money, and proceeded to hang up.
One skill collectors learn is to not let emotions come into play, and to remain calm and respectful.
At Commercial Collectors, Gilmer said his employees have communication backgrounds, and are paid well for their work.
“Retaining talent is very important to me,” Gilmer said. “My philosophy with management is to provide an opportunity for people to succeed at a profession they’ll have fun doing, and provide a good income for their family. Turnover is very low here.”
In order to create a fun, productive environment, Gilmer encourages contests, games, and friendly competition among his employees.
How it works
Commercial Collectors only does business with ethical, professional companies. They don’t make any consumer calls, such as those for unpaid credit card or medical bills.
When a company hasn’t been paid for a product or service, Commercial Collectors will typically send a letter to the business that owes the money. Sometimes, the letter will be enough to convince them to pay.
If not, the next step is usually a call to the company.
Getting the “decision maker,” on the line is often a daunting task.
“That can be the hardest part,” Gilmer said. “There are a lot of gatekeepers out there.”
The collector generally has only one shot to present the case.
“Chances are, if we’re calling them, they’ve probably got other people calling them as well,” Armstrong said. “You have to ask questions and get them to open up to what’s really going on.”
Reasons companies don’t pay vary widely. Years ago, when interest rates were high, some would try to defer payment as long as possible, so they could invest the money in the meantime.
Now, the faltering economy is often to blame. Companies will sometimes say they are on the verge of going out of business and don’t have the money to pay.
However, one thing Gilmer and his team have learned is to not give up too easily.
“If we gave up on everyone who said they’re closing their doors, we’d probably be closing our doors,” Gilmer said.
If a company files bankruptcy, however, collection agencies are no longer allowed to contact them. When that happens, Commercial Collectors tries to find out as much factual information as possible to help their client, who may want to take legal action.
Fifty years and counting
Commercial Collectors works with businesses all over the US, and also has some international clients.
Throughout its 50 years in business, the company has strived to make a positive difference in the lives of the people it serves.
“Our industry is really portrayed as the bad guys,” Gilmer said. “We really do have a high level of professionalism. Most collection agencies are that way. It’s only a few bad apples that get out of control, and those are the ones that are profiled.”
For more information about Commercial Collectors, click here.