Years ago, 4-foot, 11-inch Christina Harbridge needed to earn some money to pay her way through college and help out her sick dad. She took a job at a collections agency and was happily learning a variety of computer skills when one day a guy jumped over the counter and threatened to kill her.
Her response: "You only owe me money. It's not worth a felony." Later that day, Harbridge quit her job -- not to securely grind beans at Starbucks or to fold clothes at her favorite retail chain -- but to start her own collections company. The move eventually led to the founding of San Francisco-based Bridgeport Financial Inc.
Harbridge was young, but she was quick to catch on. "That job taught me that we're all so weird about money," said Harbridge. "I decided that I wanted to bring human values to the collection process. Typically the collections "We're all debtors at some point"
Susan Smith Hendrickson, San Francisco Business Timesprocess destroys a person's belief in themselves. We have to remember that we're all debtors at some point in our lives."
Harbridge set out with a partner to change the way corporate America and individuals think about debt. She wanted to move debt collection from the accounting department to the marketing department and make it a central part of any company's relationship-building campaign.
"In any relationship, before the debt existed, there was a human relationship. The relationship is the true currency," said Harbridge. "And, often the best relationships are built by working out solutions during troubled times. We help our clients strengthen their relationships, which ultimately leads to an increase in customer retention."
Idealistic Harbridge soon parted ways with her partner as she found that she wanted to take her "good will" collection concept further than anyone else in the industry deemed necessary or profitable.
In 1994, after teaching Dale Carnegie courses while she waited out her noncompete agreement, Harbridge set up shop again.
Today, her company, Bridgeport Financial, has over 3,000 clients and collects three times more than the industry norm (32.2 percent versus 9.9 percent of all accounts assigned). For some clients, Bridgeport is able to recover 100 percent of the debt. This success rate has led revenue to grow from $540,000 in 2000 to $1 million in 2002.
Getting clients to sign up for Harbridge's Pollyanaesque way of doing business isn't always easy. Training often leads to contracts, and accounts for 10 percent of Bridgeport's business.
Bridgeport has provided training to law firms, accounting firms, hospitals, a roofing contractor, even a group of 50 Japanese business people who have crossed the Pacific three times for more instruction.
"We really want to shift the consciences of companies," said Harbridge. "All levels of staff need to attend our four-hour session to learn why this shift is important to every single person and function of the business."
At one training seminar, to illustrate the taboos surrounding debt, Harbridge instructed: "'Ladies, turn to the woman across from you and tell them how much debt you have.' There was silence. I said, 'If I had asked you to describe your first sexual experience, this room would be rocking.'"
Since no one likes to talk about the money they owe, Harbridge has to go to extra lengths when training her callers and legal staff. To get people talking, Bridgeport utilizes a respectful manner and motivational and human relation techniques to inspire debtors to fulfill their financial responsibilities.
"We send thank-you cards to those who pay; get-well cards those who are sick," said Harbridge. "The Pay It Forward movie comes up a lot at our office. Everyone knows someone who is in trouble right now. I'd like to think that the person collecting from my friend is nice to them."
Harbridge encourages employees to reach back into their own lives and figure out why they are here and to take the skills she has taught them and to apply their individual spin to it. "Everyone brings something different to the job."
Currently, 67 percent of Bridgeport's work is consumer-based; 33 percent is commercial. This year's goal: Make it 50/50.
To do that, Bridgeport has to sign clients who are focused on the end result, not just price. Bridgeport works on a commission-based structure that is a little higher than the industry norm, but then again they collect more than the industry norm, resulting in a higher yield for their clients.
Her plan seems to be working. "Business wants to believe that there is another way to do it," said Harbridge.
Just recently, Bridgeport was approached by a large bank, but had to tell them, "Perhaps next year" as the new client would have grown the business five-fold and Harbridge didn't feel equipped to do that.
Said Harbridge, "I'm not interested in growth, I'm interested in making clients really happy."
Susan Smith Hendrickson is a contributor to the San Francisco Business Times.