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It is a sunny Friday morning in December and Yvonne Ho has just dropped her daughter off at the childcare centre, after which she heads to the market to do some grocery shopping. In her early 20s, it is not difficult to mistake her as a young housewife or even a student fresh out of university. But her black polo shirt gives her away - emblazoned across the back are the words - “Singapore Debt Collection Service”. Yvonne’s husband and father had set up Singapore Debt Collection Service in 2002. Housed at Maxwell House in Chinatown, the business is currently run by Yvonne and her husband as her father has decided to retire from the job. While Yvonne is mainly in charge of the administration aspect of the business (her job scope ranging from meeting clients to assigning cases to her debt collection specialists), her husband is more involved in the actual process of debt collection. Facing skeptics is something inevitable in this line of work. However, Yvonne tells us that her company is a legal debt collection service. “Basically, we help to collect personal debt and corporate debt and we don’t give out loans, unlike loan sharks,” says Yvonne. In the few years that Yvonne has been in this trade, this is the first time she has been interviewed by a magazine. Coming across as a little apprehensive initially, she quickly warms up to us as she dishes out anecdotes she had accumulated during the course of her job. Yvonne is candid about the history of the company. She tells us that prior to this business, her husband had dabbled into other business ventures although none of them had actually managed to succeed. Having previously worked for a debt collection agency, he finally decided to collaborate with Yvonne’s father to set up their own company - Singapore Debt Collection Service. Singapore Debt Collection Service has since grown throughout the past 9 years. Including part-timers, they now have over 20 employees and receive about 60 cases each month. Approximately 60 per cent of the cases they receive are corporate debts while the rest are personal debts. The number of corporate debts can even rise up to 70 per cent during an economy downturn.

But success did not come overnight. Yvonne tells us of the initial challenges the company had faced when it just started operations. “It was hard to find clients at first. We would have to call up companies using the Street Directory and Yellow Pages to advertise our services,” Yvonne says. Their hard work eventually paid off as clients soon

came knocking on their doors as a result of advertising, word of mouth and even through lawyers’ recommendations. Manpower was also an issue as they could not find enough debt collection specialists. After all, there are not many who are suitable for such a job. “A debt collector must be firm, be able to talk well, fierce, fearless, able to counter-attack debtors’ arguments, be insisting and also adaptable,” Yvonne says. Prior to the job, applicants would also have to undergo a month-long training period, which include tagging along on debt collection visits. Perhaps, the best way to judge the success of this company is not by mere financial statistics or the number cases they receive, but by its debt collection success rate. “We have a 95% success rate,” says Yvonne, confidently. Yvonne describes to us the process of debt collection in detail. After clients approach them for their service, a “letter of demand” will be sent to the residential address of the clients. “The letter will inform that if they (debtors) do not respond within three working days, we (debt collection specialists) will then make a trip down to the residential address,” Yvonne says. “The letter will warn them that this will them inconvenience and embarrassment.” A case file will subsequently be set up, consisting of hard copies of the invoices and previous agreements between debtors and their clients, a copy of the letter of demand and private details of the debtors such as their residential and corporate addresses. Debt collection specialists will then go to the residential address of the debtors when they do not receive any reply after three days. Yvonne tells us that this is the most challenging part of the debt collection process. “Usually, about 70 per cent of the debtors would call the security guards or the police when we go to their residential address. They might even threaten to sue us on the grounds of harassment.” This is when the case file becomes handy. Not only does it serve as hard evidence of the debtors’ transactions and agreements, it also aids in the negotiation process with the police. “We would tell the police the details of this case such as the money owned, for what reasons and the company the debtors owe money to. We will also explain that it is within our legal rights to collect unpaid debts as long as no violence is involved. The letter of demand has also informed them (the debtors) of the visit,” Yvonne adds.

If such visits to the residential and corporate addresses yield no results, the debt collection specialists will then double up as private investigators. Other than the details of the debtors' family members and their addresses, Yvonne tells us that they will also investigate the “lifestyle and mindset of the debtors”. This helps them to understand the financial plight of the debtors and whether they have the ability or the intention to pay up. Yvonne recalls the story of one her debtors, an elderly man who owed his business partner a sum of $30 000 but refuses to pay the full amount. However, an investigation into his lifestyle reveals that he has two grown-up daughters who are university undergraduates. “Surely, he would have the money to pay up,” she says. Even the slightest details are not able to escape the watchful eyes of these debt collection specialists. The state of the house or even a recent house renovation can reveal much about the debtors' financial status, remarks Yvonne. In spite of the debtors’ refusal to pay, debt collection specialists would continue to look the debtors up at their residential and corporate addresses and even those of their family members. Though unorthodox, such “pressurizing” tactics would only be the last means resort to recover the debt. The timescale for collecting the debts can range from immediate payment to one year, according to Yvonne. Earlier this December, we had witnessed the debt collection specialists at work. It started with a phone call in the morning, and Yvonne informed us about a debt collection that was going to take place later in the afternoon at Orchard Cineleisure. A gift shop in one of the malls along the shopping belt had owed its supplier a sum of $100 000. Yvonne tells us that this visit was only necessary, as the owner has avoided all means of communication. At 3pm, we arrived at the scene only to be met with eight tough-looking men who had strategically positioned themselves in front of the shop, cordoning off the entrance. Clad in their black signature polo shirt with the company's name imprinted on the back, the debt collection specialists had demanded to speak with the storeowner. A commotion soon ensued as passer bys stopped to have a better look at the debt collection specialists at work. Amidst the chaos, Yvonne was able to lead her team of men with much composure.

Along with the team of debt collection specialists, she was able to effectively negotiate with the store manager, the security guard and the police. Eventually, an agreement was reached. In spite of the poise that she displayed during the visit, Yvonne tells us that the job of a debt collector is certainly not an easy one, especially being the only female in the entire company. Yvonne admits that she sometimes she still finds it difficult handling complicated cases. “I'm fine meeting up with clients, but 60% of the cases we receive I usually assign my men to talk to them.” Does she feel respected by her subordinates? “Of course, if not I would have fired them,”Yvonne jokingly says. When asked whether she had ever felt any sympathy towards her debtors’ plight, she replies “no” bluntly. “There is no such thing as having no money to pay up, it is more of whether you want or not,” Yvonne says. She then cites a real-life example of a debtor who had to take up two part-time jobs per day to support her two kids and her sick husband. Despite so, she still managed to repay her $10 000 debt in instalments of $100 to $150 per month. “On the contrary, I know of debtors who are directors of listed companies, drive around in a Mercedes, live in private estates and yet still claim to have no money to pay up.” When asked about her biggest takeaway of being a debt collector, she replies with the adage that we “cannot judge anyone based on his or her appearance”. Very true, indeed.

JH-Debt Collector  

Written for SME magazine, a magazine focusing on small medium enterprises published by Business Times. Unpublished.

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