The first thing I notice about the nondescript two-story brick building is the sign. Or, to be more precise, the wrong sign. I’m looking for Professional Placement Services (PPS). I check the address again. I’m at the corner of 12th and Mount Vernon and number on the building matches. But I see only “Signarama” in bright red lettering. I wonder how much privacy a collection agency needs.
After confirming that I’m in the correct building the second thing I notice are the locks on the doors. In the main lobby I press the call button, identify myself and hear the familiar click of a lock disengaging. On the second floor I find myself in a glass cage confronted by another locked door and another call button. This time when I push it there is no answer. Immediately beyond the glass cage is a vacant reception desk. I tap on the glass, gingerly. To the concern for privacy add security.
The next thing I notice contradicts everything I’ve been seeing. Before long I am admitted and introduced to Craig, co-owner, with his wife Irina, of PPS. Craig’s face lights up with a genuineness that is disarming. His bright smile and warm greeting dispel the cloak and dagger aura evoked by the anonymous, locked-down facility.
|Irina and Craig|
PPS is a successful and growing business with 40 employees and 180 clients. “We’re experts in collection,” Craig says. “Our clients want to outsource collection activities to the experts.” Their clients include local and national retailers, banks, health care companies and various levels of government. And, yes, I’m told fervently, security is one of the primary concerns. The locked doors—and the surveillance cameras I hadn’t even noticed—are intended to protect the privacy of client businesses and debt-laden consumers alike.
I confess ignorance about the business of collection. Craig, who hears this all the time, is energized. The company makes 35,000 calls a day, he tells me. “We want to help people get out of debt. Our big message is, ‘Communicate with us’.” Clearly relishing the subject, he elaborates, “Some people have an image of us as the collector at the door with a baseball bat. We work hard to change that.” Their primary goal, he says, is to enable people to manage their finances. In a soft, compassionate tone he suggests, “Everyone goes through times that are tough. We want to understand the situation and work with them.”
Debt collection, says Craig, is important to the economy and the local community. “It's the backbone of a credit-based economy. The money we collect helps keep businesses operating, helps owners make payroll and provide benefits, helps to keep people employed. It also helps government avoid tax increases.”
When I ask why they located their business in the Menomonee Valley I am graced with another of Craig’s ingenuous smiles. He and Irina moved the company from the Third Ward to the Valley in 2008. He ticks off the advantages of the new location: its central location, proximity to bus lines, available parking, nearby eateries for lunch. “The Menomonee Valley is a great place for a company like us to start and grow.” In fact, PPS has tripled in size since its move to the Valley and could add 50-100 new employees in the next couple years, he declares confidently.
The Menomonee Valley is also in what is known in the collection industry as a Hub Zone. This is a federal designation that identifies places in need of revitalization. Being in the Valley qualifies PPS to offer its services to the federal government, a distinct advantage. It is one of the reasons that Craig and Irina chose not only to locate here but also to invest in the Valley by purchasing the property with expansion in mind.
Craig’s interest in the Valley goes beyond the material benefits to his business of the location, however. The disparity of our personal experiences begins to resolve into greater harmony as he asserts, “The whole story of the Valley is great. It went from swampland to the manufacturing age and now it’s turning another corner. You can see new businesses…and you see trout and salmon. There are fishermen in the river. Just a few short years ago you wouldn’t have seen that.”
I meet Irina, who is a brisk and businesslike foil to Craig’s gregariousness. “I’m the boss,” she says right off. I glance towards Craig. “He knows I’m the boss,” she adds with a smile. They have an infectious natural affinity as well as a mutual regard for their business. “We’ve been excited about the company for many years,” she says enthusiastically. Then Craig adds something I never expected to hear about a collection agency: “It’s a fun business!” I’m inclined to skepticism but Craig’s enthusiastic demeanor evaporates my doubt.
As I gather up my camera gear and head for the door Craig offers parting advice: “If you should ever get a call from us, talk to us!” He grins as he holds open the door for me.
Let me introduce a few of the PPS staff. Because privacy is in fact a genuine concern I am using only their first names.
|Roberto, Account Representative|
|Ann, Account Representative|
|Dan, operations manager, with Craig|
|Jenaya, Account Representative|
|Josh, Account Representative|
|Jeff, Assistant Collection Manager|
This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.